IT Leadership


Social Networks at Work: If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

We live in interesting times. According to Gartner Research VP Robert Anderson, if all the people on the MySpace virtual community banded together, they’d form the eighth largest country in the world. Never before in history could people create such large communities and communicate so readily as they can today, thanks to the social networking environment. New Web 2.0 technologies are changing the course of history and are certainly changing the way we work and play.

My kids and most of my younger work colleagues love social networks such as Facebook. It’s where they network, mentor, empathize, sympathize, encourage and amuse each other. My octogenarian mother also likes Facebook because she can see at a glance what is going on with the family (scattered around the world), without writing letters or waiting for them to call.

Just last month, Facebook reported it had more than 80 million users, 6 million active user groups, and over 55,000 business-related, college and regional networks. They also indicated that their fastest growing demographic was people 25 years and older — meaning people in the workplace.

New Perspectives

The up-and-comers in today’s business world that embrace social networks have a different attitude about work than previous generations. To them, work must balance with the rest of their lives and their aspirations. The workplace must offer an opportunity to learn and grow, but also to take care of and satisfy their social needs and their self esteem. They use today’s communication tools to integrate these other priorities into their work lives, and it actually makes them more productive.

Yet many business owners and managers still question whether employees’ use of social networking software and online communication tools at work is good or bad. As the CEO of a technology company with a workforce mostly under 40, I also questioned whether I should ignore it, prohibit it or encourage it. Eventually, I concluded that I need to encourage it, even embrace it. Tools are emerging that enable businesses to leverage social networks for online training and learning — giving companies a compelling way to bring social networks into the workplace fold.

Engage Employees on Their Terms

I had an amusing discussion with a customer prospect recently — a small-sized financial institution that was interested in training entry-level employees via the Web. We proposed the use of Facebook as an authentication and learner management system, given all the built-in capabilities the site offers. Their immediate reaction was, “No way do we want our employees spending work time on Facebook” — a common perspective in today’s business world

After a little research, however, we discovered that the company’s employees had already formed a group on Facebook, and 1,100 of their 1,600 workers were members. The management team was not only excluded from the community, but they were completely unaware that a community even existed. Often companies such as this one spend a fortune on programs to try and force their people into a contrived “corporate culture” that looks nothing like what the organization’s employees want.

My experience has shown that social networks deliver in several ways. First, they keep the most clever and creative staff members happy in their work, because they can multi-task, manage their lives, consult their peers, and feel somewhat free while spending long hours at their desks. Secondly, social networks facilitate the “informal learning” that is so crucial in any business environment, particularly in the world of high tech. The added bonus is that the subject matter experts are not limited to the people immediately at hand; they can be anywhere in the world, and they often are.

By now you can see my bias toward the idea that it’s easier — and makes more business sense — for companies to join the social networking trend than to try to beat it. But concerns around issues of security and lost productivity remain, which are worth addressing.

Will Social Networks Make My Business Less Secure?

Some executives worry that social networks enable the dissemination of proprietary information — another reason why it’s better to know about and even participate in groups set up for or by your employees. If your people know that you’re part of the same network, they’re not likely to violate corporate policy.

But let’s face it, there are a hundred easy ways to perform security breaches with today’s portable storage media. The reality is that tools such as Facebook are significantly more secure and easier to control than most corporate software environments. The stakes are higher for these sites, and the potential for abuse has been addressed more diligently. The concern for a lack of security stems from CIOs and managers who aren’t familiar with social networks and don’t trust what they don’t know.

Will Social Networks Make My Employees Less Productive?

In my experience, it does quite the opposite. Because it keeps people in constant touch with their entire world, including family, friends, mentors and workmates, it allows them to deal with life and work issues as they arise and to keep focused on the task at hand instead of thinking about something they have to deal with “on their own time” and are therefore distracted by.

The informal learning and mentoring opportunities that social networks present are enormous and can enhance productivity. If we want to command the focus and attention of today’s multi-tasking workforce to be constantly creative or productive during office hours, and sometimes expect them to respond to emergencies after hours, then we must relax the old-fashioned, top-down style of management and empower people to juggle their own priorities. Allowing access to the social network gives them a strong sense of being free and in control of their lives. The concern is whether they will use the freedom responsibly. In my experience, being there on the network with them ensures that they will and enriches the relationship.

Finally, we must ask ourselves whether we can really stem the tide even if that is our preference. I can remember the companies that thought personal computers would be a bad thing to introduce into the workplace, as would e-mail, instant messaging and cell phones. All of these things have become integrated into our working lives; for better or for worse, we have adapted, and those who have embraced these technologies have become more productive. Social networking has become a reality we must live with. So I reiterate that I’d rather be included in the network, influence its tone and direction, take advantage of it for both formal and informal learning and communication, and use it to keep myself abreast of the real world in which my colleagues and employees are living and working.

Roger Mundell is CEO of Udutu, a developer of tools that enable businesses to leverage social networks for online training and learning.

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