There’s quite the discussion going on over the banning of social computing applications in the workplace – in particular, Facebook. To quote Deloitte Digital Chief Executive, Peter Williams in The Australian:

“The best way to see what is going to be the next big thing on the internet is to go to the IT department of a large company and see what they have just banned… The approach they take is to say this is new, we had better stop people using it.”

The article in The Australian is a particularly good one – mainstream focussed, business friendly and quite accurately depicting the benefits of enterprise social computing.

Those of you who are regular readers here will understand that I’m more than a little bemused by the attitude displayed by the companies engaging in the bans.

More than anything, these bans exhibit a number of attitudes present in these businesses that will ultimately mean they end up behind the eight ball. In summary, these businesses have issues related to:

  • failure to learn from the past
  • trust
  • work models
  • understanding of generational difference

So, let’s look at each of these in turn.

Learning from the past. Or not.

New technologies and staff wanting to use them aren’t news. These companies are probably the same ones that engaged in bans on telephone calls, personal email and IM in the past. They’ve moved past those bans, and eventually, they’ll move past this one, but not before they end up in the past in comparison to their more enlightened competition.

I spend a lot of the time doing my social computing evangelism work trying to convince the naysayers that these tools, rather than being banned, should be opened (accompanied by an appropriate use policy). It’s a hard subject to discuss. Many organisations, especially those built around a command-and-control, top-down model are ill-equipped culturally to deal with the shift needed to enable this kind of approach and empower their workforce into the bargain.

The mindset in these organisations is oftentimes very focussed on workers as a hard asset to be used to generate what I usually call “widgets”. So, your workers come in, they sit at their desk all day and stamp out as many widgets as they can of the type they are employed to produce. They are neither motivated, not empowered in their work and churn is high. Those that stay either buy in to the corporate mindset or they are so disempowered they can’t see a way out.

Not somewhere I’d like to be.

Who do you trust?

Over at Alli’s blog, ShiftedHR, she’s been riffing on the matter of trust. While the example she’s using is different, the core issue is the same. Trusted employees who feel able to do their work without unreasonable surveillance are more empowered and more motivated than those in organisations that don’t trust their staff.

Are you at all surprised?

It’s about treating people as grown-ups and expecting them to behave like grown-ups in return. In my experience, there are very few people in organisations that trust their staff that betray that trust. It’s in organisations that fail to trust their staff and treat them like naughty children that the highest incidence of misuse of trust-linked tools (like the Internet and social computing) occurs.

If your organisation said to you (in effect), “Hey, we know you want to use Facebook and LinkedIn and and Google Docs as a part of your work. We’re cool with that, but we expect you to be cool too – don’t waste your work day playing, don’t misuse the privilege and make sure you get the work we need you to do done,” I imagine you’d be pretty happy with that. You’d probably also get your work done and use these tools as and when needed rather than wasting hours on Facebook Scrabble.

I’m not advocating unfettered use of social computing tools by any means. Businesses need to accompany their use of these tools with an appropriate use policy that meets business and user needs. Take a look at this post (and the original source) regarding the development of IBM’s corporate policy in this space. Smart words.

Busy vs. Burst and output-based work models

With a (nearly) always connected workforce, the eight hours a day, five days a week model is broken. The hyper-productive burst model is now the winner. I’ve spoken about this at length here at acidlabs as have several of my colleagues, peers and heroes. The organisations that don’t get this are in trouble. They will continue to expect their workers to give regular face time, respond to emails and attend meetings where the noise vastly outweighs the signal.

Very soon, these workers will grow tired of the endless TPS reports and long hours and move somewhere that understands and encourages their work style.

Output-centred work models are nothing new, but they are remarkably uncommon. To quote JP Rangaswami in the blog post that inspired this one:

Results matter, not efforts.

To my mind, this is completely true, but astoundingly alien to many of the organisations that I have seen over the years. Let it be said however, that I do live in a town that is driven by the public sector and that the public sector is largely not a leader in new organisational thinking. Although the Kiwis seem to have their act very much together.

This is not your parents’ workplace – generational difference in work models

Another crapstorm. There’s been a few articles in the mainstream media on the battle between management and Gen Y in recent weeks. Again, Alli has some useful discussion on the matter.

The fact is, that these people are going to be making up a significant part of the workforce real soon now and business needs to understand them and accommodate their needs better. Gen Y (and us Gen Xers too) are used to having social computing tools and rely on them for both social and business needs.

Efforts stopping people using social tools for reasons that are couched in terms of time-wasting and security, but that are actually about failure to adapt in business are ultimately going to fail. Workers will take their social computing need outside the company wall and any hope of a business conversation with your logo on it will go away as employees hold their conversations in the open and garner the glory for themselves rather than for the employer smart enough to hire them and let them converse in company time.

Final thoughts

Over at the Park Paradigm, Sean draws the humorous and remarkably accurate parallel between the organisational attitude being discussed here and the She’s a Witch scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, suggesting that it’s:

an allegory for the timeless battle between new technologies like Facebook (the Witch), corporate middle and senior management (the villagers and peasants), and the CEO/CIO (Sir Bedevere).

If only such a parallel couldn’t be drawn

Although it’s linked above, you should also look at JP Rangaswami’s two recent missives on this issue. JP is one of the people I most admire in this space and as ever, his thoughts are well considered and beautifully written.

I know it’s only going to be a matter of time before a significant part of the middle of the curve adopts enterprise social computing as a normal part of business. Unfortunately for these businesses and for those at the right hand end, by the time they do adopt, the smart businesses will have taken away the smart employees and already be making even bigger strides with whatever the next step on this road is, leaving the latecomers ever further behind and deepr in the mire of being unable to keep up in today’s hyperspeed business world.