Employees? They are the most credible, reliable and "influential” means of promoting a company. Certainly more so than their CEOs. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer states that there is a growing "dispersion of authority": the credibility of CEOs – together with that of governments and the social media – is experiencing a downturn, while that of ordinary people, the ones the Trust Barometer defines “people like yourselves", is on the up. When it comes to collecting information on a company, only 37 % of the sample interviewed trusts in the CEO (the lowest credibility level in history), while 60% considers a "person like yourself" to be as credible as a technician (who also scores 60% credibility) or a university professor (60%).
Today, all employees and collaborators are – for better or worse – ambassadors of the brand and the business for which they work. It is known as employee advocacy, and is a phenomenon exponentially amplified by the Net: we all have hundreds of social contacts, regardless of our corporate role. According to Weber Shandwick’s survey, "Employees Rising: Seizing the opportunity in Employee Activism”, we are still reluctant to mix our work and private lives on our personal profiles: only 21% of workers today are "Pro-Activists", although a further 33% has a high potential to become one.
Companies have become aware of the fact that digital transformation cannot be reduced to a mere matter of technology, and for some years now have implemented specific strategies. The aim is not so much to transform all employees into brand advocates (although 24% of companies already encourage their staff to post and share news regarding their place of work), but rather to find leaders who can take the company down the road of internal and external innovation, seizing all the opportunities offered by the digital age.
Mariano Corso, the scientific manager of the Politecnico di Milano Smart Working Observatory, explains how personal and corporate brands can grow together on the Net, to everyone’s advantage.
What are the new aspects of the relationship between a company and its employees and collaborators?
We are currently witnessing a considerable acceleration in what has become an ongoing change, and the progressive replacement of subordinate employment relationships. This has both positive and negative consequences from a contractual and labour-law related point of view, but the point is this: companies no longer seek hours to "rent", but a contribution to results. Collaborators have a more independent, empowering and dynamic relationship with the company, and are called upon to contribute to development and change within the organisation. It is worth noting that today, when an enterprise assesses talents, it also evaluates their potential influence, considering their current skills and assets in terms of networking and ability to influence.
Does this mean that each of us brings our own brand into the company as "dowry”?
When millennials join an organisation, they already have their own personal branding, one that they are both aware and jealous of: they know that this is their greatest asset and their greatest security for the future. Upon joining a company, they put their brand at the partial disposal of the enterprise, in exchange for opportunity and a contribution to the development of the brand itself. Complete identification with the company has gone by the wayside; the new pact is that of a common journey, wherein both parties enhance their reputation and their influence.
Today, anyone joining a company puts their brand at the partial disposal of the enterprise.
What are the concrete actions of an employee-ambassador?
Clearly, he won’t post blatant statements such as “buy this product"! What he does do is become a focal element of an extended community, intervening in blogs and forums of experts, becoming an expert point of reference, and taking part in discussions. In this way, it is possible, on the one hand to intercept new needs, and on the other to influence opinions. Once upon a time, nobody would speak of a company other than the external communication experts; even the CEO would always be briefed by the experts before making a statement. However, this method is slow, inefficient and outdated because, while you keep silent, communication keeps going, and you simply suffer the effects of a deteriorating reputation. It happened a few years ago to Procter & Gamble with regard to a new type of nappy. A mother blogged that the nappies gave her baby nappy rash, and the mood was set. Today, it is important to take part in the discussions that take place on the Net, monitoring them and responding adequately to criticisms. Customers seek information online, and therefore every employee should feel part of his company and share the mission to create a positive image for the enterprise; not in a mercenary way, but cleverly, so as to help the reputation grow. Many erstwhile "silos” have become widespread employment networks, with the experts acting solely as catalysts. The effectiveness of the direct presence of collaborators in the community is well known, and there are areas where this has been consolidated. Microsoft, for example, has long been rewarding employees who run effective blogs, repaying them for the time spent in these activities.
Is this not in direct contradiction to the fact that many companies forbid access to social networks in the workplace?
The difference lies in the company’s ability to engage people, which happens when staff is motivated and when the individual’s online presence and personality is recognised as a value: you are worth it also because of your online personality, and I, the company, not only allow you to develop it, but I also reward you for it; because if you increase your influence, as a consequence you also increase mine. Therefore, not only do I allow you to do it, but I also teach you how to do it better. And since the ability to be an influencer does not depend on corporate roles, attention should be paid to each member of the company’s staff; not for ranking purposes, but to be fully aware of the enterprise’s potential heritage: a spot of scouting can reveal interesting dual roles and personal passions. A great passion that goes unnoticed by the company can be a source of frustration, while, when recognized, it can actually be optimised. It is a question of moving from professionalism to widespread engagement.
You are worth it also because of your online personality, and I, the company, not only allow you to develop it, but I also reward you for it; because if you increase your influence, you also increase mine.
Why have engagement and motivation become so important in the workplace?
Engaging every member of staff, also with respect to change and to the company’s values, is a real challenge because employees are the company’s main asset. If employees are not engaged, they dwindle in value. Businesses today suffer significantly from negative influence. Unmotivated employees and collaborators can do great damage on the Net, because they are free to say whatever they like without being aware of the damage they can cause. Examples happen every day: just take a train and you’ll see how often and with what rancour people speak badly of their company, without taking any pains to disguise what firm they are talking about. All this could be tackled with very little effort and at very little expense on the part of the company.
Does the collaborator’s personal digital reputation only have a commercial value?
No. With their personal credibility, employees can strategically influence a widespread ecosystem, and not just potential customers. First of all, they can influence other potential employees as part of the employer branding process. A brand’s ability to attract the best talent depends on how current employees present the company brand to the market.
What are the prerequisites of an influencer?
Obviously, influencers must have digital skills, which the company must recognize and develop in people. Millennials, for example, have a greater aptitude for the use of digital instruments, but they lack the common sense rooted in older generations. When scouting in the new dimension of brand ambassadors, we seek five “digital superpowers”: knowledge networking, virtual communication, digital awareness, creativity, and self-empowerment.
The ability to be an influencer does not depend on corporate roles. However, companies should look out for and develop five "digital superpowers”.
Could you explain these five superpowers in detail?
Knowledge networking means continuously developing and providing one’s knowledge within a community of experts. In an era of knowledge working, knowledge develops increasingly at the boundaries of the organisation; and in the presence of amplified collective intelligence, the company becomes fast moving and open to ideas. Virtual communication is the ability to effectively express one’s own ideas and one’s own leadership in a virtual, non-physical world; it is the ability to work in dispersed teams: for example, how do you team build when smart working? Digital awareness is equivalent to digital wisdom; understanding the positive and negative impacts that may derive from one’s digital actions. It is about data confidentiality, and knowing when and how information can be shared. It is about sound common sense, which we tend to lose in the face of the digital world, and this is something the younger generations need to work on. Creativity means approaching the development of content and the use of new channels in a new way for the company. The new tools are available to everyone, the difference being speed and capacity for communication and engagement, the digital helps to make the difference. Finally, self-empowerment means not being afraid of change, and developing a positive attitude towards innovation. These digital superpowers can be anywhere, regardless of business role, and are cross-sectional. This is why assessment is so important: because there are many different ways of exercising the potential role of influencer.
Do you have any case histories?
We have worked with Enel General, Italy and Hera. Assessment lies midway between communication, engagement, raising awareness and training. By understanding its staff’s characteristics, a company can engage them differently. With Generali Italia, we helped to identify potential simplifiers, who were then involved in a hackathon on a Venetian island. These were internal ambassadors, and the result was a great success. In terms of digital transformation, Enel developed a widespread engagement procedure involving its 60,000 employees worldwide, right down to the electrician up a power pole in Russia. The innovation champions were an administrative employee and a maintenance operator, which just goes to show that you can be an ambassador both externally and internally. In fact, this inward perspective is fundamental, because being able to seize and implement change has become the primary challenge for any organisation.
What do you expect for the future? To what extent will we all be required to get to grips with the new figure of the brand ambassador?
As I mentioned at the very start, the labour market is undergoing significant change, and is seeking ever-greater talent individuality. Our individual value depends on our ability to be credible, to communicate and to influence others. The best asset young people can create for themselves is the ability to use the Net effectively: the five skills I mentioned earlier are what makes them attractive to companies today, and what, overall, constitutes their baggage of employability. No one yet can know where they will work or in what role, but what we do know is that their fundamental asset is having their own brand on the Net.