Oct-Dec 2011

Harnessing the Power of Employee Blogs

How can companies use employee-blogging to their advantage? This article, based on research conducted by Professors Ramesh Sankaranarayanan and Ram Gopal of University of Connecticut, Professor Rohit Aggarwal of University of Utah and Professor Param Singh of Carnegie Mellon University, examines the positive offshoots of employee-blogging and presents ways in which companies can overcome the challenges associated with such an open forum of dialogue.

Let them Blog!

Knowledgeable employees have always been critical to the success of firms. When firms connect the creative energies of such employees with the needs of important stakeholders such as customers, investors and prospective employees, the firms as well as their stakeholders win. Encouraging honest blogging by employees may be an effective way to attain this goal. Jonathan Schwartz, ex-CEO at Sun Microsystems, expresses the importance of employee blogs in these words, “If you want to lead, blog…We talk about our successes – and our mistakes. That may seem risky. But it’s riskier not to have a blog.” IBM and Microsoft, for example, have well over 2000 employee blogs, and about one in ten employees at Sun Microsystems, maintains blogs.

In this article, we discuss how firms can enable meaningful interactions between employees and stakeholders by encouraging employee-blogging. The central premise of this article is that firms need to start a dialogue with their key stakeholders, by letting their employees’ knowledge flow to their stakeholders, and by letting stakeholders’ feedback flow back to employees, in a way that fosters trust and is mutually beneficial to the firm and its stakeholders. Employee blogs are a great way to enable this dialogue, and fill a void that advertisements and other more formal means of communication create. Several companies, especially in the technology industry, such as Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Sun Microsystems, are actively engaging their stakeholders by encouraging their employees to blog.

Honesty Still the Best Policy

Our research suggests that in order to fully benefit from employee blogs, a firm should encourage honest blogging by employees, even if it results in some criticism of the firm. Such blogs can fulfill a role that conventional advertisements cannot, which is to carry out a serious dialogue with stakeholders, with a high degree of trust. Our insights are based on our empirical research on data about employee-bloggers of Sun Microsystems (as detailed in our paper in Information Systems Research: “Blog, Blogger, and the Firm: Can Negative Posts by Employees Lead to Positive Outcomes?”). Our research builds upon prior research in social psychology in the area of attribution theory, which has been used extensively in understanding consumer behaviour [e.g. Weiner, B. (2000), "Attributional thoughts about consumer behavior," Journal of Consumer Research
27(3): 382].

Benefits to the Company

Encouraging employees to write honest blog posts, some of which may be negative to the company, could have an overall positive payoff to the company. Honest blogs lead to increased credibility for that employee’s blog, and increased readership of that blog. This creates an effective medium to communicate the company’s positive messages in a credible and timely manner. We draw upon attribution theory from research in social psychology, to present an intuitive explanation of the mechanisms by which honest blogs lead to increased credibility and a larger readership.

Firstly, employee blogs that contain honest criticism about the company are perceived to be more credible with readers. If an employee-blogger writes a positive post about the employer, (that is only to be expected of any employee), a reader attributes that to the constraints imposed on the blogger by the employment situation (the “environment effect” or “situational pressures” in attribution theory). If on the other hand, the employee-blogger writes negative posts, that is clearly unexpected behaviour, the reader attributes the action to the employee’s disposition rather than to the environment effect. The reader may be inclined to think that perhaps this particular employee blogs honestly, rather than simply promote the company’s line. Additionally, such a blogger is perceived as being helpful to the reader.

Blogs that are perceived to be honest are more likely to draw a higher readership, as our research reveals. We analysed data from the daily blogs of employees of Sun Microsystems over a three-month period and found that blogs with a higher degree of negative content receive more hits, albeit at a decreasing rate. Therefore, negative posts help a blog draw readership, but beyond a certain point, the effect wears and the readership flattens.

When employees are permitted to post honest blogs, over a period of time, this is likely to create a loyal following, as we discovered from the extent of RSS feed subscriptions of bloggers at Sun Microsystems. Our research suggests that readers who read such honest blogs tend to return to the blogs more often, share the blogs with their friends (or post a link to that employee blog on their own blog), and subscribe to RSS feeds of the blog.

Our research suggests three reasons for this behaviour: First, a reader who finds an employee blog useful because it provides an honest and unbiased perspective, reciprocates by sharing it with others. Second, readers may take pride in sharing their “discovery” with others. Third, honest blog postings are considered interesting because they are unexpected, and consequently, get a wider publicity on the internet. This increases the blogger’s visibility and following.

Enhanced Medium for the Firm’s Messages

The company benefits tremendously from having an army of employees who are credible bloggers, with a significant readership. When there are new developments that the company wants to share with its stakeholders (such as a new product launch, a recruitment effort, or a new corporate initiative), it is much easier to get the word out through the blogs of the company employees. While the negative posts by these employees draw readers, those readers are then exposed to several positive and relevant messages from the company. In our research, we find evidence that increased readership could translate to increased exposure to the positive postings contained on the employee blog as well, which could result in a net gain in positive exposure to the company. The benefits flow both ways – readers tend to leave valuable feedback that the company can use to improve its product offering, recruiting practices, vendor management, or any other aspect of its business. All of these benefits could translate to a decreased need for advertising and public relations, leading to tangible cost savings.

 We find evidence that increased readership could translate to increased exposure to the positive postings contained on the employee blog as well, which could result in a net gain in positive exposure to the company.

Wanted: A Blogging Policy

However, companies seeking to harness the power of employee blogging need to overcome some key challenges. They need to create an organisational climate that is conducive to blogging, ensure that sensitive or confidential information is not leaked and lastly, ensure that bloggers maintain a high level of professionalism in their blogs. These points are expanded upon in the subsequent paragraphs.

Companies need to create a climate that is conducive to employee-blogging, by signaling to employees that blogging is viewed as a valuable activity. Employees that wish to blog should be given mentoring, guidance and time to blog. Contributing to in-house wikis, circulating rough drafts among colleagues, and other forms of exchange of ideas among colleagues, should be encouraged.

Companies need to ensure that confidential information is not leaked, and that employees maintain professional standards while blogging. For example, Michael Hanscom, who used to work at a print shop on Microsoft’s main campus, was fired after he shot some pictures of Mac G5 computers being delivered to the Microsoft campus, and posted them on his blog. In order to avoid such situations, companies must ensure that product-related blogs, new product features and plans are not leaked to competitors. The same applies for sensitive financial information such as cost margins. It must also be ensured that any financial information revelation is in conformity with SEC (US Securities and Exchange Commission) and other regulations. Companies must also ensure that sensitive HR
information is protected. For example, an ongoing controversy in the company that is currently under investigation, should not be commented upon, etc.

Mark Jen, a Google employee, compared Google’s health policies unfavourably to those of Microsoft and suggested that Google provides extensive campus facilities such as free food, car service, dentist, etc., in order to allow employees to work for as many hours a day as possible. He was fired after just 17 days on the job. Employees should be encouraged to maintain professional standards and abstain from posting frivolous, hurtful, or irrelevant material, writing insensitively about their colleagues or anyone else, and posting wrong or misleading information.

Companies can overcome these challenges in several ways. The most important task before a company is to articulate a company-wide employee-blogging policy. Such a policy can be embodied in formal statements and internal guidance manuals, and widely disseminated to employees. Another way is to foster a thriving culture of blogging within the company, through informal peer review, guidance, and feedback mechanisms. Colleagues can look over each other’s shoulders and provide guidance and feedback to each other. Finally, it is important to identify ways to reward effective blogging and discourage ineffective or inappropriate blogging, through a combination of monetary incentives and status incentives, for example, awards, recognitions, promotions, committee memberships, and involvement in high-visibility projects.

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