Social Networking in the Enterprise: Productivity Killer or Performance Enhancer?

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Of course it can be both, but everything I’m seeing recently implies companies are too focused on the former and not focused enough on the latter. One big caveat before I begin: I’m mostly commenting on knowledge workers, those who are employed based on their knowledge rather than their ability to perform manual labor.

Let’s start with the productivity killer mentality. At least one study shows that 50% of companies are banning Facebook. This is primarily because of productivity concerns, secondarily because of security concerns. My thinking is, if knowledge workers are going to be unproductive, they will find a way to do it, whether through water cooler conversation, text messaging, daydreaming, sleeping, or something more creative. Do people say, “I’m bored, maybe I’ll just work”? If people are spending hours a day on social networking sites, there’s another problem that needs to be addressed, most likely a lack of clear expectations with measurable results defined as something other than “time not spent on Facebook”.

What I find more interesting are the companies who have realized the power of social networking in propelling their productivity. Not only are valuable connections made outside the enterprise that bring people or ideas into the company, products are supporting social networking within the walls. I recently met with a friend at NewsGator, which markets their enterprise product as a “Facebook for the Enterprise”. They have an impressive list of large customers who are using their product to front or replace traditional internal and external knowledge management. It allows employees to share activities, including what they add to Sharepoint, new blogs, what they read and bookmark, who they know, and who their groups are. Yammer is another example – they claim to be “Twitter for the Enterprise”. Companies are finding that they are moving conversations out of email and onto a medium that works better for ongoing chatter. Teams are able to help each other more efficiently.

For me, I see way more potential for some of these applications professionally than personally. I’m a user of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Plaxo – but even as a moderately active user I’m only on an average of 10-15 minutes a day. I’d use these applications more within a company’s walls. I’ve spent my career in consulting firms, which are no more than their people if they cannot harness the knowledge around the company. I was with a couple of firms from less than 10 to over 100 employees and in both cases I was a hub for a certain type of knowledge (IT Strategy). No matter how hard I tried to get what I knew to central repositories, people picked up the phone and called me whenever they needed to find a specific document, learn more about a project or service or find someone who knew something. I’m drooling about what I could do with Newsgator’s platform within a mid to large sized company… I could tag my contacts for who I went to for what types of knowledge. I could put up a page with links to all my documents, projects, proposals, research, intellectual capital and more. I could create workspaces for the articles I’m writing and tag bookmarks for people to reference or contribute. I could keep people up to date on what I’m working on so that they could help me. WOW. I’d call that increased productivity. And the company would benefit because the knowledge would live beyond the individual.

It is going to be fascinating to watch companies adjust to this way of working. I’m bullish that companies will figure out a way to increase productivity through social networking rather than just alienate their employees by restricting it.