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Why corporate India should embrace employee use of social networks
Mar 17, 2010 Published in the medium 2.0
Keywords: business, corporate, marketing, policy, social media, social networking
Corporate India seems to be struggling to come to terms with its employee's use of social media. A press release from The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) gives a clear statement on the issue. They view the use of social media during working hours as a significant threat to productivity claiming that the average corporate employee is working 7 hours a day rather than 8 because of Internet use.

In a blogpost on the ASSOCHAM press release India Insights refutes the main assumptions of ASSOCHAM. Their main points are that ASSOCHAM is assuming without basis that,
  • Employees are only working 8 hours a day
  • There is no benefit to the company from employee social networking

These are valid points and are worth looking at in more detail as these assumptions are often the foundation stones of corporate mistrust of employee social networking.

The human component of social networking at work

It makes for easy management to see employees as predictable and orderly units in a scalable system. Life would be much simpler if people could work at a steady and predictable pace for set spans of time. Unfortunately this is seldom how things function in practice. People don't sit down at the beginning of their working day and proceed at a consistent pace, stopping only for scheduled breaks, until the end of the working day. Everyone has cycles of attention and if social networking activity is filling a less productive cycle then less output than might be predicted is lost.

There is also the issue of working time in the corporate working environment. In a 2008 study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) it was found that 22% of the workforce was exceeding 48 hours/week at work and while there were no figures specific to India the time at work in developing nations tended to exceed 48 hours by twice the average. In the modern corporate environment most work is done on a task rather than a time basis with employees often working to complete tasks as needed.

Workers are people and remain so while at work with all the concerns and interests they have before they get to their desks. Recognising this and incorporating it into your working culture can have significant benefits. People chat, and allowing them to communicate with people they want or need to easily and quickly helps to keep them happy making their next working cycle significantly more efficient. Happy employees,

There needs to be balance to this. It makes no practical sense to allow employees to do only what they want to all day long, but forcing this activity underground does not eradicate the issue. People taking "toilet breaks" to send SMS to friends or hiding Facebook in a browser page every time they hear a footstep are not working efficiently. Allowing them to complete the communication and move on brings significant efficiency savings.

Bringing this issue of social networking at work out of the shadows also allows it to be managed and discussed. A proscribed process can't be acknowledged easily and can lead to an ineffective adversarial relationship. By allowing the activity within limits you can create a working environment that is both happier and more efficient.

Advantages to the company of employee social networking

Mitigating the loss of attention and time is not the only reason to allow social network use at work. With a clear policy on how these tools should be used and a culture of discussion to reflect the novel and developing nature of these networks there can be significant advantages to the company.

Social network communication works most effective when the messages are credible. There is a place for corporate accounts but the power of the impression made by an individual with a history of engagement on many topics mentioning a service, innovation or success of your company will be much greater than a corporate account can muster. The aggregate impression of many employees posting status updates, links and blogs can be extremely powerful.

This approach has been taken with great success by IBM. They have no corporate blog or Twitter account but they do have,
  • 17,000 internal blogs
  • Thousands of employees on Twitter
  • 200,000 employees on LinkedIn

Your employees are a significant asset, enabling them tell their networks about their work can bring a powerful marketing advantage to your company. Marketing is not only the work of a specific department it is something that can happen every time someone associated with your company engages with a member of the public. It is this power that companies like IBM and Dell are leveraging to their advantage.

One of the best things about this approach is that there is very little investment required. Your employees have already built their networks and will maintain them anyway. All you need to do is to recognise the power of this resource and to enable its use for your benefit. To do this effectively it is important to have an effective social media policy.

Guiding social network use with a company policy

A good social media policy will empower rather than limit your employees. If you tie them in knots and create a climate of fear over what to broadcast you will loose the advantages possible. Alexandra Samuel gives a very useful guide to creating an open cooperative policy in the Harvard Business Review.

As this is an emerging medium best practices are emerging and often elusive. Due to this it is most effective to work with guidelines rather than hard and fast rules and to incorporate the views of your employees who use the media in their creation.

It is important not to choke off this channel of communication by over-regulation. Supporting best practice and encouraging your employees to get involved in helping each-other use social media well has proved very effective for many companies. There is a very useful directory of policies maintained by Social Media Governance.

Stepping back from adversity to advantage

There is an opportunity for the Indian corporate community to take advantage of the emergence of social media. While doing so will require a small release of control it has the potential to make use of a powerful existing resource its employees use of social media.

Recognising that this resource is there and allowing it to become part of corporate culture can be of great benefit in creating productive and happy employees. It brings an existing practice out into the open where it can be discussed and guided to become a useful instrument for the company.
By Ruben Kenig
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