To network or not?

Oct 02 2009 by Karsten Jonsen & Willem Smit Print This Article

Companies are increasingly blocking employees from accessing Facebook, Twitter,YouTube, LinkedIn and other social networking tools (as well as Google toolbar), citing security and productivity as the main reasons. But is such a policy reasonable or counter-productive?

Times of crisis often lead to stricter rules and regulations. In many organizations, trust seems to be taking a back seat to control and the appetite for surveillance is increasing.

Granted, in some cases the arguments for blocking access can be sound, or at least having guidelines seem appropriate. An example is when vital business systems are at risk or when the security and safety of people is compromised.

But do we really need to tighten all the rules if only one or a few parts of a system are causing trouble? Will forbidding electronic access to the outside world help? Or, are we conditioned to have a Pavlovian response to uncertain situations? Let's take a look at some potential down-sides to these restrictive decisions.

First, corporations that block Facebook and the likes make the assumption that there is a "wall" between work life and personal life. That assumption holds true for some people. When they go home, it's leisure time to turn off the office phone and computer and turn on the private phone and home computer.

However, a substantial portion of the workforce integrates the two. This is especially true in today's knowledge-intensive economy. An "integrator" blurs the boundaries between their work and personal lives. Their work cannot be measured chronologically. It's only output and results that counts; not where it was created. It can't be measured by employees' physical presence in one specific location. These people thrive in an integrated environment, sometimes referred to as ROWE (results-only-work-environment).

Then there are employee groups, such as single mothers, who may simply need high flexibility in order to cover all the bases. Or people for whom peak-hour commuting does not make sense. When integrators don't have the flexibility to combine their working and personal lives, they become unhappy, and they may leave the company.

Second, downtime at work is not a new phenomenon, but with the arrival of the internet, it has been redefined. Old habits, like reading the newspaper, walking the halls, etc., have been replaced by surfing the web and connecting with friends over the internet.

People are not capable of concentrating on specific tasks for extended periods. We all remember this from our time in school or university. Breaks are needed. And, in fact, research has shown that a moderate amount web surfing and other similar "decompression" exercises can actually increase productivity.

Third, companies that don't take advantage of social web sites will lose out on the war for talent. By restricting these types of sites, companies are bound to alienate the next generation of workers who view them as part of their toolkit.

When companies block access to widely used sites, it basically says they don't trust their employees. We are already seeing strong signs of reluctance from new entrants in the workforce to seeking careers in well-branded organizations. And it is doubtful that blocking access to these sites will increase their appetite for corporate life or retain those who are already there they are sure to eventually want to go over the Berlin eWall.

Fourth, companies that cut off access to the diverse and timely information and perspectives available in the external world are at a competitive disadvantage. Isolation leads to inferiority, and cultures that do not adapt to change tend to become extinct. No man is an island and the same can be said of organizations.

In a modern market place, purely proprietary systems are set up to fail. To be cutting oneself off from information streams means getting rid of a market connection and multiplication effects. There are clear advantages associated with using a growing and evolving network for work purposes.

Rather than prohibit the use of these new tools, companies should be exploring how best to take advantage of them. For example, IMD establishes Facebook or LinkedIn groups for its executive education participants so they can network and communicate with each other both during and after they complete the program. This is viewed as an easy, fun and efficient supplement to email and face-to-face time.

Employers also need to remember that when a new hire is brought into an organization, he or she brings an external network of contacts. This network is useful for sharing ideas and best practices. When decisions are made, usually by the upper echelons of a company, to close the door on the Facebooks and YouTubes of the world, it may be an early warning sign that the company is "out of touch with reality."

How can a marketing department in an organization take advantage of new forms of eMarketing if the official policy of their own company is to shut down these very tools? How can engineers and scientists cross fertilize their ideas when their access to the outside world is restricted?

Facebook, Twitter,YouTube, Google, Linked In and their future versions are here to stay for better or worse. They have become an extension of our lives and though many of us have become slaves to staying connected, it doesn't mean that companies need to restrict or prohibit their use although employees are of course expected to manage this "freedom" by using judgement and high ethical standards, like in all facets of working life.

In times of crisis, it is more critical than ever for companies to stay connected and have access to information in real time in order maintain the flexibility to adapt to their changing environment and to attract and retain the brightest and most creative talent. In essence, eWalls may keep out danger but it also keeps out knowledge.


About The Author

Karsten Jonsen & Willem Smit
Karsten Jonsen & Willem Smit

Karsten Jonsen and Willem Smit are Research Fellows at IMD, one of the world's top-ranked business schools, located in Lausanne, Switzerland.