More than likely you’ve got a profile on a social networking site: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn.  Millions of Americans have created profiles and started connecting with friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and of course, coworkers.  It might be possible, though not quite as likely, that you’ve participated in some mass collaboration sites, like wikipedia or an open source project.  Or perhaps some content sharing sites like Delicious.com and YouTube.  These are all examples of social media sites, and they’re like a tsunami on the Internet today.

I’ve always liked to say that our behavior on the Internet mirrors our behavior in real life, and social media polishes the mirror like never before.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel the need to attend a real-life high school reunion again, as I’m already connected to (nearly) my entire class on Facebook.  I can hang out with all my friends, past and present, in the virtual world, and I can collaborate with my colleagues in an instant.  A sidebar: Facebook is where I hang out with my friends, LinkedIn is where I hang out with co-workers, partners, and colleagues (does everyone else use these sites this way?)

What does social media mean to HR?  Managing human capital means you deal with human behavior, which as I said before, is mirrored–and quite easily–into these social media sites.  Deft managers can use this to their advantage, but there are potential pitfalls.

Some of the advantages social media brings to the HR function have already been well documented: for example, if you haven’t identified a social media strategy for recruiting, you’re way behind the curve.  Recruiting today’s top talent using social media isn’t just for finding and courting the younger workers; almost overnight, using social media as a recruiting technology has spread throughout the entire workforce.  Humans like to interact with one another, regardless of their ages, and social media facilitates that behavior.

But you can look beyond the conventional advantages of recruiting using social media and find other advantages.  Think of social media–from Facebook to your own corporate private network–as a spider web.  Who is at the center of the web, and what kind of employees are those?  Who is at the periphery, and what kind of employees are those?  Are there correlations between performance and an employee’s place in the web?  You might theorize that better connected employees (at the center) are the ones that are upwardly mobile, are the ones more likely to introduce outsiders (customers, potential recruits) to the organization, but you might also theorize that these employees are more likely (through external connections) to identify other opportunities and leave the company; what is the case for your organization?

The case studies for success in private, corporate social networks follow a theme: connecting human resources at the right time for the right needs.  True story: a salesman in a large multi-national needs to find a resource with unique and specific skills to win some new business; he sends out feelers on the company’s private network, finds an employee on the other side of the country who has a friend (on the “outside”) with the right skills who also happens to be looking for a job.  While I’m thinking of a real and specific case, I’ve generalized it to describe something that’s happening all around the world every day now.

Mass collaboration also holds obvious potential advantage to the organization, in that if used right it could facilitate the more rapid and thorough collection of “tribal knowledge”.  Employees might be encouraged (even rewarded) to participate in the company’s wiki, but are the employees with the most (and most valuable) tribal knowledge the same employees with the wherewithal to create wiki entries?  I don’t think many organizations have considered the potential in mass collaboration–as in open source software projects–for getting work done, but if a virtual confederation can create viable commercial software products, what could be accomplished with some management and encouragment by the organization?

On the flip side of the coin is the fact that the new social media technologies do in fact mirror human behavior, and not all such behavior is desirable or benign.  These technologies can allow you to find the right human resources, whether they exist within the organization already, or whether you’re attempting to recruit from the outside, but they are also being used by your competitors to find the talent on your team that’s ready to make a switch.  Vital tribal knowledge is not being captured, or it might actually be captured in public venues where it could do damage to the organization.  Indiscriminate control through policy and edicts may solve some of the problems, but at what cost?  Will people be inhibited from capturing knowledge in the desired venues?  Will people think twice about recommending colleagues enter the recruiting cycle with your firm?

While privacy and protection of the organization’s information is an area of concern, as is the constant siren song of “the grass is greener over here” to your talent, I think an overlooked concern for managers of human capital when it comes to social media is simple distraction.  With so many opportunities for human contact, both internal to the organization and external, so many profiles to maintain, so many wiki articles to create and defend, so many friend requests, so many colleague inquiries, are we overloading our workforce (or allowing them to overload themselves) with social content to create and maintain?

Stay tuned for my next blog on web 2.0 and HR; I’ll discuss rich internet applications!

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