By Gloria Lombardi

Only 41% of organisations believe they have a holistic and strategic approach to employee engagement and advocacy. Just 43% of companies think that they possess a culture of trust and empowerment. Merely 25% of enterprises are using internal social networks effectively.

The numbers come from Altimeter Group’s latest study “Strengthening Employee Relationships in the Digital Era.” The research was lead by Founder and Principal Analyst Charlene Li (pictured right) together with Jon Cifuentes and Brian Solis. It was conducted among over one hundred global organisations with the aim of exploring the current landscape of digital employee engagement.

I spoke with Li to gather some key insights from the findings as well as to learn what businesses can do to help their people want to come with them in today’s digital world.

Digital employee engagement – what is it exactly?

One of the biggest issues Li encountered when conducting the study was to clarify what constitutes employee engagement in relation to social media activities. It meant different things for different people.

“When I asked companies how they would define digital employee engagement, answers were all over the place. The definition depended on where they sat in the organisation.”

However, she found that enterprises are focusing primarily on three types of initiatives: internal collaboration, social empowerment and employee advocacy. “Employees share best practice and interact across departments and geographies through internal digital channels. They are empowered to use social tools to engage with customers. And, they use their own personal accounts to amplify what the company is doing.”

Measuring employee engagement

When it comes to measurement Li encourages organisations to: “look at the activities they perform on digital channels.”

Li brings attention to the visibility and transparency created by these new tools. “Thanks to analytics you can monitor their networks.”

Even more important is to measure the impact that their initiatives have on the business, “such as faster innovation or better customer service.”

Ultimately, it is about making connections, “understanding your employees and the extent to which their own journey is aligned to the one of the company.”

Enterprise social networks – between talk and action

It was striking for Li to see that “despite all the talk around the benefits of internal digital channels, these technologies were not used at a company-wide level in almost two third of the enterprises that we surveyed.”

The problem is not the technology. “The main barrier is adoption. And, this is about engagement. Employees didn’t know why and how to use these tools to improve their work.”

Li believes that it comes down to a lack of vision and commitment from the top. “Over and over again we saw that the level of employee engagement was positively correlated to level of leadership engagement.”

Yet, some organisations are doing a good job. One of Li’s favourite examples comes from TD Bank Group.

“In 2008 they started with internal social media for sharing news articles as well as asking for feedback. While there was anxiety about allowing employees to have a voice and share experiences they discovered that having an open dialogue helped resolve issues it wouldn’t have otherwise known about.” In fact after the initial pilots the bank decided to launch their IBM Connections-based enterprise social network (ESN) to all their 85,000 employees in Canada and the US.

Beside, Li likes to emphasise that “in the past year, they have also experimented with advocacy. They trained 500 employees to use their own social media accounts on sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter to engage with customers and support the brand on behalf of the bank.”

Li also likes to share examples of great leadership. “David Thodey of Teltra Australia. “He is very active internally. The same applies to external social channels. He listens to people, shares content, and engages on a one-to-one basis. He is very driven.

“Being able to understand both staff and customers on digital channels, like Thodey does, is a crucial skill for today’s leaders.”

Strategy first

Li has no doubt that to get the adoption right the primary focus should be given to defining a solid strategy. “The technology is a point solution, and there are many tools out there. First and foremost, you need to be very clear on what you want to achieve and why. Only then, can you effectively map out how the tools can enable you to reach the goals.”

It may sounds obvious but, “unfortunately many companies are still starting from the technology without clearly understanding why it is important to them. Hence, they fail when communicating with their employees.”

So, her suggestion is being very specific and goal-oriented. “That is the foundation of digital employee engagement.”

In that respect, Li thinks that internal communicators have an important role to play. They are in the best position to go across the entire organisation and glue people’s views together.

“They have the permission to gather all the different voices and ideas that spread inside the enterprise. From there, they can start forming a holistic view of the level of employee engagement. Consequently, they can dramatically help the business to create and deliver an impactful strategy.”

Mobile, mobile and mobile

“A lot of engagement now happens outside of the traditional office.”

Indeed, the vast majority of workers today don’t have a fixed desk and desktop. Li likes to talk about “all the people in retail, travel, hospitality and banking for example. Many of them work remotely, while on the go, or in branches dealing directly with the customer.”

Reaching those employees through their mobile devices has become one of the best ways to engage with them in real-time. “It lets the company keep a two-way dialogue despite of the geography. It allows everyone to understand what is going on in the rest of organisation. For instance, by capturing an image or video and quickly sharing it with colleagues from other locations.”

Do you really want engaged employees?

The last but not least piece of advice Li likes to share is to “be very clear on what you, as an organisation, mean by engagement and what kind of relationships you want to build with your people.” She double stresses that as she is convinced that in some cases, especially in more traditional corporations, “companies do not really want engaged employees. Engaged employees challenge you, they ask you a lot of questions and they want to do things differently.”

While this is one of the greatest opportunities for improving the business, “unfortunately, for many organisations that is too much. They cannot cope with that. They end up with asking their people to go back to their normal job.”

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate