Panel: Government should educate workforce on benefits of social media

Agencies can encourage employees to embrace social media through training and adopting tools that align directly with the organization's mission, panelists say.

Agencies looking to increase employee use of social media should focus on explaining the benefits of such tools and training workers to use them appropriately, government officials said on Tuesday.

Panelists at an event sponsored by the nonprofit group AFFIRM at The George Washington University emphasized the importance of communication and marketing when introducing employees to new technologies, but also noted the challenges of integrating social networking into federal agencies. Emma Antunes, project manager for NASA's internal social network Spacebook, said employees must be educated to understand the potential benefits of using social media.

"You have to directly relate how this tool helps me do my job," Antunes said, adding that even younger employees might not take advantage of new technologies if they don't see potential benefits. "It's a fallacy that you don't have to do the same thing for Generation Y."

Antunes said one way to encourage adoption is to use tools that align directly with an agency's core mission. At NASA that mission is space exploration and scientific research, which is why Antunes said she engaged engineers, scientists and researchers as well as IT specialists when developing Spacebook. She said the program helps maintain relationships among employees that have collaborated on other projects.

"Tools that help maintain those networks more easily help your core mission," Antunes said. "Social networks aren't new; using computers to track your social networks, that's kind of the new area."

Jack Holt, senior strategist for emerging media at the Defense Department, said his organization has found the term "social" to be a stumbling block. Holt said his team has had to redefine the word so people understand its value.

"Too many people think 'social' means 'not work'," Holt said. But in this context "social" means outside the established hierarchy, which can be an important source of feedback for senior decision-makers, he argued. Holt cited a conversation with an Army major general who complained that soldiers were rarely candid with him, instead saying what they thought he wanted to hear. On his personal blog, the general told Holt, those same soldiers have no qualms about saying what they think via online comments.

The often-cited security concerns that accompany social networking are largely a training issue, according to Holt. Antunes agreed, emphasizing that employees must be educated on what they can and cannot say in an online forum. She said employees at agencies with clear protocols on releasing information, such as the Coast Guard, are able to make an easier transition to social media. But in most cases, she said, managers should trust employees and their professionalism.

"When I post something on Facebook, I fully expect that it could be in the paper," Antunes said. "Agencies have to think about professionalism and have a Netiquette guide." She said there haven't been any incidents of employees uploading anything inappropriate to Spacebook.

Tina Cariola, program manager for the Transportation Security Administration's IdeaFactory, said her agency was able to launch the Web site, which collects suggestions and ideas from TSA employees, in just six weeks. The project's success was attributed in part to the agency leader's central involvement in its development and TSA's decision to keep the Web site simple and straightforward. Cariola said an effective marketing and communication strategy was essential in influencing employees to use the site, which is accessible only through TSA computers.