By Max Clarke

The power of social media to rapidly organise large groups of people — evidenced by the recent England riots and the subsequent clean up - presents new challenges for industrial relations as well as public order.

A new report from employment relations experts Acas shows that social networking has already directly influenced how some industrial disputes have been conducted.

"Social media is already changing the conduct of industrial disputes,” says Acas Chief Conciliator, and co-author of the report, Peter Harwood.

“The spread of digital activism leads to a bigger impact, but it also presents trade unions, employers and the authorities with more volatile demonstrations and means it's tougher to control action that involves disparate but well organised groups.”

The accessibility and speed of tools such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook mean that workers can be mobilised more quickly than ever. They can also make it easier to collaborate with other campaign or interest groups.

The report Social media and its impact on employers and trade unions cites the East Lindsey Refinery disputes where much of the organising was done via websites, such as shopstewards.net and SMS / text messaging. This enabled a local dispute to spread to over 20 other construction sites across the country overnight.

Protests by UK Uncut and anarchists during the TUC demonstration in March of this year saw large amounts of organising and campaigning carried out through social media.

"Social media can pose new problems,” continued Harwood, “but the solutions are still from the old school - prevention is better than cure. It is essential that employers, managers, and trade union representatives improve communication and engagement, so that potential issues that may cause conflict are aired and listened to and early action taken."

The paper also says that parties involved in Acas talks must be able to have free and open discussions without the details being broadcast more widely. Inappropriate use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook can threaten this traditional stronghold of privacy.

"Many organisations are now beginning to use social media tools to engage with their workforce,” adds the report’s co-author, Stuart Smith.

“However,” he notes, “the adoption of this varies from organisation to organisation and from function to function. Corporate functions such as HR have often been slower to grasp the implications of social media on their world than say marketing or communication departments."

The paper, with its focus on social media and collective industrial relations, follows a research report commissioned by Acas and published last week.

Workplaces and social networking - the implications for Employment Relations was written by the Institute for Employment Studies and focused on employee use of social media and managers' response.

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