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Employee Profiles: It's not Just the 'What' You Are, but the 'Who'

Just came across this excellent post from Michael Gotta, a senior technology solution manager at Cisco. He provides some very powerful insight into collaboration sites within the enterprise. One of his most compelling points is that when creating employee profiles for collaboration sites, make sure that you’re not just creating them as another form of the employee’s HR record, but instead as a means for employees to establish their personal identity. Approaching from this mindset gives employees higher control over how they are presented to their colleagues — the who and what they are within your organization. From this standpoint, you will achieve a higher adoption rate of employees creating and using profiles, and a much more effective collaboration network overall.

Original post: Don’t Think Profile, Think Identity, Michael Gotta, Cisco Enterprise Community

When organizations discuss the business value of social networking, the conversation invariably includes a discussion on employee profiles. Strategists, sponsors, champions, and management teams often (not always but frequently) make the assumption that employees will create and maintain their own profiles. These profiles will include rich information not captured elsewhere in corporate systems. Rich employee profile data that is broadly accessible by co-workers will enable the organization to improve its ability to locate experts, discovery new sources of talent, connect people across the globe working on similar business activities, and enable better community-building. While these benefits are all possible, I consistently find that profiles are a common adoption hurdle faced by project teams across virtually all industry sectors.

I think part of the reason for profiles becoming an adoption barrier is that we are forgetting the identity aspects of profiles and how employees want themselves to be represented and viewed by others. Think about it. When a worker is hired, assigned an employee number, assigned to a cost center, assigned a labor grade, assigned to a particular department, and assigned specific roles to perform. In essence, the employer ascribes the identity of an employee to them. From an enterprise perspective, the employee has no identity other than the one the organization has defined for that individual. When the organization suddenly one day asks its workforce to create their own profiles, employees can be taken aback. Questions that come up include:

  • Why is management asking for this information?
  • How will this information be used?
  • What control over my information will I have?
  • How will my participation improve my position in the organization?
  • What happens to my profile when I leave the company?
  • How many profiles will I have to maintain across enterprise systems?
  • Am I expected to keep my profile(s) accurate – how much of this work will be automated?
  • Will the company be harvesting profile information from my personal social network sites and displaying it internally?

Remember – in general, organizations have never asked employees to volunteer this level of personal insight and make is broadly visible throughout the organization. It is true that more and more employees participate in consumer social network sites (Facebook, LinkedIn) and so there are assumptions that (1) if you have a consumer profile you defacto are more open to creating one for work and/or (2) there are generational assumptions that younger workers will naturally want to create a profile within an enterprise social network site. These assumptions may or may not be true however for a particular enterprise. Each enterprise has its own culture and different business units can have their own work practices and value systems that can influence employee participation.

Assumptions can sometimes be a bad thing… organizations should not expect de-facto acceptance and adoption of profiles. A plan is needed that articulates the value of employee profiles from the employee’s perspective. The above questions must be answered. There are also likely to be various constraints based on privacy regulations and enterprise policies (e.g., notice, consent, etc). Even aspects of profiles thought to be simple, like the employee’s photograph, can become complicated. For instance, can the employee use an avatar – can the photo be casual – must it be the same picture of the employee that is on their security badge, etc. Some organizations that allow casual pictures still find that employees are reluctant to upload a photo because they simple do not have a “business casual” image. One tactic employed has been to have “photo days” in cafeterias where employees can have informal pictures taken and then sent to them to upload to their profiles. The point though is that an employee’s photo that they self-select is an important control point of how they want themselves (their identity) represented. Organizations also need to be more relaxed when they ask employees to add their skills, expertise and other profile attributes. Some organizations are worried about the claims employees might make about themselves. However, putting in place processes to validate each data attribute tells the employee that they are not trusted. If needed, a field can be added to the profile for authenticated expertise that has been approved by the enterprise. Also, whenever possible adding the data should be automated via connectors to directory and HR systems. These are just some of the best practices I’ve encountered.

Still, even without social networking tools, employees do build relationships with co-workers and through those relationships, reveal different levels of insight about themselves to different colleagues and groups. Based on the nature of the relationship and the level of trust established, different colleagues will view that employee through the different identity facets created. This is part of the human condition. People (knowingly or not) try to control their identities. One of my favorite books on the topic is Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge (Second Edition). What I’ve come to understand after years of studying collaboration trends is the critical role identity (not identity management) plays when it comes to how/why/when/etc people communicate, share information, and collaborate.

So how should organizations think about employee profiles?

Profiles represent an employee’s identity:

  • Don’t think of profiles as just a data record to be filled out, or as a next generation contact and directory vehicle.
  • Address the questions above – make the answers to those questions known to the workforce. Employees need to see value in profiles being the digital representation of themselves and a necessary aspect of how they interact with co-workers and participate culturally within the organization.
  • If there are multiple profiles in the enterprise, plan to implement some type of synchronization and sunsetting process. If there are multiple profiles, expect some of them to eventually be abandoned (making it necessary to sunset them at some point).
  • Provide employees with some level of control over how the profile information is shared. Be careful about auto-populated the profile beyond what might be considered the basic amount of information – employees may prefer to opt-in or approve automatic updates to things like: the communities they participate in, their areas of expertise, or colleagues they follow.
  • Be careful when harvesting information from external social network sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter) and displaying it alongside enterprise applications. The identity assurance is often not strong when associated the employee to these external sites and employees may feel that the company is crossing a work-life boundary. Asking employees to provide the organization with account passwords to enable better harvesting of external social data may violate the terms of service that employee has agreed to with that consumer site. It can also place a certain amount of risk onto the enterprise since they now have account access.
  • Rich profiles are not without risk – security teams may have concerns related to social engineering and revealing too much information to contractors and other temporary employees that have access to the information.
  • Be aware that if profiles are used in widgets and displayed in different application contexts beyond the social network site, that may cause additional consent to be gained depending of privacy regulations.
  • Think about what happens to the profile when the employee leaves the company. If the profile includes photographs and other social information uploaded, does the employee get that content back? Do the profiles remain on the system but are grayed out? Is the profile deleted – and how does that impact how that profile is connected to blogs, wikis, and other places where the employee has contributed? Should profiles be kept for a certain amount of time – or moved to a retiree or alumni network if one is available.

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