“Facebook? I use that every day. Who needs to be trained in it?”
Employee sentiment like that has become the stuff of nightmares for companies. Why? As businesses race head on into the social media arena, the modern workforce is still ill-equipped to help unlock its enormous value.
An estimated three-quarters of consumers now say social media influences their buying decisions. Nearly 90 percent of US companies are using Twitter, Facebook and other networks—all jockeying for their share of the estimated $1.3 trillion in value that social media stands to unlock.
So as social media races ahead, formal training and education programs are lagging. A meager 12 percent of the 2,100 companies in a 2010 Harvard Business Review survey said they’re using social media effectively. More recent research by Capgemini and others show that confidence gaining only incrementally.
Reports of social media gaffes and blunders in the workplace are still prevalent. (Remember that US Airways social media disaster?) Meanwhile, the real price of the skills gap often goes unnoticed-billions of dollars in missed opportunities and lost revenue.
So, what’s behind the growing social media skills gap?
The clearest culprit is the breakneck proliferation of new platforms and features. Around a year ago, Snapchat was still a toy for teens to trade disappearing messaging; today it’s the latest way to reach young customers on their own turf. As platforms incorporate more sophisticated features, even the most plugged-in users are struggling to keep up.
At the same time, how social media is used in the workplace is fundamentally changing. Just a few years ago, it was the domain of specialized social media managers, the gatekeepers who owned a company’s public face on the leading platforms. In a short time, however, social media duties have been radically democratized and decentralized. The number of job descriptions on employment search sites mentioning social media skills is booming.
Since then, employees have been asked to use social media in numerous and unfamiliar ways. The standard marketing functions are just the tip of the iceberg. Social media tools are being used to streamline customer service, drive sales, improve HR processes, and build employee brand advocacy programs.
Meanwhile, platforms like Facebook at Work (in beta now and expected to roll out this year) and Slack (which boasts millions of users, from NASA to your corner coffee shop) are quickly changing how workers collaborate. By bringing social media messaging inside the office, these technologies are breaking down silos and boosting productivity. Social media is no longer a discrete thing that certain people do in certain jobs, but more of an integral component of work itself.
That approach works only if employees are on board and up to speed. “The real problem is that we expect people to know these skills without providing any training,” says William Ward, professor of social media at Syracuse University. Social media know-how isn’t something you pick up as a casual user, and it isn’t just older employees who are in the dark-millennial hires need training, too.
“Because somebody grows up being a social media native, it doesn’t make them an expert in using social media at work,” Ward says. “That’s like saying, ‘I grew up with a fax machine, so that makes me an expert in business.'”
How do we fix the problem?
Bridging this social skills gap is no small task. In the long term, social media coursework is slowly being incorporated into university programs, and not just for students pursuing marketing and communications degrees. Here at Hootsuite, for instance, we’ve developed a social media syllabus that’s now being used by 30,000 students in more than 400 universities worldwide. Programs such as these offer a foundation of social media skills for the workplace and may one day be as commonplace as introductory college writing and computer skills classes.
What about employees struggling with the growing demands of online business? The good news is that companies are beginning to acknowledge social media literacy as a vital job skill (just as Internet and basic computer literacy once were) and are starting to offer on-the-job training programs.
Altimeter reports that almost half of the companies it surveyed plan to roll out some kind of internal social education program for employees, while overall spending on corporate training is on an upswing, rising 15 percent, to $70 billion, in the U.S. in a recent year.
The challenge, of course, is how to teach social media in such a mercurial environment. In the last year alone, for instance, we’ve seen the rise of “social video” and a whole new crop of one-to-one messaging apps, while Twitter has struggled to reinvent itself.
Few employees have time for in-depth courses or boot camps. Ultimately, the ideal training solution must be on demand and mobile-friendly. Currently, some of the best paid options are coming not from traditional educational sources, but from companies immersed in social and digital media, offering real lessons from the front lines. (Hootsuite’s own online course, Podium, is one free alternative.)
Ultimately, though, any investment in upgrading social media skills in the workplace is likely to be money well spent. A whopping 2 billion people (nearly a third of the planet’s population) are now on social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other networks aren’t going away. Doing business via social media has become business as usual. Social media budgets for businesses are expected to double in the next five years.
To avoid throwing good money after bad, organizations must ensure that their employees know how to use emerging social media technologies. Those that succeed in closing the social media skills gap will discover new ways to reach and retain customers, engage and recruit employees, and boost productivity. Those that fail will miss out on their chunk of a multitrillion-dollar pie and might not be around long enough to regret it.
A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn.