05/10/11

By Dr. Magda David Hercheui, Senior Lecturer in Project Management at Westminster Business School

Organisations and researchers alike are dubious about the impact of social media in work environments. Some reports show that employees interact too much through social media channels, affecting their concentration and consequently reducing work productivity and quality. Other reports emphasise the benefits of social media in many areas, for building better relationships with customers and potential clients, to allow more collaboration and even innovation.

This article focuses on discussing this topic, exploring how to reduce some of the risks of overusing social media, and emphasising the positive aspects that may be exploited in organisations, to have greater benefits for more interaction among employees, customers and suppliers.

Too much interaction

The excessive use of social media in workplaces is becoming a matter of fact. Some companies are coping with the problem by simply prohibiting employees from using social media through corporate platforms. Although this is very effective in one level, we cannot forget that a substantial number of these professionals have smart phones and other devices connected to the Internet, with unlimited access to social media content. Thus employees may circumvent the limitation by using their own communication channels when they are not under direct scrutiny of a manager.

In addition, such policy of prohibiting social media limits the legitimate use of these channels in situations that could benefit the organisation. Even if the organisation allows some to have access, to fulfil particulars aims, this will require creating access rights for specific social media, generating a further level of complexity for the information technology team, and potential conflicts about who has access and who has not.

Overall, the idea of controlling access is grounded on the perception that the quality of the work depends on enforcing a particular way of behaving in the workplace. The problem about this perception is that many controlling mechanisms depend on managers to enforce a particular behaviour inside the organisation. Some would say, however, that more qualified workers do not react positively to strict controls and that the best way of having better results from employees would be to measure outputs vis-à-vis the job description and reward systems. Controlling only outputs avoid costs of management and keeps employees happier, feeling that they are trusted and have the freedom to work in their own way.

Taking these arguments into consideration, I would not recommend policies prohibiting social media use in work environments. Rather, firstly I would recommend organisations to have a clear way of measuring outputs and giving feedback, which is good practice to ensure better results in general. Secondly, I would have a clear policy for the use of social media in the work environment and beyond. Although everybody has access to social media, this Internet mediated communication in public spaces is still something very new. People are using social media for their private conversations, often not realising either the benefits they could have from using these channels more professionally, or the risks of damaging their reputation and the reputation of the company through an inappropriate use of social media channels.

Companies must, therefore, strike a good balance between freedom and education around social media, which may deliver better results than strictly controlling social media channels. The combination of more efficient forms of results measurements and clear policy will help employees to choose a better balance in the way they use their work time in general and their interaction through social media.

Fostering collaboration and innovation

There are many possible benefits of using social media in organisational environments. Companies may use social media to improve public relations and marketing activities, for instance, or more directly to give better service to customers. However in this article I want to call special attention to the potential use of social media for fostering
collaboration and innovation.

Companies around the world, in different industries and of different sizes, are reporting that adopting the correct social media strategy has brought positive results in fostering more collaboration and innovation. This aspect is particularly important considering the competitive environment companies face nowadays.

Certainly many factors contribute to obtain these results. Let’s focus on two aspects that have a positive impact in organisations using social media, independently of their size: having friendly virtual environments to foster collaboration, and being able to open space to non-routine conversations and feedback which can foster innovation.

Firstly, social media channels are usually used as tools for knowledge management. Through social networks, for instance, employees may have access to experts, inside and outside the company. Through forums, blogs and Twitter, employees have more access to knowledge and information and have the possibility of entering in conversation with experts.

One can imagine that in the past these conversations would happen in private spaces through restricted channels. Nowadays, relevant content is available publicly for those that invest time to use the channels and to interact with the correct people. Even within organisations, social media channels have the advantage of being very easy to use, mainly not requiring training, as opposed to some more sophisticated and expensive knowledge management tools. To a certain degree, social media democratises the access to knowledge management techniques, allowing any company to develop collaborative spaces without investing in new technological infrastructures.

Secondly, it is a matter of fact that innovation comes from a variety of channels. Social media provides the perfect environment to permit people to brainstorm with colleagues, customers and suppliers, and others, about many different topics. Many companies are reporting cases in which customers have driven innovation: in realising the inefficiency of a product or service, customers give interesting suggestions for improvement, if they have the channels to communicate through and they feel that their opinion is taken into consideration.

Social media permits any company to use different channels mostly for free to build virtual environments or to participate in online spaces of interaction. Access to expert knowledge is more available today than ever, but one needs to invest time to obtain the potential benefit of the interaction.

Concluding thoughts

I have chosen these topics because they somehow are contradictory. Excessive use of social media may reduce productivity and focus is important to guarantee efficiency and quality. However, it is also true that companies which allow time for using social media are reaping the benefits in terms of having more enhanced collaboration and innovation. Trying to domesticate the social media space through excessive control of employees’ time may be efficient in the short term; however, those companies that are focusing more on results and incentives are gaining better outcomes in terms of having more collaboration among stakeholders and innovation in the long term. Such positive results bring competitive advantages, and companies that take this approach will see better outcomes in the long term.

About the author

Dr. Magda David Hercheui is Senior Lecturer in Project Management at Westminster Business School, editor of New Media Knowledge (http://www.nmk.co.uk/), a knowledge hub specializing in digital and social media, and a consultant in the area of digital and social media. She has a PhD in Information Systems and an MSc in New Media from the London School of Economics.