Social Notworking?

I know this is old news, but I wanted to use this research from Nucleus Research as a starting point for some thoughts on the pros and cons of social networking within the business sphere.

Firstly, I hate the term “social notworking”. It’s a bad, bad gag and not worthy of anyone who has any knowledge in the area. I use it only for ironic effect. Forgive me, I’ll try not to let it happen again.

The argument is not a new one: that social networking websites can damage productivity. In the same sense that too much aspirin will give me ulcers, as well as helping remove my headache, it’s difficult to deny this statement. Spending too much of your time doing anything can be unproductive, the key – regardless of the activity – is to keep a mental eye on yourself at all times and question whether what you’re doing is worthwhile. I don’t believe that employees are generally encouraged to do this in quite such straightforward terms, and perhaps therein lies the problem.

Nucleus Research’s research on productivity loss as a result of Facebook usage by employees makes for strange reading. For a start, it only discusses Facebook  in any depth, only gathers data on Facebook, yet clearly Facebook is not the only game in town when it comes to social networking tools. You can read their full report here. The upshot is that they found, from interviews, that on average employees who access Facebook at work spend around 15 minutes a day on the site. You can view their maths – they arrived at a sum of just under 1.5% productivity loss as a result of Facebook.

It would be nice to see a bit more of the method here:

  • A decent sample set of employees was chosen at random, but it’s not clear whether this was spread across all industries.
  • It’s not stated what the average length of a day worked was, nor how this compared to the contracted hours. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t work more than their contracted hours.
  • No consideration is given to whether the time spent on Facebook would otherwise genuinely have been “productive”. Time spent not working on anything of use to your company is clearly unproductive to your employer, which is the point here, but anyone who’s ever had a job will say that if anyone thinks 100% of the day is productive then they’re clearly barking mad.

It’s the final point which really causes me to be dubious about Nucleus Research’s conclusions. It takes only a few moments of Googling to find opinions on productivity in the workplace – this one came first in my one and only search – no prizes for finding more. Productivity /= time spent working. In fact, often a bit of time spent distracted from work will help rest your mind and allow greater concentration when you pick it up again.

Clearly, it’s important to pick it back up again.

Then to some maths. Facebook’s big, but MySpace is still pretty big too. Then there are Yahoo groups, Twitter of course, LinkedIn, and a dozen others worthy of note (except I won’t, sorry). Let’s be generous and say there are 5 big social networking websites out there, including Facebook, which can all steal an average of 15 minutes of roughly half the workforce. That’s an average of an hour and a quarter lost for each of half the workforce. It seems pretty hard to swallow. BUT if it’s true, then how come the world has not noticed a significant reduction in “stuff happening”?

The answer is pretty obvious. This loss of productivity only appears in a maths equation in a paper. It’s not real. I hope I’ve said it enough – it’s very possible to lose productivity to Facebook, Twitter, or the pages of Hello magazine for that matter. But that “productivity” is lost already, it’s just the form that we’re looking at.

Improving productivity in the workplace is a whole other subject, which absolutely will include refocusing of minds.

So here’s the flip side. Social networking can improve productivity.

I’m not going to run a study to prove it, but I will justify that statement. Firstly, Nucleus Research also say the same thing. The tools themselves can be used to further the ambitions of the business – through marketing, customer research, and customer relations. But they can also be used to further the ambitions of the individual, and that – in many cases – will be to the advantage of the employer. Not always, but that’s why you hire good people and fire bad ones – right? You get people you trust, give them an atmosphere where they can thrive and add value to your business, and let them get on with it.

In “33 million people in the room“, Juliette Powell argues that the same logic that applies to well-connected CEOs applies to the rest of the workforce too. Being known, being respected by peers inside and outside the company, and in turn knowing about others and their work, will improve almost any role. Even just using these tools to chat to like-minded people – nothing to do with work – can bring unexpected benefits to the employer. Certainly, it can’t be any worse than Hello magazine.

Clearly, being the idiot who posts pictures of his bare arse for all the world to see is not clever. Even this, though, benefits the employer. Never has it been so easy to spot the people who might find a better position… elsewhere.

It’s a new challenge for every employer. To appreciate the value that social networking could bring, and to guide employees in what is appropriate, and what is not, in order to achieve even a piece of that value. Don’t block or police social networking use within your business, embrace it and guide it.

It’s a new challenge for every employee. To reach out to other people and share knowledge, be it big ideas or small-minded jokes. Amongst it all, keep that mental eye on your activities.

Just remember, it’s not only your friends who are listening.

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About mikbarne
I'm a writer and freelance communications and collaboration consultant with nearly 20 years experience in UK telecommunications, specialising in VoIP, Unified Communications and Collaboration, and building effective communications architectures. Visit my Google+ Profile

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