2: Social Technology and the Organization
Before suggesting how social tech might be managed, the author wants to explore how it's already being used in an institutional setting. In some instances, executives have attempted to force its adoption, in others people within the organization has snuck it into the organization.
Setting a Historical Perspective
In the early days of office computing, there was little concern that employees might be wasting time with the equipment: there's really no way to have fun with a mainframe on a dumb terminal that accesses the accounting system. Even the earliest "personal" computers didn't do much - there were some primitive games, but the employee couldn't install them on a work machine without some effort, and without it being obvious to everyone in the office.
Networked computing, and particularly the Internet, made it easier for people to use office computers for non-business uses: an employee can send e-mail messages to anyone (people mailing "jokes" around became an issue), visit Web sites that have nothing to do with business - games, movies, chat rooms, and the like. It's a tempting distraction that's a few clicks away, and some find it difficult to resist.
Most employees recognize that spending excessive amounts of time doing leisure activities in the office is unacceptable, but most also see nothing wrong with checking the sports scores, ordering a gift online, or even participating in an online conversation on breaks and during down-time at their desk. While a few activities (gambling, porn sites, and the like) are plainly unacceptable, most employees do not accept a zero-tolerance policy as reasonable.
A separate issue is the user of work-related tools that are not standardized. IT departments seek to control the tools people can use to do their work because it is cheaper and easier to support. If everyone used a different spreadsheet application, it would be difficult to share data with other employees, and providing technical support would be very difficult - and so, it's best to force everyone to use the same, standard toolset. Prior to the Internet, this was easy to do - but since the Internet, many employees find that "free" software is better for specific tasks than that which the office chooses to provide and support.
The author asserts that "there's a growing realization among enlightened managers that technology is such a powerful enabler ... we're safe in allowing people choose the tools they need to do their jobs." (EN: I am not aware that this is a trend at all, though I have heard of innovative companies where employees are given a budget to buy the system and software of their choosing, this is highly unusual.)
In much the same way, social tech is quietly infiltrating the professional world. Some organizations approach social in a specific way, others leave employees to use it on their own to discover best methods. (EN: My own experience is that firms attempt to provide their own version - they don't let employees use a private blog to talk about their projects, but install an internal blogging server, or try to create an employee directory that is like an internal Facebook. And in most cases, the solutions they offer are badly designed, lack features, and are not sufficiently promoted to gain momentum.)
The author provides a handful of examples of the departments that are leveraging social technology:
- Brand Marketing - This is the area most businesses see as an opportunity for social to provide value. Many firms establish and manage their profiles on social sites such as Wikipedia, MySpace, and Facebook, if only to prevent others from doing so. Some are using these and other sites (Twitter and YouTube) to pump out content that is not sales-oriented, hoping to gain attention, become "viral," or just keep the brand in front of the customers.
- Sales Promotion - For sales, social is a communication channel, for gathering leads, qualifying leads, and reaching out to individuals with promotional messaging.
- Operations - Social resources enable people working on a "team" to communicate and share information, especially when the team members are remotely located (a "virtual team"), and provides a repository of departmental or functional resources for convenience and lateral communication.
- Internal Communication - Companies have found that communicating to their employees via the social sites they use is more effective in communicating information that internal newsletters. For example, announcing that the office will open late due to inclement weather by posting it on Facebook reaches employees and vendors who are not in the office at the time the news is released.
- Networking - For many individuals, social media has replaced the "Rolodex" or address book for maintaining and developing a list of professional contacts, both within their company and outside, which they will maintain even when they leave. Because contacts update their own profiles, the contact list stays current.
- Research - Social tools are an excellent method of gathering intelligence on a wide array of things, including your own firm, employees, vendors, customers, and competitors. Especially in terms of competitors, there never has been a more powerful tool to gather intelligence about them.
- Human Resources - Social sites enable companies to proactively recruit for hard-to-fill positions and do a significant amount of information-gathering on job applicants, including information they would like to use to disqualify candidates but are not legally permitted to ask.
- Crowdsourcing - Many organizations are attracted to the idea of using the community to do work for them that would be costly to pay employees or vendors, and see this as a way to get work done essentially for free. (EN: which is very one-sided, but it is their expectation.)
In general, companies that are successful in leveraging social media are already adept at communicating internally and externally - social just gives them new and more powerful tools to accomplish tasks they are already doing. Companies who find that social creates new tasks for them, things they don't know how to do and are reluctant even to engage in, are often unable to make the leap forward. Just as a word processor doesn't automatically endow a person with the talent and skills of a good writer (it can't even make them a good typist), neither does social technology automatically endow a company with communication and relationship-management skills it had before - though it can, in rare instances, encourage them to develop those skills.
Leveraging or Blocking Social Tech Tools?
The debate over social media in the workplace tends to the extremes: either block them entirely to keep employees from wasting time and safeguarding company secrets, or throw open the gates entirely to allow employees to innovate independently , trusting them to use it discreetly and productively. Neither of these extremes is entirely desirable.
The firms that believe all social tools should be blocked generally base their decision on a misunderstanding of social media: they consider it to be strictly leisure, an inappropriate use of time at the office and cite vague concerns about security. Firms fear it in a larger sense because it gives people access to "the world outside" - to get expert opinions that contradict executive mandates, and to be in touch with other firms that might hire away talented people. In doing so, they allow their fear of abuse to overcome the enthusiasm for the benefits of proper use.
At yet, these outdated mindsets must be accommodated, so long as the older generations who are unfamiliar with the benefits and fearful of the risks remain in positions of authority, so the current "best compromise" many companies have made is to allow access, but set usage policies for what a person may do in the office.
(EN: The problem in this is blurring the lines between public and private use. Can a company really refrain from reacting to a comment the employee made during the weekend? Can it distinguish between conversation with a high-school classmate that appears on a social media profile that also happens to contain professional communications? Can it accept that it has limited authority over a limited sphere of a person's life, and does not own them entirely? Signs point to "no" for distressingly many firms.)
The author provides some loose guidance for making decisions about allowing social media use:
- Consider the job description. A low-level worker who performs routine tasks may not benefit from communication with the outside world, whereas a worker whose functions involve problem solving would benefit from outside sources of information and ideas of others in their position and profession.
- Consider job classification. Hourly employees are paid for their time, and the employer has more of a "right" to control what they do with their time. Salaried employees are paid for their expertise, and five minutes of communicating with others in their profession can "save" several hours of trying to discover something in isolation.
- Consider demographics. The younger your workforce is, the more likely they will respond negatively to a company that seeks to control or intrude upon their use of social, even for non-business purposes. They will generally know what is "not safe for work," but expect their employer shouldn't have a problem if they happen to post or check their feed in-between other tasks or during breaks.
- Consider data sensitivity. An employee who has access to confidential information and customer data will be more tolerant of being cut off from the outside world, and certain industries such as research firms and defense contractors have more reason to be wary. Employees of such firms know and accept this.
- Consider your marketing. The more your firm relies upon reputation and word-of-mouth, the more it makes sense for employees to have open access. Again, trust in employees to know better than to bad-mouth their company or expose unflattering information in public forums, and you'll find that most spread positive word and help to control or squelch dissent and disinformation.
- Consider behavior. If you have employees who don't seem to know right from wrong, and do not know how to behave on the telephone or e-mail, chances are they need to be restricted in their access to social media as well. Be careful not to make a blanket policy that restricts every employee because of the egregious behavior of one individual. Also be aware that the opposite is true: if employees conduct themselves in an acceptable manner using other communication tools, chances are their good habits will be applied to social media.
- Consider customers and partners. If your customers are heavy users of social tools, there is little question that employees who interact with customers should also be able to access them. The same is true of other firms with which your company does business: if your suppliers use e-mail to communicate to their customers, then you as a customer would do well to be reachable. This may be one of the most important factors in making the decision.
- Consider competitors. If your competitors are using social media extensively, you're a step behind them if you do not. If your competitors do not use social media, you can be a step ahead of them by leveraging this medium.
Especially in the age of mobile communications, workers bring their own devices into the office, so you are left with little control (unless you ban personal cell phones in the office - in which case expect a massive objection). You can block social access from the company computer, but not a personal device, and people in an office will not refrain from using it as they "need" to do their jobs well, even if the firm prohibits it.
The author also mentions that forcing people to use social tools is almost as bad a decision as prohibition. You can encourage it, but if you make it compulsory, people will use it poorly, and their reluctance and resentment will show. Even if they do not make a statement that their employer is making them do something they don't want to do, it will come across in their tone, frequency of use, and other factors that are not blatant, but are nonetheless obvious to others that interact with them.
Finally, be aware that there are two methods for blocking access: software and wetware. The software block is the use of computer systems to prevent access to certain sites, which can be done with some degree of granularity, though it takes constant effort to maintain and update a list of "forbidden" sites and pages. It is also more certain - if your network blocks Facebook, no-one on the network can even access the site. The wetware block is policy: there is no software that prevents access, but corporate policies make employees fearful of accessing them. If a company is authoritarian, it can be "successful" in discouraging employees from making any use of social media at all.
Generations, the Organization, and Social Tech
(EN: Scanning ahead, I am a bit put off by the authors inaccurate treatment of the topic of generations in the marketplace and the degree to which he generalizes about people according to their age. Having said that up front, I'll try to refrain from peppering this section with a lot of commentary and counterpoints.)
In general, it can be observed that younger people adopt social technology more readily than older ones. For a person who learned to send a handwritten letters, they still prefer that mode of communication to newer ones; but for a person who began using e-mail, handwritten letters seem quaint, old fashioned, and unnecessary.
However, take care not to over-generalize or conclude that social media is just for teenagers. Demographics suggest that the average age of users of social media is 38. (EN: I think a histogram would be more telling than a single number. My understanding is that it is also popular with retirees - there is a major dip for the Baby Boomer generation, but older and younger groups are more readily adopting.)
That said, the author gives a breakdown of generations:
- Millennial (present age 10-29) - This generation, which never knew the world without the Internet, are completely comfortable with consuming technology, even aggressive in pursuing whatever is new and cool, even though they don't understand quite how it works. Communicating by computer is normal to them, and social is second nature.
- Generation X (present age 30-44) - This generation had personal computers all along, and the Internet came along during their teenage years or early adulthood. They are not as addicted to using technology, but generally seek to understand how it works and what it can do for them before adopting - and if it does something worthwhile, they will adopt. Interacting with people by computer is not uncomfortable, but they still see it as secondary to real-world interactions.
- Boomers (present age 45-59) - This generation was well into their careers before computers came along, and they see technology as an unfamiliar and a bit scary, and feel that the old, analog ways of doing things are best. They will reluctantly adopt technology only when it has been proven out and offers them convenience, but still don't trust in it. Interacting with people by computer is very uncomfortable and they prefer older technology such as voice communication and face-to-face encounters.
- Silent (present age 60+) - This generation was nearing retirement when computers came along, and generally avoided using it at all, even if it meant taking on additional effort to do things the old way. However, since retiring, many are changing their perspective, and finding it helpful to communicate with their children and grandchildren, as well as distant friends. Usage patterns suggest that communicating with people they already know is their primary use of social media - they do not reach out and connect.
From the perspective of the manager, your goal is to encourage the use of technology as a tool that supports business objectives (speed, efficiency, etc.) and, at the same time, help the body of employees reach a happy middle ground in their interactions. The elders will need to adopt some technology to communicate via e-mail with the younger staff, but the younger staff will need to recognize that phone calls and meetings are still the preference of their seniors.
The main danger, in this regard, is that a policy or culture that prohibits or forces anything will accommodate some and alienate others, to some degree. Alienating older workers robs the firm of the benefit of their years of experience, and alienating younger ones effectively ensures the firm has no future. (EN: And while this author focuses on management rather than customer relations, the same theory applies - which affects the company's image and reputation to customers and even prospects of certain age groups.)
A loose idea: the author suggests reverse-mentoring, getting a younger and older employee together so that the older can teach the younger about "the business" and the younger can teach the older about leveraging technology. (EN: Seems like a keen idea, but he provides a suggestion only, no example of whether it has worked for anyone).