Social dialogue in the social media era

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Social media and networks are game changers in the workplace. As they allow a less hierarchical, less formal and more desintermediated form of communication, they change the way people communicate, collaborate and work. It’s now taken for granted that they change the balance of power between employees and managers, employees and organizations, their impact on social relationships and their use by labor unions and representative bodies is still poorly known.

In France the “Observatoire Des Réseaux Sociaux“, an association of practitioners, recently conducted a study on this matter. Here’s my conversation with Franck La Pinta who led this work.

Bertrand Duperrin : How many enterprises did you interview to make this study ?

Franck La Pinta : We contacted 50 businesses and 22 responded favourably. So we interviewed each of them at the end of spring 2014. These businesses are from various industries since we had banks, consulting firms, IT firms, Telcos, industrial businesses, others from the food sector and even public bodies. So the panel is wide and diverse.

Digital Social Dialogue Maturity depends on digital maturity

BD : Did you manage to find typologies regarding to the use of social media for social dialogue ?

F. L-P: Yes of course !

First we found organizations with a very positive view, who expect more co-construction, fluidity, dialogue and less tension. The say that easier access and exchange will improve social dialogue.

Then come what we call “aware” organizations. They are in between. They see the opportunities but are conscious that it will change the rules of the game. These rules may be obsolete but they exist and have been working until then. They are used to a formal dialogue, institutional and are afraid of seeing “barbarians” jump into the conversation and break a reassuring formalism, a comfortable routine and question the statuses. They fear that people who are not “usual players” come and break the norms.

The third category is made of organizations that did not pay attention to the matter. Either it means nothing to them or they don’t feel concerned. They think that since their employees don’t use a computer at work, social media are not a matter for them.

BD : Do businesses in each category have something in common ? Is there a form of determinism regarding to social dialogue ?

F. L-P: If that’s what you have in mind, there’s no typical profile in each category. The industry is not a common denominator. Size not either. The fact they are international or national businesses does not change anything too. Obviously what matters is their global understanding of social media : the more mature they are in their thoughts from a business perspective the more aware they are of the impacts of social media on social dialogue. The more positive ones are those you can see being very active and present on the marketing and collaboration side.

franck la pinta
Franck La Pinta

BD : And what are the means they provide social partners with  ?

F. L-P: The tools directly depend on their global maturity. Nearly every organization implemented electronic vote, even those in denial. It already raises a point for social partners about how secure the vote is and participation rate. With a traditional vite it’s easy to pick up employees at their desk and take them to the voting room. Electronic vote makes it impossible to know who has voted or not. The first learning of electronic vote is a lower participation, what social partners don’t like because it raises issues regarding to their legitimacy.

Email can be used by social partners expect in businesses in denial. But the use of email governed by rules : no massive emailing. Such rules are complied with except during elections periods.

Then comes the intranet where dedicated spaces are made available. Labor Unions are trained to use them, sometimes they have a dedicated support and are free to do whatever they want in these spaces.

Last, the more advanced one allow labor unions to be present on their social network. To do so, businesses must have a social network, what correlates with the question of global maturity.

BD : These is the HR point of view. What is the unions’ ?

F. L-P: We only only interviewed HR people but they mentioned labor unions. They said that unions are not mature but it does not prevent them from having demands. They are interested in such tools because it makes it easier to massively spread their message but also to work, prepare meetings and get organized.

Here we can see the gap between populations : white and blue collars unions don’t have the same demands.

But they mainly see social media as a way to become more visible. Their reflection seldom goes further. But we may be careful : this is what HR think Unions want, how they understand their expectations.

On the other hand, on the HR side, there’s a belief that social media will improve social dialogue and even appease the social climate, will bring less suspicion. Making online spaces available for unions, training personal representatives is also a way to say “we’re contributing to the effort”, “we give you what you need to fulfill your mission”.

BD :We’re talking about internal dialogue while labor unions are very active outside of organizations, most of them using blogs. Maybe they refuse to talk about internal social media with HR because they control the external side ? Don’t you think there’s a risk for HR to think that unions are not interested while the truth is they prefer to play on their own land, with their own media .

F. L-P: I don’t think so. It would mean that that labor unions have a maturity level no one perceives today.

Legitimacy of labor unions and representativeness of non-elected employees

BD : But there must be fears or, at least, concerned ?

F. L-P: Yes. Mainly regarding to intrusion of non elected players. An employee raising a point and getting hundreds of likes or comments becomes legitimate. But he’s only legitimate on this given matter. Legitimate but not representative, what is a very new situation.

BD : So the stake is to find the right balance between representative elected people and the “one-shot” representativeness of a  employee on a specific matter, knowing that social dialogue requires continuity and players who last in time ?

F. L-P: That’s it. More, unions have information other employees don’t have on the enterprise strategy. They may be a long discussion between unions and the company in the backstage, on a strategic matter and if an employee comes, stands up and lights a fire because he ignores the ongoing discussion it may be a big problem.

BD : But if such a thing happen, isn’t it the proof of poorly transparent unions ? Isn’t it the evidence they don’t do their job and hoard information ?

F. L-P: Not at all. I urge you to ask yourself one question : is a full transparency necessary ? Even desirable ?

Some information is strategic, may impact the price of the company’s stock and can’t be revealed at a given moment. Law forces businesses to share such information with unions because it has an impact on employment but unions can’t share it because of the impact it can have. It’s common sense and, sometimes, required by law.

Social dialogue and businesses must adapt to social media

BD : What are the other perceived risks ?

F. L-P: The first is a permanent dialogue. Everyone contributes but there’s no start and no end, the topic is always open and no decision is made. Or if a decision is made it’s questioned a couple of days later by someone who has missed the original discussion. It comes with a risk of permanent counter bids.

There’s also a risk of a runway reaction. Social dialogue requires pauses, breaks to take a breath. Boards talk with unions, they disagree, both leave the discussion and think, then comes back and start constructing. There’s a pace that allows construction and convergence. Without those breaks the dialogue may be of less quality and the co-construction process can be impacted. There’s less time for thinking, adjustments, to get out of the fight to consider things from a distance.

The last one : the need for the people in charge of the social dialogue to develop new skills. Monitoring, intelligence, watch internal and external media, look at what unions say on external blogs. Then develop communication strategies aligned with these media : when a meeting is over, unions immediately share the information while the corporate communication cycle is longer and are out of phase with the instant web. When it comes to communication, unions don’t face the constraints company do. It the unions talk first, businesses spend their time running behind. Accuracy and authenticity are also at stake : if everything is shared, the least imperfection will be pointed at. It means that businesses will need to be more thorough in their work.

BD : New communication postures…

F. L-P: Yes. It forces businesses to rethink their communication policies that can’t stay what they are today.

BD : What areas of improvement did emerge from the study ?

F. L-P: First a legal framework that did not change since the 50s. Today this framework prevents from modernizing the social dialogue and is does not even protect businesses against potential abuses. Hence the need to set ut internal rules, to control the use of the tools by unions.

We also need to find a way to manage the “triangular relationship” : an employee bypassing unions to talk to enterprise leaders, raising the issues we mentioned previously. We need to reposition social partners in this new model.

It makes us wonder about the concept of employee representativeness, which is one shot compared to the continuous legitimacy of unions and comes from elections. Employee representativeness don’t come from elections but you can’t ignore it. If 3000 people back an employee you can’t deny him a seat in the dialogue. But this representativeness must find its place in a more global system.

Then the social and economic database businesses must share with unions. What will they do with it as they become more talented at using data ? More : it contains many information about employees.. It raises the questions of the access rights granted to unions and representatives, case by case.

The Social Dialogue : an overlooked issue that strikes back

BD : What are your conclusions ?

F. L-P: Maturity is heterogeneous, both on the enterprise and union side. Then it’s often a tool focused approach…as in many other fields. People think more in terms of technology than in need to reinvent the social dialogue. Last, stakeholders having “wait and see policies” : each is waiting for the other to make the first step, thinking that the first who will shoot will lose.

It’s a matter that’s been overlooked for a long time but it logically strikes back as the digital maturity of businesses increases.

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Thanks to Franck for this long long discussion.

Image credit : social dialogue via Shutterstock