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:

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:

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:

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).