I had an opinion piece on the op-ed page of the Vancouver Sun in March, 2010 that sums up my views on social media in the workplace. (It's no longer available online, so I'm posting it below.)
Social Media Have a Role to Play in the Workplace
By Ron Shewchuk
During the Winter Olympic Games I was often reminded of the power of social networks to make connections that were unimaginable just a few short years ago.
Case in point: on the first day of the Games I was walking along Robson Street with some out-of-town guests when we caught sight of couple of giddy thrill-seekers hooting and flailing their arms and legs as they glided along the downtown zip line. I had heard the ride was free and I thought it might be fun for my guests’ teen-aged sons to give it a try. So I pulled out my smart phone and posted this on my twitter feed: “Does anyone know how long the wait is for the Robson zip line?”
Within a few minutes the operator of the ride tweeted back: “Thanks for your interest. Right now the lineup is about three hours long. If you want to try tomorrow, the zip line is open at 8.00 a.m.” Amazing.
In the space of four years, social networks like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have become woven into the fabric of our society. A recent study of global internet use by Universal McCann reported some astounding statistics: over 60 per cent of internet users have a profile on a social network. Over 80 per cent view videos on YouTube, and close to 30 percent don’t just watch – they’ve uploaded videos to the web for others to see.
This stuff is no longer in the realm of computer geeks and teenagers. Today the majority of internet users read and comment on blogs and new sites, listen to audio or video podcasts, share photos online using sites like Flikr, and regularly turn to services like Yelp and TripAdvisor to get user reviews of restaurants or vacation destinations.
This broad adoption of social networks is profoundly changing the way people find and share information. It’s also creating powerful online communities that can stage activist campaigns, lead consumer revolts and even influence the outcome of elections.
So why isn’t the same thing happening at work, where we spend most of our waking hours? With only one in five of today’s employees fully committed to their jobs and companies struggling to motivate a cynical, disengaged workforce, one would think there would be a rush to build social networks at work. Yet many companies still ban them.
Businesses are worried that employees will waste company time on “social notworking,” or they’ll share confidential information, or do something stupid online that will damage the company’s reputation. They are also concerned that installing social networks will cost time and money with no measurable return on their investment.
And yet despite these issues, social media are slowly being put to use by some leading companies. These early adopters have taken the risks and made the mistakes that beginners make. In the process, they have found many useful, practical applications of the new tools and technologies, from business-friendly equivalents of Twitter and YouTube to full-blown in-house social networks where employees can create their own profile, keep up to date with their work mates, rate and comment on company news, and collaborate on projects.
The early adopters have found that issues of productivity and security can be addressed with clear policies, sound planning and disciplined implementation. And the cost of using these new online tools is low, and often free of charge.
So, what does this all mean for employers who find themselves behind the curve?
Successfully implementing the new tools and technologies of what’s been dubbed “Web 2.0” will require new ways of thinking about the role of employee communications in today’s organization. Traditionally, management has been the keeper and careful disseminator of company news and information, but business communication is now moving inexorably to a model where employees will have the power to create their own content, customize information according to their needs, and build their own internal networks and online communities.
Web 2.0 promises to be a powerful new way to engage employees and improve the effectiveness of today’s organization. It’s time for the workplace to invite social media to be its online friend.
Ron Shewchuk is a North Vancouver-based business consultant who helps companies communicate with their employees. He was also the host of RonCon 2010, a conference about employee engagement and social media held in Vancouver March 22 – 24 and in Calgary March 24-26. Find out more about Ron at www.ronshewchuk.com.