Technology designed for consumers is making its way into the workforce. Employees get used to doing things with particular tools at home, and want to do this at work too. And why should they not?
Instant messaging, social networking, micro-blogging, voice over IP and other new Web phenomenon are common place on consumer desktops. We all use them at home, but for most of us the likes of Facebook are blocked at work. So how do businesses accommodate a workforce that wants to choose its own computing tools and services – and when an organisation does deploy its own tools, how can employees be encouraged to use them? A new generation is entering the workforce with a very different take on collaboration. Instead of bucking this trend, business can achieve a lot by nurturing it.
The other network
Blocking Facebook on a corporate LAN is something an organisation should be embarrassed of doing. For generation Y, the Facebook Inbox has replaced e-mail to a large extent, and the platform is used by savvy folk not only as a way to stay in touch with friends, but also to build out business networks. Facebook has advanced filtering and grouping features that allow the two to be kept separate too – so you can have the boss on Facebook without them finding out the real reason why you missed that early meeting last Thursday.
Twitter is also being realised as a powerful tool for business. It is a great way to get instant feedback on particular issues and try out new ideas. Or publically address issues that face a company or brand. Block it?
It has been said before – if someone is going to waste time at the office they will do that anyway. Block Facebook and they will play cricket in the hall. But by blocking social networks you are limiting the potential they hold for your business when in the hands of the more motivated and productive employee.
In a report entitled ‘Facebook and the Emerging Social Platform Wars’ Gartner identifies key recommendations for businesses when it comes to new Web phenomenon.
“Enterprises should distinguish between the varieties of social networking sites. By assuming that all sites are equivalent, enterprises will overlook potential sources of value and competitive advantage, business agility and organisational cohesiveness,” it says.
But key to realising value lies not in technology. As always, people and process must follow.
“Enterprises should supplement the immature security mechanisms and policies in social networking sites with more robust approaches,” suggests the report, adding, “Users of social networking sites should understand the context in which their multifaceted real-world persona is represented by what is often a single-faceted data model.”
Gartner identifies dynamics in social networking that offer a potential treasure trove for businesses that get it, saying: “There is wide-open contention for going beyond content objects and providing users with access to the entire world of social objects: that is, people and relationships. Facebook and other social-networking sites — self-described 'social utility' applications — broker the access to the so-called 'social graph'. Social graph is a term used in industry conversation not in the usual business sense of chart or diagram, but in the computer-science sense of a data structure composed of nodes and arcs. In the case of social-networking sites, the social graph is the set of data and metadata about people (that is, nodes) and their relationships (arcs), that users navigate via the application and programs traverse via application program interfaces (APIs).”
Later on: “It is only a matter of time before the platform crosses the boundary from social-networking application to the domain of what BEA Systems recently termed “enterprise social computing… consumer-oriented social networking applications are evolving toward broader-scope platforms that can enable a range of social solutions not addressed by existing enterprise information systems. These solutions, which do not yet exist, can potentially deliver significant business value.”
IBM would argue that its Lotus Connexions platform fits that bill.
The social economy
Microsoft will soon be launching a social networking system on its Windows Live platform. An odd move for the company that spent billions buying into Facebook. That aside, Colin Erasmus, the head of the Windows Client business at Microsoft SA, believes the rise of Web 2.0 tools in the workplace is driving a new wave of collaboration within company ecosystems that will ultimately have positive business effects.
“People will always find ways of socialising and sharing during work hours in any case,” says Erasmus. “If your employees are going to do it anyway, why not encourage them to channel their social-media impulses in smart, safe ways that can potentially help your business?”
“This could include collaborating with colleagues and clients, and setting up an employees-only group on Facebook as a kind of alternative corporate intranet. This group could then exchange documents, update corporate information, and share marketing videos,” he adds.
Erasmus also believes that unified communications, and particularly instant messaging, offer benefits that many businesses are missing out on.
“A lot of professionals use instant messaging to update their blogs or social profiles, and use it in the office to take care of personal matters,” points out Erasmus. “Many companies have in-house IM services, like Office Communicator, and there is a steady increase in the number of people who send more instant messages than e-mails to their co-workers and colleagues. Recent research by Microsoft also suggests that at least half of at-work IM users say that instant messaging makes them more productive at work.”
Questions of security and balance are relevant, however, and the business must ensure that it is not opening itself up to data loss or malicious activity by allowing IM or social networking. Also, while some employees may like Facebook, others may prefer to use Orkut, Linked In, MySpace or other similar services. Cohesion could be tricky.
Al Nugent, executive vice president and chief technology officer of CA says that the whole game is changing as a new demographic enters the workplace.
“There is the social and cultural dimensions of this, and then there is the implication of employees having their own devices and tools and not wanting to use what is provided to them at work,” he says. “Studies show that this is only going to get worse. Many of this, generally younger, demographic are really comfortable not seeing the people they work with. ”
“The problem is in trying to control the environment enough to ensure consistency. And this can be done by allowing the use of a technology, but standardising on particular tools,” he continues. “For example, we recently standardised on Office Communicator 2007 at CA.”
But Nugent agrees that it is key to allow for the new-generation to bring its social behaviours into the workplace and have these mimicked as business behaviours.
A new workforce and new ideas can either be embraced or repelled, but general sentiment is that the latter will end in tears.
At what price?
How a workforce is able to use collaboration tools and social utility applications is also dependant on the nature of the business. Some sales environments rely on cohesive CRM tools, for example. It is all good and well to allow agents to use their own tools – but this is done at the expense of business intelligence and corporate memory. Embracing the new is cool, but only if it is really possible.