Learn to love social network sites

Learn to love social network sites

Many
firms fear social websites will waste staff time. But they can bring
benefits by helping collaboration and the spread of ideas

From The Sunday Times
January 27, 2008

FROM its headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley to its offices
across the world, Cisco Systems revels in the communications revolution
that is being fired by Web 2.0 technology, which aims to facilitate
creativity, collaboration, and sharing between web users.

As well
as encouraging its 65,000 employees to use social-networking sites such
as Facebook and MySpace, Cisco operates its own social network the
Idea Zone or I-Zone for short that allows even the lowliest employee
to invite other employees to respond to an idea.

“It’s pulling
innovation up from the roots of an organisation rather than expecting
it to come down from above,” said Phil Smith, vice-president of
technology and marketing, Cisco Europe. “The new Web 2.0 technologies
are suited more to collaborative environments than to organisations
that operate com-mand-and-control management.”

Cisco may be
relaxed with Web 2.0 and networking it also runs its own version of
YouTube and Wikipedia but many other organisations are unsettled by
it. A study by the British internet-security firm Clearswift recently
revealed that two-thirds of British companies have banned employees
from using social-networking sites.

They
have two concerns. The first is security. They don’t want to run the
risk that sensitive company information will be leaked onto the net, or
they fear that bad publicity on the web could damage the brand. The
second concern is productivity. Half of the HR professionals surveyed
by Clearswift said they had disciplined employees for time wasting on
the internet.

The new networking technology is moving so quickly
that the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has
yet to come up with guidance for members research has just been
commissioned. But Debo-rah Fernon, a CIPD adviser, warns that companies
that turn their backs on social networking could end up throwing out
the baby with the bath water.

“Often a blanket ban is a knee-jerk
reaction,” she said. “We need clear policies about use but I think
there are great opportunities for business in social-net-working sites.
In HR we have to think how we can harness it.”

The trouble is
that HR people know little about the new technology. The Clearswift
research found that one in five HR decision-makers was unfamiliar with
the new networking technologies. Despite the popularity of the
networking sites particularly with younger employees two-thirds of
HR professionals do not use them. In short, many in HR are setting the
rules of a game they don’t understand.

The CIPD restricts its
employees’ access to social-networking sites to lunchtime. Fernon said
firms with a blanket ban might be left behind by competitors. And she
is concerned about the effect on employee engagement. “What kind of
message does a blanket ban send out to staff?”

Cisco’s Smith
agrees. “It’s a trust issue, not a technology issue,” he said, adding
that it also suggests that managers are not managing properly. “Quite
frankly, we keep our people busy enough for this not to present
problems,” he said.

But whatever evangelists like Smith say,
others argue that companies have every right to be wary that social
networking will hurt productivity. Plenty of studies have shown that a
mountain of time is being wasted by employees chatting, shopping and
blogging online. A survey by America Online and Salary. com in 2005
concluded that employees thus engaged were frittering away $760 billion
a year of their employers’ money.

That companies are struggling
with the issue is clear. Last year, the City law firm Allen & Overy
banned its staff from using Facebook only to be forced into an
embarrassing u-turn after an avalanche of employee complaints.

The
company had to e-mail the entire staff acknowledging the strong
reaction and conceding that Facebook was used by many employees for
business as well as social networking. The Allen & Overy network on
Facebook had 700 members.

But when the website Legal-week.com ran
the story, the response from readers was mixed. Some sneered at what
they regarded as craven capitulation by management. Others even
confessed that they wanted a ban on Facebook in their work-place
because they had become addicted to it.

Others make the point
that bans on bringing one’s personal life into work time are a bit rich
when companies now harness the internet to such effect that employees
can never entirely escape from work.

Not everyone sees the line
between business and social matters as distinct. In fact, the line was
blurred long before the internet came along. How many business people
have chugged for years around the golf course, hating it but knowing
that 18 holes is good for business?

Companies like Cisco believe there can be wider business benefits in the links employees form on social-networking sites.

“It’s
a natural human instinct to collaborate,” said Smith. “And Web 2.0
technology can be used to create huge collaborative communities. We
already have companies like Procter & Gamble going beyond their own
research staff and using the InnoCentive network that links 100,000
scientists across the world to come up with new products.”

Procter
& Gamble used this network when it was trying to find a
cost-effective way of printing trivia questions on crisps to boost
sales.

By tapping into this global resource, the company found a
professor in Italy who had devised an ink-jet method for printing
edible dye onto biscuits and the method was adapted to crisps.

It
may seem a million miles away from gossiping on Facebook but for
Smith and others, it’s all part of the networking phenomenon that they
believe is transforming the business world.

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