UK firms still convinced networking affects productivity
Love it or loathe it, it seems there is no getting away from Facebook. With over 17 million users in the UK, the popular social networking tool is now the second most-visited website after Google UK, and according to internet monitoring firm Hitwise, Facebook and other social networking sites—such as MySpace and Twitter—now account for over 10 per cent of all internet visits.
But according to many company directors, the rampant popularity of social networking is no reason to allow employees to spend their working hours arranging their social lives, "poking" their friends online, or "throwing sheep" at them. Indeed, as many as two-thirds of organisations ban their employees from using social networking sites during business hours, according to recent research conducted by the London Business School and employee engagement specialist You at Work.
Car hire firm Enterprise Rent a Car restricts employees from using social networking sites, whether they're in the company's European headquarters in Egham or in any of its 300 branch locations across the UK. "The impact on productivity is a potential concern. I do think social networking has a tendency to suck people in and become quite addictive, so to put parameters on it makes sense," says Donna Miller, human resources director at the company.
Likewise, at recruitment company Adecco, managers decided early on that to attempt to keep track of individual employee use of social networking sites wasn't the most workable way to address the situation, according to CIO Mike Clark. "To keep things fair across the whole of our workforce, we instead decided to limit access."
This is less to do with security, he adds, and more about "helping employees to give the best that they can to our clients at all times".
"Right now, we believe that it is vital for every business to be providing a first-class service, and that needs focus and dedication right the way through the working day," he says.
It's not a question of Adecco's management being "Luddites or technophobes", he stresses. "We steer people away from using what we believe to be social tools during working hours, [but] we actively encourage them to use those which can help us compete and grow," he says. These include LinkedIn, which consultants use to identify new business leads and candidates.
At Human Recognition Systems (HRS), a provider of biometric technology to government, airline and construction organisations, CEO Neil Norman doesn't ban social networking sites, but he does limit access to them. Employees are permitted to access these sites over lunch (from midday to 2pm) and before and after business hours. "We run a working environment based on trust and on valuing employees, and our workers understand their professional responsibilities, but you'll always find someone who doesn't follow the rules," he says.
Likewise, at PR agency Mediajems, director Jenna Gould bans employees from using Facebook "because it is primarily a social thing, so [people] are likely to be chatting to friends", but does allow them to use Twitter, Ecademy and LinkedIn, on the basis that these are "business-related social networking functions, which can be used to enhance the brand, bring in new clients and improve client/agency relations."
Facebook's potential impact on employee productivity would appear to be the primary concern of employers. In recent research conducted by BT and The Work Foundation, this was the reason given by 54 percent of companies that banned or restricted employees using it, alongside doubts about social networking sites' real business value (52 per cent) and concerns about security (40 per cent).
But there is another way to look at social networking, insists Jon Mell, senior consultant with enterprise social computing consultancy Headshift. It's a pity, he says, that many organisations continue to focus on the "social" aspects of primarily consumer-targeted tools such as Facebook and MySpace, rather than the value that internet-based networking can bring to a company in terms of sharing knowledge, collaborating on projects and identifying expertise among their colleagues.
Headshift works with companies such as law firm Allen & Overy and chemicals firm BP Aromatics and Acetyls to identify how the general principles and mechanisms embodied in social networking tools can be harnessed by organisations to foster collaboration and boost productivity, within the confines of their own firewalls and without any apparent risk to productivity, network security or brand reputation.
"Social networking can be a powerful force for transformation, helping companies and their employees to get a grip on 'knowing what they know'. It's a question of finding the right tool that fits neatly into your employees' workflow to support the exchange of ideas and information between contacts," he adds.
Indeed, that's the argument put forward in Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom, written by two professors from the business school INSEAD. In it, co-authors Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Dutta outline how, behind the scenes at some of the world's most powerful companies, a quiet revolution is underway. Already, companies such as General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Shell and Airbus, they say, are using social networking to transform the way they feed their own "collective intelligence".
"The Web 2.0 revolution has been frustrated by a powerful irony," says Fraser. "The one place where Web 2.0 tools hold out the most promise to transform social organisation is precisely the location where there has been the most resistance to change—and that place is within businesses." In fact, he warns, faced with current economic realities, many businesses may have no choice but to embrace social networking in some form, if they are going to remain innovative and competitive.
Those that fail to heed that call could also find it increasingly difficult to attract the cream of the next generation of workers who have grown up on this form of communication, according to Bruce Rayner, CEO of You at Work. What message does banning Facebook send out to Generation Y? "Employers risk alienating their most engaged workforce and their brightest young talent by imposing arbitrary controls on technology they don't understand," he says. "They would be better off trying to understand what it is that makes social networks such an integral part of young workers' lives and embracing it in a way that meets the needs of all parties."
Posted 25 February 2009 : Director.co.uk