Monday Mornings with Madison



To social network or not to social network, that is the question. Companies everywhere are struggling with the questions surrounding social networking. In addition to practical questions such as what sites to join, how to drive traffic from the social network sites to the company’s website, and how to convert fans to customers, there are also bigger policy questions about whether to even allow social networking at work. On the one hand, sales staff and marketers know the amazing power of social networking to generate viral buzz, increase brand awareness, generate dialogue and position products. On the other hand, operations managers, IT administrators and HR directors worry about productivity, security and bandwith issues. Fame and Fortune vs. Fear. It is a proverbial virtual-tug-of-war. So far, fear has the upper hand.
In 2010, a study commissioned by Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing company, found that 54% of U.S. companies blocked workers from using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace at work. Only 19% of the companies allowed social networking use only for business purposes, while 16% allow limited personal use. Of the 1,400 CIOs interviewed, only 10% said their companies allowed employees full access to social networks during work hours. Let’s look at both sides of the issue.

The Argument For Banning Social Networking At WorkSenior management and human resource departments are concerned about the impact of social networking sites on productivity and fear that organizational intellectual property and confidential data may be compromised. Let’s examine first the question of productivity. There is some justification for concern.

A study done in July, 2010 by Nucleus Research, an IT research company, concluded that social networking use by employees at work can hurt the bottom line… at least a little. Nucleus found that companies that allowed employees full access to Facebook at work showed a decrease in productivity of 1.5%. That survey of 237 corporate employees also showed that 77 percent of workers who had a Facebook account used it during work hours. It also found that one in 33 workers surveyed use Facebook only while at work, and of those using Facebook at work, 87% said they had no clear business reason for accessing the network.

The other question is one of security. This is definitely a concern for many organizations. Among those that ban the use of social networks at work for security reasons is the U.S. Marine Corps. By way of explanation, this branch of the military indicated in 2009 that “The very nature of social networking sites creates a larger attack and exploitation window, exposes unnecessary information to adversaries and provides an easy conduit for information leakage.” For a military organization, that policy arguably makes sense. But what about for businesses involved in selling a product or service?

Even major, publicly traded financial companies are blocking employees from accessing social media websites. Case in point. Mega investment firm Goldman Sachs remains staunchly among the majority of companies that block employee access to social networking sites and is notorious for its tight grip on employee behavior. In fact, despite Goldman’s recent announcement that it invested $450 million in Facebook, the company continues to block employee access to Facebook at work. This was so even after Facebook CFO David Ebersman gave Goldman Sachs’ wealth management department a tutorial on how to use the site. When an employee at Goldman tries to access the site, a message indicates that Internet use on the premises is only for “legitimate business.” 

The Argument For Allowing Social Networking At WorkThe flip side of the argument is that social networking sites are potentially powerful business tools, if leveraged properly. But how can employees be expected to leverage a company’s position and message through social networks if they are relegated to doing so only from home on their own personal time? By shutting off desktop access to the social web, companies slam the door on creative business scenarios and better customer service strategies. Companies that block social networks delay learning what kinds of specialized content  users of social networks pay attention to and what products and services they want. 

If the issue is productivity, then it begs the question of whether it is even effective to block social networking sites. After all, thanks to smart phones and mobile apps, employees can check their Facebook and Twitter accounts at work whether the sites are blocked at work or not. Indeed, of the 100 million who access Facebook on a mobile device, most spend twice as much time on the site as non-mobile users. Companies must also consider what message they send to employees by blocking Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks and micro-blogging platforms like Twitter? A fundamental lack of trust may be a greater draw down on productivity than the time lost by employees checking a social network feed. 

Ultimately, the power of the social web is not going away. Indeed, companies that bury their head in the sand and ignore the power of social media may pay with more than just lost revenue. Case in point. We turn again to investment giant Goldman Sachs. Two years ago, ran a story on the Obama administration’s successful social media campaign against Goldman Sachs, which said, “As Wall Street’s most profitable company in history has learned over the past week, almost every news development today can be made to support advocacy efforts in the online political arena, when leveraged effectively. Goldman’s challenge is to begin to aggressively engage the online community and tell a persuasive story of transparency and accountability via digital and social media. To date, Goldman’s silence in the online space has been deafening–making it all the easier for regulators, legislators and the White House to paint a bull’s eye on its back.” Yet, Goldman Sachs continues to ignore social networking sites and block staff from accessing them at work.

On the other hand, companies embracing social networking see it as an empowerment tool. Case in point. Nationwide adapted its Internet policies to evolve with the changing times and technology. The company’s 35,000 employees can access social-media sites during the workday as long as the time spent on the sites doesn’t interfere with their work. In balancing trust against fear, Nationwide – which positions itself as a great place to work — indicated that the company wants employees to feel empowered and trusted to do the right thing. They see each and every one of their employees as brand ambassadors, helping to spread the word about Nationwide’s great customer service. 

A Social Networking Company Policy

As business struggle to decide whether to succumb to pressure and open up to social media and its risks, or remain cocooned and stymie the potential success that other businesses enjoy, perhaps it isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. It may be a matter of establishing rules on how employees use social-networking sites at work. The key is to determine how the company can benefit from the use of social-networking sites and develop and communicate a clear policy on social networking site use at work. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to social-networking policies, companies must evaluate how employees can use social networks to keep pace with industry developments, stay connected with business contacts, and promote the company without sacrificing information security or productivity. 

A company’s Internet policy should also deal with how employees’ social-networking posts can affect a company beyond work hours. Over 70% of corporations worry that what employees say on social networking sites can put their company at risk, whether through disparaging comments or release of trade secrets. A company’s social media policy should address who can speak for the company and how to safeguard confidential information or intellectual property. It should advise employees of how off-duty conduct could violate employer policies.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Ernest Hemingway

© 2011 – 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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