In Ken Auletta’s best-seller, Googled, about the massive social and economic changes triggered by the Web, Auletta quotes NYU new media professor Clay Shirky as saying we’re living through such rapid, destabilizing change, that “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”

The change is so wrenching, Shirky says, that when people demand to know how we’re going to “replace” newspapers—and all the other you-name-its getting knocked into irrelevancy or altered by the Web’s tsunami-like forces—“people really are demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution, that the ancient social bargains are not in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it…”

I recalled Shirky’s words while at Justmeans’ Social Media and Stakeholder Engagement conference last week in London; many of the attendees [some from iconic corporate brands, including Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell, Dell, and SAP, among others] provided a rare glimpse of the degree to which social media are creating palpable levels of discomfort inside the modern corporation. Gathering at the 250-year-old, former Whitbread Brewery on the eastern rim of Georgian London, now a conference center, conferees spoke candidly about their scramble to find ways to use social media to win and retain employees, customers, and other stakeholders.

Especially insightful were remarks by Tim Johns, VP of Corporate Communications at Unilever, who said that employee/management communication inside most large companies today “is at an all-time low,” and that new people coming into the workplace “are tuning us out completely.” Johns said this new generation of workers are among the most sophisticated users of media in modern history. “They have multiple interfaces with media and information and listen to what they choose, when they choose and how they choose—and yet the funny thing is, at many organizations, we [in management] forget this.” This is dangerous, Johns said: “Young people have the ability to filter you out. They can put you on mute. They can be looking at you, you can be looking at them, but they are simply not listening and will change the channel whenever something is being said or done that stops interesting them. They do not lose these skills when they come to work.”

It’s “scary,” John said, because “the biggest driver of a company’s reputation is its performance; performance is your people and so therefore, your employee engagement is your reputation.” If your employees are putting you on mute, Johns said, your corporation’s reputation is at stake. Johns said the only place where trust is rising in today’s workplace are on social networks, among so-called “P.L.Us”—People Like Us, one’s peers.

Therefore, Johns said, companies need to start engaging with employees by creating social networks in the workplace that aren’t about controlling the communication but are, instead, about facilitating it. Unilever, for one, has set up MySite “zones” across the organization’s UK operations, what Johns describes as “internal Facebook” sites, where employees with similar interests or skills can “find each other” and collaborate around new projects and solutions. [Do social media in this context fulfill the “knowledge management” goals that corporations have been touting since the Web’s emergence inside the enterprise some 15 years ago?]

There are barriers, Johns said. To be successful, senior managers must “rescue internal communications from the dead hand of HR,” he said. “My hope is that when the revolution comes, HR people will be the first against the wall. The dead hand of HR in most organizations has killed employee engagement. [HR departments] tend to be hierarchical, one-way communicators who want to tell you what’s good for you and force you to accept it.”

Among other highlights:

  • Robert Nuttall, former head of internal communications for Marks & Spencer, the British retailer, said many companies are using social media to be in one-way communication with employees and customers, alike—what he called “telling mode” versus engagement. “On many fronts, there is still a long way to go,” he said. Nuttall said firms that fail to embrace social media do so at their peril. “At some point in the future,” he said, “there will be a point at which companies will be called to account much more harshly than they are now” by their employees, consumers, and activists, and social media are the best way to engage corporate stakeholders as collaborators.
  • Bjorn Edlund, former Executive VP of Royal Dutch Shell, agreed that many companies are struggling in their effort to harness social media. But he urged social media advocates inside corporations “to be stubborn. If you believe in change, you have to fight for it. Ask them to talk to their kids, to realize how the modern world works. Then ask them to come back and reconsider.”
  • Dan McQuillan, Head of Digital, Enterprise UK and co-founder of Social Innovation Camp, said social media are important because they help companies understand what matters most to their customers and employees. Companies need to “make themselves hackable,” he said, and be aware that people will create change with corporate involvement or without it. Self-organized groups are being formed online not so much to fight the Establishment but to build what doesn’t yet exist in society—to fill “a social deficit.” The key, then, for organizations? Use social media to “find, and then be in the [stakeholder] conversations wherever innovation is occurring,” McQuillan said.
  • Ed Gillespie co-founder of Futerra, a consulting company that has worked with corporations from McDonald’s to L’Oreal on their sustainability initiatives, urged his corporate peers to use social media to help “create sizzle” among employees about the company’s “do-good” work. “It’s about selling the sizzle, about focusing on what gets people internally really excited,” Gillespie said. “It’s about using social media to generate social proof that this thing you’re working on has meaning.” He said it’s like the story about the hot dog salesman in the States, who tells a customer that he is not selling the sausage, but the sizzle—the aroma, the smell, the excitement. Gillespie added: “If you’re not selling the sizzle of sustainability, then it’s like the hot dog salesman says; you’re just selling a dead pig.”

How extensively does your company use social media in the workplace? What observations can you share about companies that do? Let us hear from you.