Practical Applications for Workplace Social Tools – Onboarding

I’m partnering with Learn Camp to deliver Breaking Down Silos – 5 Practical Applications for Social Tools in the Modern Workplace on Tuesday, September 2, 2014 at 2pm EST. 

Before I claim to know what I’m talking about during the webinar, I’m organizing my thoughts on workplace social technology in a series of blog posts. Here’s post #1 – social technology in employee onboarding.


Keep Calm and Welcome Aboard!

Onboarding is …

I break the concept of onboarding into two broad categories. There may be variations, but every “new hire” experience I’ve witnessed fits into one of these two contexts:

  • An individual new employee comes in on their own and has to get up-to-speed as quickly as possible with minimal formal support.
  • A group of employees come in together and experience a series of programmatic training events before they formally start their jobs.

Each scenario presents a set of unique challenges to the new employee(s). In both cases, social technology (when appropriately applied) can make a considerable difference in helping the new employee accelerate both their knowledge/skill development AND cultural integration.

Why onboarding?

Social technology simply accelerates, scales, and records the interpersonal exchanges we have at work every day. This is especially meaningful as organizations spread out into offices across the globe and employ more and more virtual workers. If you consider the standard experience of a new employee within your organization, social technology may benefit them because it can …

  • Establish connections with people who are not formally part of their onboarding, including senior leaders and subject matter experts
  • Reflect on new information and skills they’ve learning during initial training
  • Ask questions of the larger organization that don’t require direct assistance/time/focus from a dedicated trainer
  • Learn from past employees who also used social tools and shared their onboarding experiences
  • Connect to the organizational culture by sharing their background and other personal info with new peers

Integrating social technology into the onboarding experience can also help new employees understand the value of sharing within their new workplace. Not only can they develop their technical skills with social tools through this practical application, they can also develop sharing habits that will become essential later on as they integrate ideas like continued learning and working out loud into their daily tasks.

Simple examples …

Here’s a quick overview of simple social tech applications that I’ve seen yield positive within the context of new employee onboarding. Every example was implemented with internal tech, meaning the public couldn’t access the info. I could also speak to using public resources, like Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, but I’ll focus on the internal for those with “firewall” concerns (like me). Of course, strategies that include social tech require that employees have continued access to the technology. This could be within a dedicated platform (LMS, social network, etc.) or part of an existing intranet. If your employees don’t have access to applicable technology, then these ideas won’t work for you.

Discussion Forum

As part of our group onboarding programs, we created a simple, dedicated discussion forum within our Confluence wiki. On day 1, new employees are introduced to the wiki and led to their specific forum area. From there, the use of the forum is flexible based on the needs of the class and facilitators. In some cases, facilitators ask participants to share specific ideas or learning experiences via posts. In other cases, participants take it upon themselves to share information and photos from their onboarding experience. While the forum is meant for use by this specific group, it is left open and shows up in other users’ feeds so they can jump in, welcome the new folks, and share their experiences and tips along the way. Managers from various departments, especially those that the employees may never actually meet in person, are also invited to share their thoughts with the group. When we onboard groups of 10 to 15 employees, we see 300+ comments shared within their forums during a 2 or 3 week period. Even after formal training is over, we often see participants come back to the forum and share their initial successes and challenges on the job with their peers who have since moved on and may not work in the same team.

While I use this to support group onboarding, the same idea could be used to drive engagement for individual new employees, especially if your organization hires individuals into teams in various locations on a consistent basis. People don’t have to be in the same team, building, or department to have a shared onboarding experience, and social tech can help create this engagement in an asynchronous, location-agnostic manner.

Social Community

This is an expansion on the discussion forum concept in which we invite new employees to join a community within our organizations Google+ (not accessible by the public). While a discussion forum is more structured and topical, a G+ community allows for more open, rapid sharing of small bites of information (status updates, photos, links, etc.). Those supporting the onboarding experience can still ask targeted questions and mention specific users to facilitate topical conversation. While we invite specific people directly into the community (new employees, managers, trainers, etc.), anyone can request access to share in the onboarding experience. We also use one community regardless of the new employees departments, locations, or roles. Rather, we allow sorting within the community if people want to look at only posts from their department peers. We then keep the community going from future onboarding programs, allowing employees to look back and share in experiences from past participants. Once their formal onboarding is complete, participants have the option to stay in the growing community.

Reference Material

People walk in the door with a pile of questions, and that list just grows throughout the onboarding experience. Usually, these questions get answered one of five ways …

  1. Ask the onboarding trainer
  2. Ask your manager
  3. Ask a peer
  4. Send a message to HR
  5. Look it up yourself

In each of these options, the new employee cannot be expected to know the best person to ask, and the person they ask is likely not an expert in everything the new person needs to know. While you may have an expansive knowledge management platform, the new employee may not know how to effectively use it quite yet or may be unable to interpret the info this early in their tenure. So, rather than make the person wait for their answers, you can apply social technology to help the person benefit from the scaled knowledge of the organization.

In my case, our knowledge management platform (Confluence) is a social-enabled wiki. Every topical reference page allows users to add comments and ask questions/make suggestions right on the page. This is one of the BIG benefits of using a wiki over a collection of PDF documents – social engagement right on the content. New employees are introduced to the platform on their first day and are shown how to search and add comments. It’s then up to them as to how they ask their questions moving forward. They can still ask their trainer or manager, but they now also have the option to ask EVERYONE via the wiki. In addition to receiving answers from their peers in various departments or a community manager, they are directly connected to subject matter experts for EVERY topic, who are watching pages within their areas of interest. With this setup, the new employee doesn’t have to know WHO to ask. They just need to know WHERE to ask and let the community take care of them from there.


What do you think? Have you applied social technology to support the onboarding experience? What worked? What didn’t? 

Remember – “social learning” isn’t a new thing, it doesn’t require technology, and it’s already happening in your workplace. People sharing what they know = social learning. When applied effectively, technology can help people share in new, louder, equally-meaningful ways!

Join me on Tuesday, 9/2 at 2pm EST for a full exploration of practical applications for social tools in support of workplace learning!

Practical Applications for Workplace Social Tools – Onboarding

by JD Dillon time to read: 5 min
1