It's about people not the technology

SimonGeneral7 Comments

I’ve seen a fair amount of commentary recently about social networking sites, in particular Facebook, being banned from many workplaces. This article from the Telegraph is fairly typical of the coverage I’ve seen, and the BBC has a longer commentary piece on the issue here.

I am experiencing a mild feeling of deja-vu here. It’s just under ten years since I left university and landed my first job as a graduate marketing trainee at Boots. At that stage email and internet access were just becoming common at work – and I remember a fair amount of controls being implemented for what sites we could visit.

The motivation for these seemed to be an underlying assumption that visiting websites was a non-productive activity and could only be relevant to work in the minority of cases.

Thinking about that now makes that assumption seem ridiculous. The internet is an integral part of most working days now and is accepted as such in most organisations. I can’t help thinking that in a few years time we’ll look back on social networking site bans and see them in the same way as I view the internet controls back at Boots.

Posts on this topic have generated some interesting debate on the blogs of Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz.

But what’s really interesting me is that with access to technology tools at work, it’s not usually the technology that is “bad”, “subversive”, “time-wasting” (substitute your complaint of choice) – it’s the people.

Facebook doesn’t waste time, some people waste their time at home or work using it. Tackling the tool is missing the point – it’s the people and the culture that allows them to feel able to waste time that need addressing.

Closer to home I spotted this story about a university librarian being bullied via Facebook. Now I’m not condoning what the librarian experienced and I have a lot of sympathy for him – a group of students set up a Facebook group that was used to trade insulting and threatening messages about him on the web.

But the point again is that these bullies would probably have acted in the same way had Facebook not existed – it’s just the sniggering, innuendo and threats would have taken place in a different context.

Technology makes banning access to selected websites very simple. However if organisations are serious about addressing the issue then they need to think more about the root causes of the problem and how they can be addressed culturally, rather than opting for the technology quick fix.

[tags]facebook, bbc, telegraph, neville+hobson, shel+holtz, bullying, policies, HR[/tags]

7 Comments on “It's about people not the technology”

  1. Funily enough we had quite a heated debate about this sort of thing on our IC blog a few weeks back. People get very worked up about it!

    I think the issue of control is central to this for IC – social media celebrates freedom and individuality, but these are not traits that matter in every workplace. For legitimate reasons, some employers want to control what is said at work and they are nervous about tools that are outside their grip.

    In the past, it was employers who paid for the intranet and so decided whether or not there were bulletin boards or dicussion fora. Now, MySpace, FaceBook etc come at no cost – your only hope is a firewall that blocks access (a clumsy and inefficient method at best).

    However, as Shel Holtz says, you can deny people access to discussion boards etc, but you can’t stop them thinking stuff or discussing it in the canteen queue.


  2. Rather than seeing it as an access/control issue, I tend to think this is indicative of the changing workforce, whereby the professional and personal lives get all mixed up, the hours are non-traditional, etc. (I’m talking the Millennials here, not Gen X.)

    There was an article recently in the Globe and Mail’s Career about how businesses should shift their thinking from the 9-to-5 office day mindset where all of of the time is spent on work-work (inputs), and instead move towards a productivity outputs-based model of thinking. So, if the worker chooses to spend some office time on a social networking platform or has an expectation that it’s perfectly OK to leave at 3 p.m. to compete in a tennis tournament…that is indeed fine, as long as the productivity outputs are all met (an engaged and creative employee, completion of tasks, deadlines met, relationships established or maintained, etc.).

    Last year I read Douglas Coupland’s (Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture) newest novel, jPod, and I have to say that was probably quite indicative of the work culture of today’s young adults: wired and creative, but seemingly aimless and unproductive from a traditional work point of view. (They did get everything done, but sometimes at 3 a.m. or not in the fashion expected.) The novel is equal parts brilliant, weird, annoying and hilarious.

    Even though I went off on a tangent, my point is I agree with you that it is the people not the technology, so the social-networking-mad crowd should make a *business case* as to why they will actually be more productive in their jobs if given access, rather than whining about control. And if they can’t make the case, they shouldn’t get access.

  3. Chris – hadn’t seen that post, but agree with many of the points made.

    Heather – you’re right – there have always been ways to waste time, it’s just now they’re digital

    Liam – thanks for the comment, and great to know you’re reading my blog!

    I agree with you that perceived control by employers is important in this, but is it really sustainable to maintain control that has previously been possible now that there are online and quick-to-react communications channels that didn’t previously exist? Probably not, I feel.

    Judy – I agree with how employers need to focus on outcomes rather than inputs – indeed I always try to leave work at 5pm to get home to see my family, but am almost always working online in the evening.

    I’m not convinced that making a case for access is the right approach for employers though. One thing I’ve noticed using Web 2.0 tools is that the really beneficial applications are often ones for which the tool wasn’t originally intended or anticipated. By forcing employees to make the case for access, employers risk losing the potential benefits from these unanticipated applications.

  4. Well, if management has decided to block access and employees aren’t prepared to make the case, the status quo will remain the same. Unless management reads your blog post, of course, and becomes convinced of the error of its ways.

    I’ve made the case for restoring “privileges” that were changed unilaterally (sometimes across the board, sometimes for relevant staff only). I’ve also made the case for trying something new that involved resources (money, time, staff). It forces me to do the research (including talking to other departments that are affected, such as IT or HR), build a case, and then use my persuasive communication powers to win the day. It’s a lot more productive than whining into the wind.


    P.S. And it’s pretty rare I come out on the losing/stalemate side.

  5. Pingback: Is social networking really okay at work? « Heather Yaxley - Greenbanana views of public relations and more

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