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Social media training should educate workers on advantages and pitfalls


Experts routinely recommend that businesses and organizations teach their employees how to safely and effectively use social media due to their potential risks when misused and rewards when used appropriately, but few companies provide such training.

Chicago-based consultant Grant Thornton L.L.P., and the Morristown, N.J.-based Financial Executives Research Foundation surveyed senior level executives last year, finding that 66% said they expect their companies' use of social media to increase. Yet just 36% indicated that their businesses provide social media training.

In separate research, San Mateo, Calif.-based consultant Altimeter Group last year found that 43% of companies plan to develop social media education and training programs, but only 38% already had a program or were in the process of putting one in place.

Charlene Li, Altimeter's partner and founder and author of best-seller “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead,” on social media, said many business leaders are “putting their heads in the sand and hoping nothing bad happens.”

There is tremendous pressure not to spend time on training because it takes people off the job, and some employers question whether it's possible to teach workers to make appropriate decisions when situations arise that are neither black nor white, but gray, she said.

“My feeling is that the only way you develop good judgment in people is to train them,” Ms. Li said.

Training programs vary depending on a company's size, culture, industry, business goals, social media experience and degree of government regulation, experts say.

Companies may hire outside experts to customize a training program or may purchase prepackaged software. Employees may be trained in small groups, online or both.


A company's social media policy — a written document outlining the do's and don'ts when using it on a business' behalf — typically is the foundation for that training.

Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic, an early adopter of social media, shows new hires and students an 81/2-minute video highlighting Mayo's social media guidelines.

“The first point in our guidelines is that all policies that apply elsewhere apply here, too,” said Lee Aase, director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. Chatting about a patient on the elevator, for example, is a privacy violation, and having that same conversation on Facebook “just raises the stakes; it just exposes more people (to that information),” he said.

Some employers require training for all, including outside providers and partners. At some companies, only employees designated to speak on behalf of the company or sanctioned to use social media for business purposes receive such training.

At Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc., social media training is available to all employees of the computer technology company, and it's mandatory for those who use social media tools as part of their job, said Liz Brown Bullock, Dell's former director of social media and community and now CEO and co-founder of Social Arts & Science Institute L.L.C., an Austin, Texas-based social media training firm.

Ms. Bullock helped launch Dell's Social Media and Communities University, a social media certification program, about three years ago. To date, more than 11,000 employees have been certified to speak to customers via social media, about 10% of the workforce, and nearly 30,000 have attended training classes, Dell confirmed. 

Dell's program focuses on mitigating risks and empowering employees to apply social media in business situations.

“If you're in (human resources), you can be utilizing social (media) to be finding the best talent out there; if you're in sales, you can be doing this for better selling,” and so on, Ms. Bullock said.


Eric Schwartzman, founder and CEO of Comply Socially Inc., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based provider of social media training, recommends at least 60 minutes of initial employee training in social media “compliance” and at least another 15 minutes a year to keep up to date because social networking tools and best practices do change.

“Just because you're a Facebook ninja in your personal life doesn't mean you know how to use it responsibility for business,” Mr. Schwartzman said.

Francine Esposito, a partner in the Parsippany, N.J., office of law firm Day Pitney L.L.P., said employees need to understand the unintended negative consequences of their social media activities, such as disclosing confidential information.

“Twitter followers could be your customer list,” she said. “You can't enforce a noncompete agreement when your customer list is now public information.”

In highly regulated industries, such as financial services and health care, training can be a bit trickier, experts concede. But appropriate training also can give an organization a leg up over the competition.

In 2010 and 2011, several stock brokerages independently hired Protiviti Inc., a unit of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Robert Half International, to provide “social media 101,” said Gregory Hedges, managing director in Protiviti's Chicago office and leader of the firm's social business consulting practice. In each case, the undisclosed brokerages lacked basic knowledge and were afraid of losing new recruits who insisted on using social media.

Showing broker-dealers how to navigate social media and archive their communications “turned into a competitive advantage” for the companies because the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. now requires members to keep records of their electronic communications with the public, Mr. Hedges said.

With social media capability, brokerages didn't just retain new recruits but attracted seasoned professionals who brought with them large books of business, Mr. Hedges said.

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