Employee engagement

Dr. Michael Moon: Social Technology and HR Analytics at Work

George Dickson
July 13, 2016
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Dr. Michael Moon is a leading expert on HR analytics and social technology in the workplace. Her work has helped many organizations improve performance and retention through understanding and strengthening the relationships that are their foundation.

She joined us for a discussion on the influences these tools and strategies can have on the workplace, and how organizations both large and small can benefit from them.

Putting data to work

During her first year at Raytheon, working for John Malanowski, the then VP of Talent Development, Dr. Moon was required — as were all employees — to become Six Sigma certified, a methodology she found an immediate use for on her first major project, which was focused on candidate impressions and new hire retention.

It was the first time that I used data for something practical. That really was the eye-opener for me. It was very exciting for me to do interviews and surveys, analyze the data, and do a root cause analysis of what was going on, and then to be able to make suggestions as a result.

This was before people analytics was really on anyone's radar.

The opportunity to use data to uncover root causes and help make more informed decisions to rectify problems worked: she was able to improve the first year new hire retention rate by 40 percent for corporate positions.

Dr. Moon realized early on that running reports, analyzing data, and making recommendations were seen as three separate competencies, yet she wanted to combine those skills into a cohesive strategy.

Social technology

While implementing HR systems, Dr. Moon identified more untapped opportunities, recognizing unique applications social technologies could have in the workplace.

While working on her PhD, Moon stumbled upon an app previously available on Facebook, called Touchgraph. It essentially produces an ego network where the user is pictured in the center, and their connections appear, based on the structure of the relationship you share with them.

I had a cathartic moment when I saw that graph. I didn't feel alone. I felt like, 'Wow! I'm a part of something. I'm actually connected to other people.'

That was the moment I realized there is an application for this in the workplace. Something as simple as being able to see how you're connected to other people can be so incredibly powerful.

It was from there, I decided to explore how social technology could influence the creation of relationships between people in the workplace—creating connections that might not otherwise be there—and other outcomes such as how it impacts collaboration both positively and negatively, enhances creativity, potentially reduce duplication of effort on projects, and facilitate increased knowledge sharing.

A more collaborative organizational environment

Although human capital can be plural, Dr. Moon pointed out that, “the focus on human capital tends to be on individuals, usually your high potentials and 'A' players.” In other words, answering the question “how do we develop the people we’ve identified as having the most impact on the organization?”

Dr. Moon then outlined the concept of social capital, which has a different focus.

When we talk about creating stronger employee relationships, not relationships in general—that's social capital.

Social capital in an organization represents the relationships that exist between people and the value that results from those relationships.

Relationships at their core are formed by trust and norms of reciprocity: an expectation that if I help someone, they're likely to help me. I'm going to help them in any way I can, and trust them to do the same.

Social capital is really the fabric of an organization that you cannot replicate. You can’t replicate the connections and relationships that exist in an organization.

When an organization prioritizes social capital by focusing on creating better and stronger relationships in the workplace, the benefits that can be expected include:

Reducing duplication of effort
"If you think about the number of people that may be working on a similar project across an organization, if they just knew that the other five people were working on it, the amount of time it takes to solve a problem could be reduced."

Increased innovation
"You're also putting together people from different parts of an organization that might have very diverse backgrounds such as different educations, levels of tenure, or fields. By bringing diverse individuals together, you have opportunities for what's called creative discord, which can lead to more innovative ideas. Collaborative social environments can support more innovation."

Improved communication flow
"The more connected people are also helps with communication flow, more likely ensuring that everyone's on the same page."

Improved emotional commitment and retention
"Social support and social integration are two things that actually help create stronger emotional commitment to an organization, which can affect retention."

Improved mental health
"Research shows that stronger social support outside of the workplace can help individuals with mental health, help them get through stressful situations. So, feeling like you're in an organization where people care about you, that you feel supported, that you feel as if you're a part of something, could have some significant benefits to mental health."

Social integration

The social networks we develop at work are a vital element of success, both on an organizational and individual level.

Dr. Moon explained that onboarding and pre-boarding are crucial in facilitating the sense that employees have been integrated and welcomed into an organization, department, or team.

This echoes the advice of Button’s Steven Milbank, who reiterated how important onboarding is — and how important that experience is overall from the moment the candidate first interacts with the company.

It's such a challenge, and you only have a very short period of time once employees start in general. You have a limited window when employees are willing to say, 'I think this is going to work for me. I'm locked in. I'm going to open up. I'm going to be transparent. I'm going to be vulnerable and I am just going to work my hardest.'

Stronger social networks can help that process along, so that new hires reach that state more quickly and more reliably.

Strategic application

Though clearly beneficial, adopting social technology in the workplace requires a thoughtful application.

Dr. Moon also noted that not all collaboration is good. It's not something you should do just because everyone else is doing it. A recent study by Robert Cross and Adam Grant found that in some cases, collaboration can have a negative impact on an organization, and on people's productivity.

There's always another side to the story. You can have too much collaboration. You can have situations where maybe you shouldn't be collaborating.

It's not about a utopian world where everybody collaborates; it's about being more strategic around how we collaborate, under what circumstances, and why are we doing it.

Adoption barriers

Dr. Moon outlined two fundamental areas where during her own research and implementation, she experienced the adoption of social technology facing barriers:

Leadership barriers
Leaders are often focused on employee conduct within the system. Leaders also may not fully understand the benefits and impacts of social technology's use to individuals.

"For the most part, employees are not going to misbehave," Dr. Moon said. "The one or two individuals that do decide to do that are ones that probably would have done it whether there was technology or not."

Individual barriers
Individual barriers commonly include concerns like:

  • Is this tool easy to use?
  • What's in it for me?
  • Why am I using it? (To find information? To get help? To connect with others? To promote my personal brand?)

Employees may also have trust issues. For example, some may be hesitant to ask a question because they're concerned about how their questions might be perceived.

They might not ask the question they really need answers to in a public forum because if they don't trust their manager, they may think, 'Oh my gosh, my manager is going to see that and go, you should know the answer to that already.

So, they're looking around for feedback, signals. Is it OK for me to do this? How are other people using it? This is where trust becomes a hugely important. If there isn't a sense trust and feeling like you can trust the organization not to penalize you if you said something or asked questions, that becomes a huge factor.

Developing an organizational culture that promotes psychological safety, and accounting for these issues in advance can make implementation much easier.

Implementation advice

I asked Dr. Moon to share a few pieces of advice for leaders taking steps to build a stronger culture by better understanding the social networks within their organization.

Pilot it
"You don't have to roll something out like this across an entire organization. You can always start small. Working in a small group, in a small department is one of the best things that you can do."

Build a team of people (stakeholders) from other areas of the organization
"Build support from other areas of the organization, like IT, marketing, finance, legal, and communications, who invest in what you're doing early on in the process. They can become advocates for the program. With any sort of HR initiative focused on changing the culture, you cannot do this type of work in a bubble."

Have an analytical / business mindset
HR requires much more than merely liking to help people. You need to have an analytical and business mindset to have a truly strategic impact. "We need to be systems thinkers. If we can't think about people and their complexities when we design our programs and perform analysis, how can we be strategic in our roles?

"You need an analytical mind in general and a strong understanding of finance and business administration. You can't simply say, 'Oh, we have a collaboration problem? We'll just implement social technology and that will solve it.' No. The technology is not the solution, it is an enabler, but never the answer."

Hire the right person for today and for the future 
"The person you need right now isn't necessarily the person that you're going to need to take you to the next level. Hire the type of person that you know you're going to need two to three years from now."

In summary

No matter the size of organization you work in, it will always be beneficial to improve your understanding of the social fabric it’s comprised of, and make informed decisions based on that understanding.

There are many tools you can use to help achieve this state of operation, but the most important tool will always be the one that rests above your shoulders.

Ready for more leadership tips and insights? Check out our latest guide:

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