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As the use of social media keeps growing, companies are still grappling with the best ways to take advantage of these technological tools, for everything from recruiting to boosting their brand. Now they're recognizing the benefits not only outside the building, but inside too. Their new focus: How to use these tools to improve internal communication with and among employees.

Facebook and Twitter may get all the glory, but companies are putting a host of other new tools to work in an effort to facilitate communication.

"We're seeing a shift in the workplace, from monologue to dialogue, from communicating to, to communicating with, and how you engage employees in dialogue," says Carolyn Ray, vice-president of employee engagement at National Public Relations in Toronto.

Some companies are reluctant to adopt social media tools internally for fear of losing control of the conversations, she says.

But those that have made the leap are learning that online tools and technologies make it easier to engage employees in more meaningful dialogue, she says.

The result: improved efficiency, collaboration and engagement, in an environment in which employees feel their voices will be heard.


The company: Coastal Contacts Inc., Vancouver

Tool of choice: Wiki

How it's used: The wiki serves as the firm's evolving knowledge base and is edited and updated collaboratively by employees, says Coastal Contact chief executive officer Roger Hardy. The wiki includes the latest company announcements, HR and marketing documents, company policies and how-to information. It also includes a "speak up" page, which allows employees to anonymously "tell the company what's broken," Mr. Hardy adds.

Why it works: It's a great communication and archiving tool. Documents are always up to date and the problem of multiple versions of information living in different places is eliminated, Mr. Hardy says. "It allows us to share knowledge in real time. People share and learn faster, which is a real competitive advantage."

Caveat: It won't work if you try to control the conversation. "We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to publish criticisms, even if it was just 'the coffee here is terrible, what are you going to do about it'," Mr. Hardy says.


The company: ThinkWrap Solutions Inc., Ottawa

The tool of choice: Yammer

How it's used: Yammer is a microblogging service for businesses. Like Twitter, it allows users to share messages, photos or documents. However, it's designed for communicating with co-workers, not the whole world, and messages aren't restricted to 140 characters.

Staff use the application to challenge each other, think communally and post content that's insightful and relevant, says ThinkWrap CEO Steve Byrne. Postings can include updates on what projects staff are working on, or requests for advice or ideas. It's even used occasionally for personal stories or messages. Mr. Byrne is an active participant, too. "It's a way for me to tell people how the business is doing, where we're at, if we've got a big sales opportunity or if we're interviewing and hiring."

Why it works: It increases collaboration and allows staff to learn from each, Mr. Byrne says. More important, it levels the playing field. Every employee in the company has a platform on which to speak candidly.

Caveat: To ensure staff won't comprise colleagues or clients online, ThinkWrap's chief technology officer developed a written manifesto on Yammer's use, which includes directives such as "Please don't use client, staff or product names."


The co mpany: Search Engine People Inc., Toronto

Tools of choice: Internal blog, StumbleUpon

How they're used: The blog is the go-to site for good news about both the company and staff, for example, announcing a major client, when an employee exceeds budget goals or even plans for a celebratory lunch. Most of the blogs are written by senior management, but other staff do post occasionally, and aren't shy about chiming in with their opinions, says president Jeff Quipp.

StumbleUpon is a free web browser extension that allows users to discover and recommend websites to individuals listed as "friends" and who also share the same interest preferences. It's a quick and painless way to share pertinent websites with co-workers, Mr. Quipp says. Recommended sites typically include information on industry trends, new ideas, what competitors may be doing or client news that can keep individuals current in their niche.

Why they work: The blog is a great way to keep employees aware of what's happening in the company, without overflowing their inboxes. It's also a way to give recognition to those who deserve it, boosting morale, he says. Mr. Quipp says StumbleUpon is quicker and more efficient than pasting a link into an e-mail. It also removes boundaries. "Everyone communicates with everyone without any risk. An employee might hesitate to approach me directly with an idea, but they have no trouble sending Stumble mail." TALK TOOLS: HOW TO MAKE THE MOST OF THEM

Advice from experts Leona Hobbs, director of communications at Toronto Web consultancy Social Media Group, and Carolyn Ray, vice-president of employee engagement at National Public Relations in Toronto:

- Do your homework to assess your needs and look for social media tools that fit with your culture and environment.

- Identify keeners who can find the best tools, encourage others to come on board and teach them how to use these tools.

- Develop usage guidelines, including conduct, privacy and non-disclosure policies.

- Encourage all employees to join in, otherwise you run the risk of hearing one-sided conversations. Make sure leaders are active, as well.


Tools used by organizations to communicate with employees:

Blogs: 47 per cent

Discussion boards: 32 per cent

Podcasts: 29 per cent

Videocasts: 28 per cent

Social networks: 27 per cent

Wikis: 26 per cent

Sources: IABC Research Foundation 2009 survey; National Public Relations 2009 survey