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Social Networking – An Opportunity or a Threat?


Nothing seems to have exposed the “Fat Controller” tendency in British companies than the introduction of Social Networking. The first reaction has been simple, BAN IT!! Frequently this has been also the second and third reaction as they welcome Social Networking with the same enthusiasm as anthrax spores being introduced into the air conditioning system. Sites such as Facebook, MySpace etc; are derided as “time wasters” as if telephones, water coolers and sterile corporate newsletters and ritualistic away days are time expanders. Where they do take an interest in Social Networking it is to abuse employee’s privacy and trawl sites for personal dossiers. There is no presumption of privacy where employees use corporate systems but if your employer starts trawling for information by deception, for instance by setting up false “friends” on sites which are not accessed from work then they are in legally uncharted and potentially explosive waters.

So instead of getting into control mode should companies not embrace Social Networking within clear guidelines and use it like any other tool to communicate, engage and influence? Is the management task not to engage in knee jerk reactions but the same as any other management issue to examine, to implement and to manage Social Networking within the organisation?

Certainly common sense and an etiquette is needed from employees who must maintain productivity and behave with respect and consideration for others as they would on the phone, email, correspondence or in face to face interactions so there is no excuse for profanity, defamation, bullying, breach of confidentiality or malice in people’s behaviour but Social Networking is no different in this sense but because it is novel some people abandon common sense and forget the basics. But it is also up to companies, in this area as in others to encourage good behaviour and a positive culture. The Celtic Sage argues this is best done by the company itself positively embracing Social Networking along with Blogs, WiKis and developing Collaborative Working and Communities of Practice. Whatever way they go they need joined up policies – not like one company whose Chief Bottle washer updated his Blog on MySpace one March morning last and his company’s firewall blocked MySpace in the afternoon.

One company showing Fat Controller tendencies is Virgin Atlantic which has sacked thirteen staff who labelled customers “chavs” and criticised the maintenance record of the airline’s fleet of Boeing 747s flying from Gatwick. The staff criticised the cleanliness of Virgin’s fleet and of its passengers. All 13 have now been sacked for their comments. Seems staff at Gatwick spend most of their time on Facebook – British Airways staff are also in trouble this for using the public forum to slag off customers. A Facebook group of BA Gatwick ground staff showed they were less than impressed with the opening of terminal 5 at Heathrow and with many of their passengers. One post described passengers as “smelly and annoying” although the biggest complaint was passengers who put their boarding cards in their mouths before handing them over to staff, the Mirror reports. But the airline, so far, seems to have taken a less hysterical route in response. A spokesman for BA told The Register: “We are talking to the individuals concerned about their disappointing and unwise comments which are totally unrepresentative of our staff at Gatwick.”

A recent Demos study (reported by the BBC) suggests companies should not dismiss staff who use social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo at work as merely time-wasters, Attempts to control employees’ use of such software could damage firms in the long run by limiting the way staff communicate, the think tank said. Social networking can encourage employees to build relationships with colleagues across a firm, it added. However, businesses are warned to be strict with those who abuse access.

Firms are increasingly using networking software to share documents and collaborate in ideas, the research found. And while more work-specific systems, such as LinkedIn or bespoke in-house software tended to be used for work matters, the likes of Facebook, Bebo and MySpace still had a place, said Peter Bradwell, a Demos researcher and the report’s author. Banning Facebook and the like goes against the grain of how people want to interact

“They are part of the way in which people communicate which they find intuitive,” he said. “Banning Facebook and the like goes against the grain of how people want to interact. Often people are friends with colleagues through these networks and it is how some develop their relationships.”

Using technology to build closer links with ex-employees and potential customers could also boost productivity, innovation and create a more democratic working environment, Mr Bradwell added. “In today’s difficult business environment, the instinctive reaction can be to batten down the hatches and return to the traditional command-and-control techniques that enable managers to closely monitor and measure productivity.”Allowing workers to have more freedom and flexibility might seem counter-intuitive, but it appears to create businesses more capable of maintaining stability.”

The popularity of social networking showed that there was a desire to connect with others and socialise, said Mark Turrell, chief executive of Imaginatik, which develops bespoke networking software. “Being able to see a photo of colleagues, or knowing what they are up to, can be incredibly useful for businesses, especially if a firm employs thousands of people,” added Mr Turrell, whose firm took part in the study. By focusing the minds of a group of people on a specific task, you can find a solution much more quickly than you would do otherwise

But he argued the use of networking sites “must be tied to a business goal”. He said his customers used the software to set out problems which they faced and then threw them open to employees. “The first people to respond might not know the answer, but they could suggest somebody who does,” he said. “Within a few days, they are able to get enough people from across the organisation with the right expertise to work on it.”And by focusing the minds of a group of people on a specific task, you can find a solution much more quickly than you would do otherwise.”

Younger employees who have grown up with e-mail, mobile phones and social networking want their employers to adapt to new technology, he added, saying this put pressure on older employees to adapt. “The key questions are, how do you get the brightest people to work for you, and then, how do you get the most out of them,” Mr Turrell said. “Organisations need to give their employees physical and virtual space to grow and explore their ideas.”In today’s new world, employees expect and require sophisticated enterprise social networking tools to shine.”

The report’s authors said that clear guidelines needed to be set out about appropriate use of social networking. And there should be no hesitation in telling employees who spent “unreasonable” amounts of time using technology for non-work related activity that their behaviour must change, they added. It is good for companies to be aware of the tensions and look at deploying practical guidelines which will protect the positive impact of networks, not hamper it

Mobile phone and broadband firm Orange, which commissioned the research, is currently building its own in-house social networking platform for staff. “The profile and significance of social networking is increasing now, because of the proliferation of new technologies that enable us to connect to each other in our personal and professional lives,” said Robert Ainger, Orange Business UK. “But it is also good for companies to be aware of the tensions and look at deploying practical guidelines which will protect the positive impact of networks, not hamper it.”

Another study has suggested that Facebook can encourage people to be more sociable. The Cambridge University findings go against other studies which suggest using online social networking sites makes people less social. Researchers discovered Facebook gave people more choice on how they conduct relationships and was “a way of storing biography and enhancing social memory”. The study showed many people used it to track people they liked or to find out what ex-partners were up to.

Members log on to Facebook to look at profiles and pictures because more information can be gleaned from it than a phone call or letter, the study said. But people also used it to keep in touch with old school and university friends who they might otherwise lose contact with. As a result it could change the way people associated at a fundamental level, meaning former relationships and associations can be revived, according to the study. The findings are based on focus groups with students and interviews. More than 15 people took part in focus groups and seven people had in-depth interviews about Facebook lasting several hours.

So the question companies should be asking is should we BAN IT or could you USE IT!

Companies are taking a more proactive approach both to Talent Management and Knowledge Management (KM) and the use of Web 2.0 where companies are attempting to embrace changing trends in the use of World Wide Web technology and web design in a way that aims to enhance creativity, secure information sharing, collaboration and functionality of the web. Web 2.0 concepts have led to the development and evolution of web-based communities and its hosted services, such as social-networking sites, video sharing sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies. As such it encourages positive KM behaviours of finding, using, sharing, managing, creating …..

There are other benefits of using social media over other tools such as capturing history, developing organisational inclusiveness and capacity building. And them what are the alternatives?

• More face to face communication?
• More email?
• Less communication?

Blogs tend to identify those whose ideas are worth listening to and develop effective uses of staff time. Wikis are a development of collaborative writing which is an effective and developing form of Knowledge Capture; an area where most organisations are actually nervous about their abilities. Social Networking is a way of establishing a culture where people recognise how valuable collaborative working can be. The organisations task is to encourage knowledge sharing; finding ways of linking tools directly with staff jobs and priorities. There are risks but they are generally the same risks we have in a more covert form at the moment so what is the worse which can happen?

• Hacking?
• Bullying?
• Silences?
• Confidentiality issues?
• Retention of info for the rest of your working life?

So the Celtic Sage, as you will be clear from the links on the Blog, is clear what side of the debate he is on. Organisations need to treat Social Networking as an opportunity not a threat, to engage and embrace with it and use it positively to drive positive collaborative behaviours as part of their Knowledge Management Strategy. Above all they need to ask themselves the fundamental motivation question in terms of their People; what sort of 21st Century working
Environment is going to attract the best, brightest and most motivated people to our organisation in the future?

Original on Blogger;

David Caldwell

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