Social Networking Tools – To Enable or Disable Access?

October 13, 2008

“If we give our employees access to _______________, they won’t get any work done!”

This is a quote from the director of a department I worked in a loooooong time ago.  I was a Systems Analyst with the N.A.S.D. (they manage the over the counter stock market.)  The year was 1987 and he was referring to the personal computer.  He went on to say “They’d just play games all day and I don’t have time to police it.” 

There were a few open area computers that we all had to share.  So, you’d draft your document on paper, then hope to find an open area computer available.  You’d migrate all your notes etc. to the computer, type and further refine your document.  Then you’d print it and head back to your desk to proof it.  Once proofed, you’d again hope a computer was open and enter your edits.  Then print and back to your desk.  Hopefully, you wouldn’t find an error.  If you did, you’d ask yourself, “does this error really need to be corrected?” before deciding whether it was worth the effort to start the process again.  Needless to say, it was incredibly inefficient. 

Since Apple was one of the major stocks on the NASDAQ, our management decided that our IS department should have one.  Volunteering to house the lone Macintosh (that we purchased at Macy’s) on my desk finally got me out of the open area computer pit.  That was my first experience with my own computer at work and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.  I became known as the person who could process the most work in the shortest amount of time.  My documents looked better than anyone else’s because I didn’t have to spend 20 minutes correcting a typo.  Go figure!

Can you imagine having to share a PC now?

Fast forward to the mid 1990.  The Internet was coming of age, and companies were reluctant to give their employees access.  Why?  Same reason.  Managers didn’t see the value that access to this range of information would have on their employees’ productivity.  They also didn’t want to police usage and were afraid their employees would surf and shop all day when they were supposed to be working. 

It’s 2008 now, almost 2009, and many companies still don’t allow their employees Internet access or dramatically limit the sites their employees can view.  So, it’s no surprise that these and even full-Internet-access-allowing companies shutter at the thought of letting their employees access social networking tools like Facebook and MySpace.

In terms of the potential for a productivity hit, they’re not completely wrong.  You can plan to just take a peek and then spend 30 minutes or more as one curiosity leads to another.  But there will always be potential for distractions.  If your employee can’t manage their time and meet their commitments through any number of temptations and distractions, don’t you have a bigger problem?

Social Networking Tools are how Gen Y communicate.  This is not just a casual connection.  This is a significant part of their lifeline. 

For managers, my strong recommendation is that you allow your employees access to social networking tools for the following reasons:

First, if you don’t, poor economy or not, you will have trouble attracting and retaining this already fickle generation of employees.  Your policy on access to social networking tools will say more about your culture than many other decisions.  To this generation, no access to social networking means a company that “doesn’t get it.”  Whether Gen Y’s recognize it or not, they respect people who understand and embrace new technologies and have less respect for those who don’t.  You might say “I want to do everything I can to assure your productivity and success.”  But, what they’ll hear is “I don’t trust you to exercise good judgment regarding how you spend your work day.”

Second, think about the full scope of what you’re asking them to do in their role with your company.  At some point, you’ll want them to:
 – help you make a sale or do their own sales call
 – recruit their associates into a newly opened position
 – come up to speed quickly on a topic so they can execute a new project
 – quickly uncover best practices as you re-engineer a process
 – etc.
Their first instinct will be to leverage their personal network.  How effectively and enthusiastically do you think they’ll meet those requests if you disable access to the most effective tools they’ve got? 

Third, they all have handheld devices.  They’ll access these tools whether you provide access or not.  Why take the “old fashioned culture” hit, if it won’t stop your employees from accessing the tools during their work day anyway?

Yes, you will need to coach them on security issue boundaries, how to manage their time well, and how to impact the perceptions of senior management (see my earlier blog on Information Sharing Boundaries.)  This is an excellent opportunity to establish a reciprocal arrangement with your Gen Y employees.  You help these employees to use social networking tools in an acceptable way within your organization and have them train you (and others) on all the power of these tools.  That level of respect for what they bring to the table will go a long way in cementing their connection to your organization, not to mention help you learn to use some potentially valuable new tools.

For Gen Y’s, (how do I say this without sounding condescending?) don’t make me sorry for presenting this recommendation.  Muster the discipline not to abuse this access privledge while at work.  Don’t make this a problem for your manager.  A career-launching client recently told me about studying at the library during finals week and noticing that about 80% of the other studiers’ screens were on Facebook.  I’m just going to assume they were taking a short break.  Hmmmmm.  Be respectful of the culture of your organization.

Help others in your organization understand how these are valuable tools for you.  Help them get started using these tools.  Showcase success stories where things you were able to learn about/from “friends” using these tools have positively impacted a project, sales call, recruiting opportunity etc.

You are uniquely qualified to provide a huge value add to your organization by helping them leverage the power of these tools in new, creative and effective ways.  In these difficult economic times, creative thinkers have opportunities to significantly impact their organizations in wonderful ways.  Be part of the solution.

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