In this third post on the subject of Web 2.0 usage in business, we look at the impact of social networking sites and other Enterprise 2.0 applications on performance and try to disentangle the myths of ‘receive wisdom’ from the behavioural reality.

It seems that the management response to social network applications and other collaborative tools falls into two categories: ‘how can we use this to promote the business’, and ‘employees shouldn’t be accessing these sites during working hours’.

Using Enterprise 2.0 to assist in the promotional strategy is the subject of the final post on this subject and I’d like to try and deal with the myths and misconceptions that have grown up about employees having access to social networking sites during working hours. Based on some research down by my students, the vast majority of companies that allow or require their employees to have access to the internet for their work also ban them from accessing certain websites – usually the social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, the video and photo sharing sites (YouTube and Flikr) and the microblogging sites (Twitter). The justification for this generalized ban on networking sites of one sort or another is that the employees will spend too much time on the sites when they should be working and this is to the detriment of their performance.

When asked whether they have evidence of this, managers usually respond with a variation of the statement “it’s obvious that’s what they would do, that’s why we ban it”. When specifically asked whether they have (a) allowed employees free access to networking sites, (b) have monitored their performance before offering the access and then after allowing access, and (c) then monitored performance after the access was disallowed, the answer is almost always ‘no’ to all three – usually followed by some justification along the lines of “why should we waste time checking something so obvious”.

Of course, their behaviour and actions are based firmly on an unchecked assumption for which there is not a shred of evidence. I suspect they would be shocked to discover that there is strong behavioural evidence that the ban is almost certainly having an adverse effect on the performance of their people. In fact, I don’t think they could bring themselves to accept they are wrong. Now, I am not so rash as to claim that they are provably wrong as I have not done the necessary ‘controlled’ research but the available empirical evidence does suggest that the hypothesis that ‘access to social networks actually boosts performance of employees’ could well be right.

This hypothesis is based upon a simple, well known and well understood principle of performance management – one that is used for enhancing performance of athletes, performers, actors, musicians, students and many others but one that the business world has failed to grasp: that increasing the levels of performance is based on repetition of the performance interspersed with periods of rest and recuperation and that it is these periods of R&R that enable the lessons learned to become embedded and reproducible. We all know that sustained high performance is both physically and mentally impossible for very good physiological and psychological reasons.

If this is then applied to the performance of employees, it becomes obvious that if we want long-term high performance it is essential that employees be allowed (even encouraged) to take a break from their current activity to allow the brain to process the activity just completed and to ‘re-charge’. I suspect that if performance was tracked correctly during the working day then it would form what Charles Handy called a sigmoid curve with clear peaks and troughs and it is during these troughs that employees need a ‘change’ from what they are doing. Currently, they are likely to use the time to go for a ‘natural break’ or grab a cup of coffee, and only when the brain has processed the previous period’s activity will they start again. So, in fact no one delivers a steady performance and to provide a needed ‘change’ to encourage them to take a break and then get back on track is enlightened self-interest.

Frankly, the wisdom of crowds on this (or is that herd instinct) is wrong on whether allowing access to social networking sites will damage performance and they could be equally wrong on another aspect: that if access is granted, employees will spend too much time on non-productive activity. I have to say that when access if first allowed, this is probably true but after a short while the employees will self-limit their usage and there will be minimal disruption.

In addition, by granting access to social networks, the company would be demonstrating their trust in their employees and it would give the employees a feeling of empowerment and this is, in the longer term, the foundation for a vastly improved performance. The problem is that it is longer-term and it does mean that managers will have to trust and empower their employees and not just pay lip service to the notion.

Finally, there is empirical evidence that enterprises should adopt their own social network application and use it as the interface between the employee and the intranet. This is a powerful tool for increasing collaboration and communication within the company and becomes a useful tool for accessing the tacit information that is embedded in the brains of the employees.

Frankly, it appears to be enlightened self-interest for enterprises to adopt social network programs and to allow access to social networking sites. And unless there is valid and reliable evidence and proof to the contrary, claiming it would damage performance seems like hearsay rather than reality and is more a reflection of management funk than careful thought. What is for certain, however, is that engaging with Enterprise 2.0 tools is going to require a whole new management paradigm!!

If you would like to engage in a discussion with Alasdair White on this subject, then please feel free to email him. In the mean time, a final post on this subject will look at the dangers and realities of using social networking tools for the delivery of marketing communications.

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