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Many companies turn to interns or freshly-minted college students to staff their social media efforts. But that’s a risk: because these inexperienced employees are not well versed in their new company’s organizational culture or strategy, it is often difficult for them to meet organizational objectives with social media initiatives.
More dangerous, younger employees don’t know what they don’t know, which can be a recipe for disaster when companies hand these rookies a social media megaphone to speak on behalf of their company.
I have taught social media to both undergraduate and graduate students since 2006. Undergraduate students typically have a strong procedural understanding of social media tools. They use social media frequently, employ a wide range of features, readily experiment with the newest social media platforms and are often savvy at integrating or separating content for separate audiences. Because of this sophisticated procedural understanding, most think they understand social media well when they begin class.
Yet, this procedural understanding is not the same as understanding how to achieve business objectives with social media. By the end of the class, most undergraduate students comment how little they knew when they started and how much they still have left to learn. It is striking that many of these comments come from students who had already worked as social media interns at major companies.
Graduate students, in contrast, tend to have a stronger strategic understanding of social media. They start more slowly and skeptically than the undergraduate students, and are not as steeped in all the details of the latest cutting-edge platforms. The same might be said about the managers I have worked with as well.
But while these older students and managers may initially struggle more with using the tools, particularly with learning the non-explicit or normative uses of tools like Twitter hashtags or trends, once they get over this initial learning hurdle they are quicker to envision the organizational opportunities enabled by social media. (It’s a vision that is often in stark contrast to many of the email- and meeting-dependent companies in which they work.) Graduate students often comment that social media training early in their MBA programs fundamentally changes the way they collaborate throughout their programs. They are also better able to recognize potential downsides and risks of these tools.
Classes that include both types of students are often more effective than either one taught separately. Younger students benefit from the experience and pragmatic wisdom of the older students in thinking about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of organizational applications of social media. The older students observe first-hand the procedural expertise of the younger students, leading them to quickly realize that social-media enabled organizations are not necessarily a nebulous future but an imminent reality.
These differences have implications for how companies should think about, approach and staff their social media initiatives.
Companies may find it easier and more effective to train existing managers about social media than to teach new hires about the strategic goals and direction of the company.
Likewise, the most effective organizational social media initiatives may be partnerships between younger employees demonstrating and experimenting with social media technologies while more experienced employees harness that enthusiasm and those ideas to give them strategic direction. This brings together the best of both worlds, combining procedural and strategic know-how.
One way to involve young social media-savvy employees is to obtain their aid in jump-starting social media initiatives. The main impediment to social media adoption in organizations is often critical mass — getting sufficient activity from employees to generate a sustainable community. Managers can harness younger employees’ facility with and willingness to use social tools to generate momentum and buy-in for new initiatives.