Social Networking: A Time Waster Or The Next Big Thing In Collaboration?
Facebook and other social networks in the workplace can suck up employees' time and worse. But managed right, they may be the next breakthrough in business collaboration.
Facebook, the social networking application made popular on college campuses, is increasingly being adopted by businesspeople. College kids use it to organize parties, make friends, share photos, and pursue relationships--but what's any of that got to do with the workplace? How the social networking model is applied to business will determine whether it becomes the next office collaboration tool or the latest Web app to get blocked at the firewall.
Hinting at the potential of social networking at work, thousands of employees of Shell Oil, Procter & Gamble, and General Electric have Facebook accounts. A Facebook network of Citigroup employees--only those with Citigroup e-mail accounts can join--has 1,870 users. Procter & Gamble employees use Facebook to keep interns in touch and share information with co-workers attending company events.
Further evidence of Facebook's rise among the business card crowd: People over 24 are its fastest-growing demographic.
Still, there are reasons for business and technology managers to be wary of Facebook, as well as MySpace, LinkedIn, and other social networking apps. They can sap employee productivity or, worse, be a source of governance violations or breaches of company protocol. A poll by Sophos found that 66% of workers think their colleagues share too much information on Facebook. Forrester Research recently found that 14% of companies have disciplined employees and 5% fired them for offenses related to social networking. No wonder half of companies--Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, UBS, and Lehman Brothers among them, according to Financial News--restrict access to Facebook.
The city of Toronto blocked access to social networking sites four months ago. "There's potential for staff to spend an inordinate amount of time on sites like this," explains a spokesman for the city. "Is it necessary for work?"
Certainly not if you consider that some of the most popular apps on Facebook include fortunetelling and comparing yourself to a celebrity. "A girl in my office and I send each other nonsense and Dane Cook quotes from 10 feet apart," admits one Facebook user.
The trick for businesspeople interested in using social networks and for IT departments that need to monitor and manage access to them is to steer clear of the time-wasting stuff while leveraging the collaborative potential. An InformationWeek Research survey earlier this year found that social networks were used by 48% of compa- nies responding. Uses include viral marketing, recruiting, peer networking, and even emergency coordination and communications.
The tools aren't just those mass-market Web sites: Contact Networks, IBM, Leverage Software, Microsoft, and SelectMinds all sell products that let businesses create internal social networks. Some of these tools also can be used to create communities where customers can interact, like Nike's Joga.com, a soccer-oriented social network.
McDonald's began moving toward social networking after an internal study showed that employees were often looking for colleagues with expertise in certain areas or for authors of information they found useful. McDonald's employees and some partners will soon be able to create their own profiles on the company's Awareness (formerly iUpload) social media platform, from which they can blog and participate in communities.
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