Friday, 12 September 2008

Blogging's Contribution to HR

James Hayton’s recent post on his Threee blog referring to the apparent stalling of social networking and James Richards work on blogging has got me thinking more and more about the contribution of this type of social media to people management and HR. So when the second of these two excellent HR bloggers brought our attention to a new book on the topic by Jill Walker Rettberg, an American academic teaching at the University of Bergen, I had to dash off to Amazon and buy it. En route to the British Academy of Management (BAM) annual conference in Harrogate, where I met some new friends from Australia (hello Naomi, Sandra and Elisabeth) and some old friends (hello Stuart and Anne Claire) who were interested in this topic, I read this short but excellent publication. In a field where it is difficult to find good writing that is both rigorous for scholars and relevant to practitioners - the theme of the BAM conference - this book is certainly one that will repay readers seeking to understand some of the serious conversations on Web 2 and get practical advice on how to blog. Not many attempt and clear the double hurdle of rigour and relevance but she does so admirably.

James Hayton rightly questioned the perhaps modish nature of social networking with his reference to a survey published in Mashable (see earlier blog) showing the dissatisfaction and lack of penetration among 18-65 year olds worldwide, while James Richards has focused on the extent and potential of blogging for employee voice in his work on organizational misbehaviour. Both of these academics raise important questions which has caused us to revise our thinking for the CIPD research Web 2. Jill Walker Rettenberg’s book addresses these issues head on. On social networking, she quotes a statistic that shows its potential among the ‘V-gen’. Facebook was originally developed for US college students and has now achieved over 90% penetration, a fact that was supported by the recent work on social networking at the AOM conference, which I reported on in an earlier blog. So while social networking may show signs of running out of steam among older generations, it seems to have become the norm among young, educated people, a fact not lost on some organizations and universities looking to recruit them.

Like James Richards, however, blogging is Rettberg’s preferred social medium and it is on the application and potential of this phenomenon that she scores heavily because her book works at different levels; it is also beautifully written. For anyone wanting to either begin to blog or improve their blogging potential, this book is a godsend (I’ll certainly use many of her ideas on how to make a blog more interesting and widely read); for any serious scholar interested in new digital media or any HR manager wishing to understand the potential of blogging in their own organization, it is a genuine ‘ eye-opener’. Unlike me, she has not come to this topic late, having researched and blogged in the field for most of this decade, so she shows a real mastery of her topic.

In a book of only 160 pages she explores fully the potential and problems of blogging. On the plus side, she outlines bloggers potential to democratise society (and the workplace) by creating a ‘modern public sphere’. To quote one famous press critic, ‘the power of the press is huge if you own one’; blogging now allows everyone to own a press. On the downside, she invokes the worries of both Plato and Jurgen Habermas, a modern social philosopher, to explain the dangers involved in having too many writers and readers because such a groundswell can result in a ‘ lacks authority and, ultimately, a lack of control’ (p48). Both of these perspectives on blogging are evident in our case research and in other research on Web 2 and HR. Some organisations, such as Microsoft, Google, IBM and UK government departments, see the potential for unearthing authentic employee voice through blogging and actively do all they can to encourage employees to blog; they also learn to with the consequences of the occasional and usually in the process rant. We recently made this point to the CIPD’s policy and research committee, which seemed to take this on board for their ‘Shaping the Future’ programme. However, most organisations want to control employee blogging or even ban it altogether (such as the UK armed forces but, interestingly, not their US equivalents). These organisations see significant threats to their authority to be sole authors of the official corporate story and brand identity, so that they attempt to control blogging through a range of mechanisms, ranging from banning employee blogs outright to bringing them behind the firewalls, having policies on what and what can’t be said if you want to keep your jobs, by having the communications departments monitor and respond to employee blogs or by creating corporate blogs or their own.

Walker Rettberg makes the point in her conclusions that the future of blogging lies not only in a form of direct participation by facilitating often unheard voices, providing a basis for participation in issues that truly matter to people, and in the power of a read-write web to collaborate and learn together, but also in an important form of indirect or implicit participation that is grounded in social networking theory. This kind of theorising, probably best known for the work of Mark Granovetter, points to the importance of ‘weak ties’. When we set up strong ties with colleagues, according to Granovetter, we are less likely to learn from them because we share with them common perspectives and common knowledge (we are likely to know and understand what they know and understand). By establishing lots of weak ties, however, we tap into perspectives and knowledge we are much less likely to know about. Thus social networking, outside of our Facebook friends or immediate contacts, is the best way of increasing our absorptive capacity for new knowledge, the sine qua non for innovation. Blogging, more than social networking sites, helps us do this by establishing more weak ties. At a deeper level, it allows organizations such as Google, Flickr and You Tube to harness our collective intelligence by mapping our IP addresses and use them to make recommendations on what might be of interest to us in the same way that Amazon does with books. It is not to difficult to imagine a situation in which the new attitude survey is replaced by software that maps our IP addresses and offers us tailored employee value propositions or knowledge. Indeed some of that future is with us already, with companies such as IBM mapping the social networks of their internal bloggers/networkers to create organizational structures around naturally occurring communities of practice rather than top down imposed structures that do not reflect hoe people interact.

See Jill Walker Rettberg (2008) Blogging, Polity Press, Cambridge:UK


James Hayton said...

thanks for the 'props' and the ideas you have shared. I think this is a very worthy conversation for those of us in HR and in academia. From the HR perspective of course the opportunity for employee voice is extremely interesting.

What really stimulates me is the idea that as academics, blogging is an opportunity to expand and speed up our dialogs about topics of interest. You know, it can take years from drafting to publishing a peer reviewed scientific paper. It takes minutes to publish a blog.

What about credibility or 'authority' - well let's look at the credentials of the bloggers (it's right here on the web!).

What about peer review? Take a look at the comments and links to a blog for an idea of whether the bloggers' views are consistent with or accepted by the community.

We all must remain critical consumers, but that shouldn't negate the power of the technologies. I agree with you that there are some interesting opportunities for the academic community to exploit new technologies (wikis, knols, blogs, tumblogs, tweets, social webs).

Say I see an interesting article today to use in my class. I can share it with my community of teaching peers by tagging it in deicious or feeding it to my tumblog (

What if I want to discuss some recent publication with the wider group interested in HR in China and don't want to wait until the AOM/BAM meeting? I blog or start a forum discussion in

I am thrilled to see CIPD taking an interest and will look forward to seeing your report. I hope maybe within the academy we will see similar moves in the coming months.

Graeme's HR Blog said...

Many thanks for your quick and insightful response James. I'm in total agreement with you on this; the more I get into these media, the more I see their potential. There is no doubt in my mind that students and practioners, as well as other academics, value good blogs and other web publishing. I have a website for one of the books I've done and it is at least as valuable to them as the text, some of which dates quite rapidly, especially in fast moving fields.