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 del​.icio​.us 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 <a href=“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.