At home improvement retailer Lowe's, executives aren't just focusing on their current employees. They're casting an eye toward the people they'll be hiring months or even years from now.
Andrew Carusone, director of integrated workforce experience at Lowe's, is trying to make sure the company is ready.
To do that, he's deploying enterprise-level social collaboration tools and fostering an atmosphere where employees at the nationwide chain can work together, have open discussions and share information.
"The people we're going to hire today and in the future are home right now doing their homework on Facebook," said Carusone, speaking Tuesday at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. "You call that cheating. They call that collaborating. We need to be ready so they can bring their life to work -- not their work, their life."
The emphasis on collaboration tools at work will be critical. "If we can't do that, the best and the brightest will go work for the competition and they will bury us," Carusone said. "And that is called retirement."
Lowe's uses IBM Connections social networking software. The company has 275,000 active users on Connections, with 10,000 communities. The company has three people working full time as community managers.
In the beginning, both consumers and businesses thought social tools were fun to play with. People wanted to try out blogs, wikis and online communities.
Today, Carusone said companies need to get serious about using social collaboration tools in the workplace.
"The novelty of the technology is starting to fade into the background, and now we can think about how to really use it," he said. "This is going to have a fundamental impact on the way employee strategy is formulated in the company. If we make this work, it's going to fundamentally change the way we embrace our workforce and the way we hire and train employees."
The challenges that companies will have to address include the demands of Generation C, where the C stands for connected. Unlike Gen X-ers and baby boomers, the newest generation of workers -- made up of people under the age of 24 -- grew up with computers, the Internet and social networking, Carusone said.
They will not only expect to use social tools in the workplace -- they will demand it, said Carusone. If they aren't given enterprise-level social tools, they'll use consumer tools like instant messaging, Facebook and LinkedIn.
"They're the connected generation," he added. "It's a completely different animal than what we've ever had.... This has all changed the narrative of how people work."
For instance, at one time companies felt they were on the cutting edge when executives and employees started blogging. Now, those that are ahead of the curve are hosting communities and forums, replacing one-way information streams with venues for open dialogue among employees.
A blog or an FAQ page, according to Carusone, is one person addressing a community. "It's saying, 'Look, we already know what you're going to ask.' It cuts off dialogue." he explained. "A forum is the sweet spot. It's people asking questions and participating and answering each other. It's active listening."
At Lowe's, the company is in the process of changing the old dynamic.
"What's important is that your enterprise lives in your employees," Carusone said. "They have to perform to make our experience come alive, so they have to have a seat at the table."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is email@example.com.