Social Media made practical for business

The use of Social Media in the workplace is still not prevalent at the core of operations. It is a simple, well know form of communication and yet its use in the workplace confounds many Executives. I’ve written quite a bit about the difficulties that traditional Enterprises (and most Enterprises are “traditional”) face in deploying the medium at their core so today I’m going to attempt to provide a practical view of how to get this done.

As a Supply Chain Executive in Generics Pharma I leveraged this communication medium to integrate and indeed accelerate supply chains for many years. Now as a consultant I help my clients implement similar strategies in their supply chains and operations to those that worked well for me in the past. The approach I follow entails workshops that help understand the social model, coupled with some expert consultancy. In this article I’ll provide a practical outline of how these workshops unfold.

I’ll open a parenthesis to mention that I am assuming that you, the reader, are familiar with the Social Media metaphor. Specifically, although the medium can assume many forms, herein I am referring to virtual spaces of collaboration where many people conduct multi-way text conversations, where a conversation has the appearance and functionality of what we find in Facebook. Thus, I won’t explain the basics of social media technology and deal instead with its use by people in the workplace.



Not surprisingly, I will assume as a business context that of a Pharmaceutical company who sells generic medication in several countries. Some products are manufactured at internal Plants and others are either sourced from Contract Manufacturers (I’ll use the acronym CMO for these) or under license from other Pharmaceutical companies (3rd Parties). Hopefully, it won’t be difficult for you to extrapolate from this outline to other industries.



I’m usually approached by Executives who invariably ask me the same question: we know what Social Media is but we don’t know what form it would take in the workplace. And that is the challenge, isn’t it? How does it apply to business operations?

I don’t know every way that Social Media could be used but in my case I specifically used it for just one purpose: to solve unexpected problems rapidly.

The challenge of unexpected events – demand surges, delays from suppliers, manufacturing quality issues, etc. – is that in order to correct the situation or to adapt to the situation, we require the intervention of some combination of people of multiple skill sets. The difficulty in most organizations is in bringing together the right people to solve the problem and to do so quickly.

Social Media provides a great medium for people to come together around problems, in as many combinations as needed and without the constraints of physical space or calendars.

But how does this happen?

If I said nothing else, you might be thinking: “Ah! I get it! A Manager can come up with a Plan of Action and then quickly assign tasks to different people using Social Media”. Well… No, that’s not what I mean. Not at all.

What some authors discovered and indeed what I experienced over the years is that human beings possess an innate capability that is critical to solving problems quickly: people with diverse skills confronted with a common problem can spontaneously construct a solution path to the problem and can do so quickly.

imageThis capability is called Spontaneous Association and the beauty of it is that you don’t have to train anyone on it; we are all born already capable of doing it.

In order to unleash the power of Spontaneous Association, we segment the organization into units that we call HIVE units. A HIVE (Human Interaction Virtual Environment) is a group of individuals with all the skills required to solve problems within a fairly broad scope. The scope of problems that can be solved by a HIVE unit is determined by the Mission of the HIVE. And I always recommend to my clients that they start with one or a few pilot HIVEs.



An example of a Pilot HIVE would be one cantered around Commercial activities (i.e., customer-facing) with the mission “to sustain high Service Levels in one market“.

Based on this mission, people from the following Functional groups would be assigned to the HIVE:

  • Marketing
  • Customer Operations
  • Supply Chain

where the Supply Chain group is the intermediary between the Market and the various sources of supply – be it internal Plants or 3rd Parties.

These 3 groups form what I call one of several “critical triangles” in companies in the industrial sector. A tight community made up of these skill groups provides tremendous competitive power to any Enterprise who competes in a marketplace where service is ‘king’.

Other examples of “critical triangles” (certainly in Pharmaceuticals) are:

  • Supply Chain, Manufacturing and Quality [Mission: deliver finished goods in short cycle times]
  • R&D Project Management, Supply Chain and Marketing [Mission: launch new products on time]

Each of these “triangles” forms natural skill combinations for a clear problem space and are easy ways of segmenting other HIVEs.



As you may have gathered from the above, setting up a HIVE is all about changing behaviour and indeed the theme and objective of the workshops we use to kick-off the rollout process are basically twofold:

  1. To diminish the influence of ‘old habits’
  2. To foster the development of new behaviours

So, what are the behaviours we need to enable?

  • People in a position of Authority (I will refer to these as “Leaders” in general) need to move from directing tasks to coaching and empowering employees;
  • People ‘at the bottom’ of the hierarchy need to learn to work outside their silos and to make decisions.

Thus, we use two workshops to address these two challenges:

  • The Leaders workshop
  • The Hive workshop

Initially we do the latter for the Pilot HIVE(s). Thereafter, as the program expands throughout the Enterprise, we typically recommend 2 of these for every new  ‘wave’ of HIVE implementations.

The Leaders’ workshop

Leaders in hierarchical structures who are involved in implementing HIVEs face two principal challenges:

  1. To change from directing to coaching
  2. To collaborate amongst themselves

Let’s see what this means.

In most hierarchical structures, Leaders are taught to direct people, in one form or another, i.e., you solve problems and you make decisions.

In a social model, the most difficult change for Leaders is to stop jumping in and making space for employees in the HIVE to construct solution pathways collectively and on their own, just as employees in HIVE’s often struggle with making decisions themselves.

Leaders face a second challenge: a HIVE is a multi-disciplinary grouping and as a result the scope of a single HIVE always involves more than one Leader. (To be practical, let’s assume that first line and second line Leaders most directly involved in the scope of a HIVE will be involved and remote Leaders will not.)

In the workshop, we teach Leaders these basic notions with half-day or full-day sessions structured as follows:

1- Open the “mental space” for change

2- The 3 key principles of collaboration

  • Sharing
  • Trust
  • Empowerment

3- The Leadership HIVE

Following is an outline of what is discussed in each of these segments.

1- Open the “mental space” for change

The first thing we do is mind-displacement, i.e., take the minds of Leaders present out of their usual workspace into a very different world. This step may seem like “what the heck?…” but it is extremely important.

We normally start with a video of a known thought-leader (e.g., Don Tapscott, Tammy Erickson) speaking of this period of our history where massive changes are occurring across the Globe, fuelled in part by a new generation of young people and completely new ways of communicating.  Exposure to these lectures helps Leaders remove themselves from the day-to-day ‘treadmill’ and move into a broader, more reflective and thoughtful mental space.

2- The 3 key principles of Collaboration

Next, we deal with the principles of Collaboration: Sharing, Trust and Empowerment. This is the heart of the workshop.

Sharing is a reflex that is anti-silo. Thus, it doesn’t come naturally to people who operate in silos – especially silo Leaders. Sharing requires that you be aware of what is happening in the other silo, otherwise you won’t find a reason to share. Thus, we carry out exercises to ask Leaders to describe their environment, their challenges, “their world” and then to expose difficulties they experience from other silos.

Trust is the ‘best friend’ of Sharing but it has a different flavour. In a silo-ed environment, people in one Functional group tend to want to be autonomous, i.e., to depend only on themselves, as much as they can. It is then common to find redundancies in the work done by people in two silos – very common.

As an example, when Pharmaceutical manufactures produce a batch of medication, Manufacturing supervisors need to review and sign documents that prove the product was made properly – they are called “batch records”. Then, Quality Assurance associates review the same documentation, presumably from a different perspective. We often find that QA associates perform their reviews as if the former Supervisors hadn’t reviewed anything, thus taking longer than necessary.

Hence, after the Sharing exercises, we motivate other discussions to identify how one Leader could use the help of other Leaders – very specific, concrete examples, not just motherhood principles. When a Leader discusses how to get help from another Leader, paradoxically this causes discomfort because at the same time the Leader is losing autonomy and, at some level, control. Through these discussions we try to extract these issues, surface them and perhaps solve them.

And then we deal with Empowerment. Once you get through Sharing and Trusting, Empowerment comes easier but it is still tricky.

In a hierarchy, employees are empowered because Leaders let them – pure and simple. If a Leader doesn’t say “go head, do it”, most employees feel constrained from initiative and action (not all but most).

It is through Empowerment that Leaders transition from directing to coaching. The principle itself is simple; it is the application of the principle that is difficult.

Thus, to help Leaders with this challenge, we bring up examples of conversation threads in HIVE’s where we show how Leaders should intervene and how they shouldn’t. These conversation threads are built from real life HIVE conversations resolving specific issues and where you can see Leaders intervening in the dynamics of the HIVE in a few ways: directing without being asked to (a no-no); coaching by suggesting alternate courses of action or clarifying policies but without being authoritarian; and cases where a Leader is ‘poked’ by the HIVE to come in and help make a decision.

3- The Leadership HIVE

Leaders have to collaborate amongst themselves if they are going to develop the social model of collaboration amongst their people. But the individualistic identify of each Leader in terms of the Functional area each of them leads, is extremely strong. This, we recommend that they create another identity that will frame their role as a group or a team. That identity is a Leadership HIVE.

What would then be the Mission of a Leadership HIVE? A simple way of expressing it would be like this: “to foster collaboration so that the Operation provides great adaptability to the changing needs of customers“.

It would entail a number of responsibilities, as follows:

  • Continually evaluate and revise the segmentation of the Operation into HIVEs
  • Provide clarity to the scope and mission of each HIVE
  • Monitor and guide the development of HIVE behaviours

In a workshop setting we discuss the role of the Leadership HIVE and we develop the process by which Leaders will discharge these responsibilities.


The HIVE Workshop

In some ways, the workshop with the members of the HIVE is similar to the one for the Leaders since the issues are pretty much the same. However, here we are looking at things from the perspective of those who report to Leaders and whom we want to actually solve problems.

The workshop is for the employees assigned to the HIVE but it is carried out with the presence of the Leaders. This is important in order to reinforce Empowerment behaviours.

The goal with this second workshop is to create HIVE awareness and to make it that at the exit of the workshop, these employees are already collaborating through the chosen tool.

The ‘playbook’ for this second workshop is the following (I emphasize that the first workshop with the Leaders is a pre-requisite to a successful Workshop with the members of the HIVE):

1- Open the “mental space” for change

2- The 3 key principles of collaboration

  • Sharing
  • Trust
  • Empowerment

3- Training on Social Media tool

4- Live practice

5- The Monitoring process

1- Open the “mental space” for change

We begin the workshop as we did the Leaders workshop although we use videos with themes that are lighter than the ones used earlier. Here we are trying to provide a very practical understanding of Social Media and we tend to use videos that show statistics about the use of social media or studies on the same subject.

At this point, without any other introduction, we ask employees to split into groups of 4 and discuss this question: “what would change if social media was used in your environment?”. It’s really interesting to see how employees so often respond to the question by pointing out the deficiencies of the silo environment – as a realization that social media just might help solve those deficiencies.

2- The 3 key principles of collaboration

We then move on to behavioural issues, i.e., the same 3 principles of Collaboration: Sharing, Trust and Empowerment. They are defined and presented the same way as with the Leaders and equally, we carry on discussions aimed at unearthing the ‘unspoken issues’ that people of different silos always have.

In my experience, Sharing challenges and Trust issues stem from a lack of understanding from people in each silo of the world of every other silo they interact with. These issues become more serious when there is a geographic and/or cultural distance between members of the HIVE.

With the view to helping alleviate Sharing challenges, we carry out two exercises:

  • Role clarification: it is critical for the success of Spontaneous Association dynamics that the Role of each employee be very clear. We ask employees to break into small groups and give them a list of Roles for them to define. We then validate if everybody’s definition is the same.
  • Role interaction: members of each Functional group assigned to the HIVE provide an example of cases where he/she didn’t trust colleagues from other groups; how ‘suppliers’ feel discouraged from sharing due to the expected reaction of ‘clients’; and why and how that will all change in a HIVE unit.

Dealing with Empowerment is the easiest step, since the Leaders are in the room and their workshop took place earlier. This part consists mostly of a discussion where the moderator expresses the principle, Leaders affirm their support and HIVE employees express any discomfort.

3- Training on Social Media tool

Once we’re through with the behavioural issues, we move on to the social media tool and a simple and relatively brief training session takes place. These tools are simple and intuitive and training is really not a challenge. After all, when was the last time you saw somebody being trained on Facebook? …

4- Live practice

Finally, we ask all HIVE members to begin collaborating. We ask them to bring in any issue that they are facing in their jobs and ask them to post them in the social tool. And we do ask that they don’t speak directly with each other (in a workshop, everyone is in the room but we ask them to simulate their workplace where they work in disparate physical spaces).

It never ceases to amaze me how Spontaneous Association takes over at this point. It is simply awesome to observe it, even in a simple workshop environment.

You can gather from this outline that such workshops require that a laptop or iPad be provided to each employee in the room and that the chosen tool be up and running and accessible to all of them.

5- The Monitoring process

After 1-2 hours of practice, we get to the final point of the session: the monitoring process.

The purpose of the process is to continue to foster decision making amongst HIVE members. We will use a strategy we call “use meetings to eliminate meetings”.
We recommend that twice a week there takes place a WebEx-type conference call with HIVE members and the appropriate Leaders. In these meetings, they go through each conversation in the social media tool about any issue that hasn’t been closed, i.e. where decisions are pending. The intent here is for Leaders to be coaches and show the members of the HIVE that they can make the necessary decisions to solve issues. It’s really important that Leaders try hard to provide guidance instead of simply being ‘bosses’.



Once the workshops are done, real life continues and we must be cognizant of the fact that once people return to their desks, old habits may take over. It is quite likely that instead of posting issues in the Social tool, they will send emails; that they will call meetings instead of collaborating; or that they will post and discuss but not make decisions.

HIVE dynamics need sponsorship and as a minimum, Leaders must assume this role. It is possible to nominate Champions amongst the members of the HIVE to be the catalysts of HIVE dynamics but if Leaders are not engaged, the chances of success are low.

imageTwice a week conference calls must be followed religiously without compromise. Leaders must participate and assume their roles of coaches encouraging empowerment. Leaders and key employees must also monitor emails and detect cases where issues should be posted on the HIVE environment and discussed there.

If the above is done, a HIVE will flourish in a few weeks and twice a week meetings will no longer be necessary within 3-6 months. The Operation will be far more effective because the time to resolution of operational and service issues will collapse, as decision making is pushed to the bottom of the hierarchy.

People are social creatures; we are made for networking which is why the Internet is the technology with the fastest adoption rate in human history. We are made to network, we love to be connected – or Facebook wouldn’t have 1.2bln active users at the time of this writing.

In business, the proneness of people to connect in social groups is a tremendous competitive power because ‘swarms’ of intelligent individuals can collectively resolve large numbers of issues in parallel at great speed.

We hope you experiment as we know you won’t be disappointed.


  1. I am really impressed with your writing skills and also with
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    1. I’m using a paid theme and have a premium version of wordpress to be able to change fonts and colours. But I try to keep it simple so that content – and not form – dominates. I prefer that people come here and are faced with content and no distractions.


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    Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!

    Thank you


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