Entries from December 2010 ↓

Watch a viral video, improve your problem-solving capabilties

Apel Mjausson forwarded this story from Time Magazine’s Healthland site, which reports on research from the University of Western Ontario that shows companies can improve creativity and problem-solving capabilities in the workplace by letting employees share non-work-related YouTube videos.

Well, not YouTube specifically. The study, reported in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, divided participants into three groups, then sought to affect their modds with three different types of stimuli:

The first group listened to an upbeat Mozart piece and watched a video of a laughing baby; the second listened to a musical score from the movie Schindler’s List and watched a news report about an earthquake; and the third listened to music and watched a video that were shown not to affect mood. Volunteers were then asked to learn to recognize a pattern that existed in a problem.

The first group — the “happy group” — was better at identifying the pattern than the other groups. “If you have a project where you want to think innovatively, or you have a problem to carefully consider, being in a positive mood can help you do that,” said researcher Ruby Nadler. TIME’s conclusion: “Next time your coworker sends you a link to the latest laugh-inducing viral video, take a moment to check it out before tackling the most complicated item on your to-do list. Your boss will thank you.”

It’s one more bit of research that indirectly supports leaving employee access to YouTube open. It all starts to stack up against the non-research-supported moves to block access based on FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Is social media “stupid and vainglorious?”

In response to the last post, challenging Barclay Communications’ rationale for blocking employee access to social media, a blogger named Jeremy Probert, on the wordmonger’s blog (lower case is his, not mine), declared social media to be “stupid and vainglorious.” He wrote:

It’s been a long time, gentle readers, since I came across something that deserves an award for its icky, sticky, company hippy nature, its inherent stupidity and intellectual laziness and its truly horrible smug and self-satisfied tone. But today is the day – it chills my very soul to introduce this, the Stop Blocking website and it disheartens me even further to link to this, a piece entitled ‘Demolishing Barclays Communications’ Blocking Argument Point-by-Point’.

At first, I dismissed this as just another business pundit whose worldview hasn’t shifted since “The Organization Man.” But Jeremy does make points that are worth addressing debunking.

Most of Jeremy’s challenges are based on the fact that he read just this post, and didn’t bother with the rest of this blog where his arguments have been addressed repeatedly. Still, there’s nothing wrong with reiterating and reinforcing these points (which Jeremy generously calls “idiocies”):

Apparently, all workers, regardless of status or paygrade, put in extra hours and therefore compensate for any time that they may waste using social networks. Of course they do. In the same way that they all love the company that they work for, its senior management and its brands

We’re mostly talking about information and knowledge workers. And no, not every one of them put in extra hours. However, there is clear evidence from substantial, empirical, comprhensive research that Millennials do. As for those who don’t (and this point will re-emerge repeatedly), clearly communicated and enforced policies will deal with abuse.

Monitoring and addressing productivity is a supervisor’s job, not a IT’s. The consequences of blocking everybody as a means of addressing problem workers is a great way to kill engagement and drop employee trust to zero. As American Express’s vice president of communications James Lynch said yesterday at the Ragan Social Media Summit here at SWIFT headquarters in Belgium, blocking access is not a smart risk-mitigation strategy.

By the way, I’m a believer in public execution. Reward and recognition are the only way to drive culture and behavior change in organization. Announcing to the entire organization that an employee was terminated for violating the company’s policy can do more to keep employees on the straight and narrow than blocking policies that employees can override as easily as pulling out their smart phones.

Productivity suffers if employees can’t connect to social networks at work (thanks, University of Melbourne!). Apparently use of social media ‘resets an employee’s concentration’. How DID we manage to concentrate before?

First, the University of Melbourne didn’t produce the only study to reach this conclusion. Independently, for example, MindLab International conducted research that arrived at the same results. Jeremy can sniff at these results all he likes, but until he can produce research results to the contrary, I’ll continue to point to these studies.

As for how we managed to concentrate before — we didn’t. A colleague of mine — who manages a team at a global consulting firm that produces technology solutions — told me he and his team are under intense pressure to produce a high number of billable hours. Yet after five or six hours of continuous work, concentration slides so badly that work produced after that needs to be redone, so the pressure to put in the hours becomes counterproductive. And he lauds his team as the cream of the coding crop. It’s just, he says, that at a certain point without breaks, concentration declines.

If anyone believes that the workers sitting in rows of desks begins supervised by stern overseers to make sure they didn’t waste time were more productive than today’s workers who do take breaks and visit their online communities is simply deluded.

Because the US Department of Defense has opened its networks to social media, does not mean that LargeCorp Industries LLC (in the business of profit, not homeland security) should – it’s not a question of risk from cyber-attack, it’s a question of perceived need and value. (In any case, I would ask whether the ‘private in the field in Afghanistan’ is free to change his status willy-nilly (‘Safe behind a wall’ to ‘In a ditch with blast concussion’) or to share any sort of geographic or temporal information)

Jeremy, I have to ask if you read Barclay Communications’ argument at all. The very point they made is that opening networks to social media puts networks at risk to cyber-attack. That was their entire point. That’s what I was responding to.

And no, Jeremy, of course not: The Department of Defense, once it decided that social media was a “field of maneuver” rather than a “fortress to be defended” implemented training to ensure soldiers kept both themselves and the unit safe. As DoD senior strategist Jack Holt put it, the military teaches soldiers to be safe in the desert, on the seas, in the skies; they can train them to be safe online. Should you be interested, Jeremy, you can listen to my interview with Jack here or his interview with Eric Schartzman here.

Clearly, I never suggested that companies should simply open their networks. They need to implement policies and guardrails so employees can protect both themselves and the company, and the organization can ensure that they reap the benefits of employees’ online activities while mitigating the risks.

(Doesn’t all of this just sound like common sense? Somehow this escaped Jeremy. Sadly, he’s not alone.)

Company ‘confidentiality can be violated anywhere, even an elevator’. True – but your average elevator holds 12 people and Facebook holds a potentially eavesdropping audience of 450 million. Go figure

I’m not aware of any Facebook account with 450 million friends. Are you? And a privacy violation is a privacy violation. The HIPAA fine won’t be any larger for violation on Facebook than it would be for a violation in an elevator.

The point is that closing off access to Facebook doesn’t solve the problem; educating staff about privacy does.

Of course, Jeremy ignores the rest of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center President and CEO’s larger point: blocking Facebook shuts down the ability for employees to build community, and it closes off the communication channel of preference among younger employees. Paul notes that he often gets useful suggestions and ideas from employees who don’t use email. (If you have children who are teens or in their twenties, you know this.)

‘Many employees carry smartphones – or they can (access social media) from home after work’ – again, true. But what they do on their own time is their own business – unless it contravenes company policy on how they may represent themselves as employees, or the laws of the land – in which case they get fired. In the workplace – well, the clue is in the name – ‘work’place. Not ‘fun’place or ‘do-your-own-thing’place

I am frequently accused (as Jeremy does) of being some kind of employee rights advocate. I’m not. I’m a business advocate. Understanding that Millenials (and, to a great degree, GenX) operate in what they call the “weisure” world — the cross-over of work and leisure — is vital. Work happens where it makes sense, whether it’s in an office or at the beach. Why? Because they have grown up as hyperconnected individuals where proximity is not required for work to be done. The idea that proximity is a requirement for knowledge/information workers is a relic of the era from which Jeremy has failed to move.

A study noted by American Express’s Lynch noted than39% of Millennial employees won’t work at companies that block Facebook — or will leave if a new block is implemented. That’s not because they want to have fun, but because Facebook is how they communicate and collaborate. Consider, for example, the results of the study, “The New Symbiosis of Professional Networks,” conducted by SAP in conjunction with the Society for New Communciation Research (SNCR). The study found that organizational decision-makers who have access to their social media peer groups make better and faster decisions. Where, primarily, do those professional peers reside, according to the study? Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Seventy-six percent of those professionals visit these networks once or more per day, where they…

  • Access thought leadership and information unavailable inside the walls of the company
  • Showcase the company (building brand recognition and supporting organizational goals from recruiting to sales)
  • Increase the speed of collaboration
  • Research business decisions

Another study showed that 40% of IT professionals use social networks to seek advice from peers on technology purchases. Clearly a stupid and vainglorious activity.

As for the whole “fun” thing, no, the workplace doesn’t need to be fun. But employees do need to be engaged (which means they make discretionary effort on the company’s behalf). Companies with large populations of highly engaged employees produce greater growth by far than others. It’s hard to imagine engaged employees in organizations where the first message they hear is, “We don’t trust any of you as far as we can throw you.” It’s also hard to imagine companies blocking access showing high levels of job satisfaction.

As for “do your own thing,” perhaps you’ve heard of a concept called “innovation.” Google practices it, with employees required to spend a certain amount of time innovating based on their own ideas. Have you checked Google’s valuation lately? I’d also point you to the book “Empowered,” by Forrester analysts Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler, which promotes the idea that employees “own thing” ideas of how to use social media to better serve customers can produce a significant marketplace differentiation.

‘If normal use of bandwidth (this refers to employee use of social media) is slowing (your) network to a crawl, get more bandwidth.’ Just go to your finance guys and ask them to approve an increase in your budget, to purchase bandwidth to allow your employees to update their Facebook statii. That’s bound to work. Job done

Jeremy, please allow me to introduce you to the notion of “making a business case.” This concept involves demonstrating that the investment will produce results that exceed the cost.

All of this is hopelessly Utopian – the ideals of an imaginary world where everyone is nice, contented, loyal and trustworthy. Well, here’s the wake-up call. They’re not, and you need to bear that in mind when thinking about social media use in the workplace.

If your hiring practices result in bringing in employees who don’t embrace the preferred culture of the organization, that’s your fault. You can dismiss all this as “utopian” all you like, but companies like Cisco Systems and zappos.com seek culture fits above all else in their recruiting, and they reap the benefits. Hiring people you don’t trust is an archaic practice. If you engage in it, you have nobody but yourself to blame. To suggest that it’s simply not possible is nothing more than lazy.

Social media is wasteful and vainglorious.

First, this seems odd coming from somebody writing on his blog. But still…

This is the lynchpin statement that showcases the author’s stupendous ignorance. I hear it repeatedly from people who have not made the slightest effort to explore the research that proves precisely the opposite. General Motors is selling cars by allowing employees to talk about their driving experiences on Facebook from work. Sprint is solving customer problems it identifies through employee volunteers on Twitter. Best Buy is driving customers to its stores via 2,500 employees who answer consumer product questions posed on Twitter — from the floor store. Home Depot’s staff can produce videos or test results to respond to home improvement questions posed through social media channels. Through the employees’ social networks, companies are improving recruiting, identifying competitive intelligence, sourcing subject matter expertise, obtaining training…the list goes on.

There are thousands upon thousands of case studies, and hundreds of research studies, that prove the stupidity of such throwaway statements as “social media is wasteful and vainglorious.” The simple fact is, supported by policies and processes, employee engagement in social media can drive growth and profitability.

What is stupid and vainglorious is leaders who dismiss social media despite the avalanche of quantifiable evidence to the contrary.

Demolishing Barclay Communications’ blocking argument point by point

An article by Barclay Communications appearing in a tech publication from Northern Ireland is strident in its insistence that blocking employee access to Facebook is a requirement in the face of so much risk.

“According to a recent MyJobGroup study, over half of the UKs workforce could be trying to check and update their social networking sites in work,” the article asserts. “As a result social networking has become one of the biggest and most dangerous time wasting activities in the workplace.”

With glee, I’m going to destroy every argument Barclay’s IT services manager, Stephen McPeake, makes. After all, the four “biggest risks” McPeake cites are exactly the four I’ve been shooting down for the last couple years. (In fact, I’m developing an 11-part video series that covers these — along with the benefits organizations can accrue from employee engagement in social networks — that I’ll upload to YouTube as I complete them.)

Productivity

McPeake says: “Consider an employee on minimum wage, working an 8 hour day, but wasting two hours of that on social networking. In the end that one employee could cost a company up to £3,000 a year in lost working hours.”

True enough, if that employee…

  • Only puts in eight hours in the office. He doesn’t come in early, he doesn’t stay late. He clocks in at 8 a.m. and leaves at 5 p.m.
  • Never works away from the office. He never takes a conference call, responds to email, or does any other work at home, at the beach, at the park, on vacation. Increasingly, this is a ridiculous assertion, particularly as the Millennial generation enters the workforce with its concdept of “weisure” — the blending of work and leisure both in the office and at home.
  • Engages in online activities that produce absolutely no value to the organization, such as evangelizing product, sharing competitive intelligence, or seeking subject matter expertise that can’t be found inside the organization.

The fact is, productivity stands to suffer if employees can’t connect to Facebook or other networks. The University of Melbourne has produced research that shows productivity increases 9% among employees who are able to acccess the Net for fun during work. That’s better research than the insipid back-of-the-envelope calculation McPeake (and his ilk) has produced.

But productivity from the use of Facebook goes beyond the Melbourne rationale — that spending some time on the Net for fun resets an employee’s concentration, bolstering his ability to get work done efficiently. Last month, a Gartner representative predicted 20 percent of employees will use social networks rather than e-mail as their business communications hub by 2014. Paul Levy, President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, also sees the importance of Facebook as a channel of staff communication, writing that blocking Facebook “creates a generational gap, in that Facebook, in particular, is often the medium of choice for people of a certain age. I often get many useful suggestions from staff in their 20′s and 30′s who tend not to use email.”

So much for productivity. Let’s move on to McPeake’s second risk:

Attacks from hackers

MckPeake says: “Social networking is one of the newest and most effective ways for hackers to gain entry into peoples’ computers. They pose as trusted friends or connections and then send you a private message recommending a site, video or link. Since they are your ‘friend’ you think nothing of viewing, opening or even downloading whatever they are recommending.”

Tell it to the Marines, Mr. McPeake. After all, this past February U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued a directive opening social networks on all of the Department of Defense’s networks, enabling everyone from a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a private in the field in Afghanistan to participate on Facebook and other social channels. The rationale was simple: The DoD decided that the Net was a field of maneuver, not a fortress to be defended. (That’s my favorite metaphor for this whole issue, by the way.)

So how does the DoD protect its network from hacker attacks? After all, whose networks require stronger security than the military’s? Multiple approaches are taken, including strong network protection from infection. According to my contacts in the DoD, there hasn’t been a serious infection since the decision to open the network so soldiers and staff can participate in social networks.

If the U.S. Military can do it, so can your organization.

Frankly, Mr. McPeake’s recommendation to shut down access is nothing more than the easiest, laziest way to protect a network. It’s (obviously) not the only one.

So with network security behind us, it’s time to shift gears and address Mr. McPeake’s third risk:

Data Leaks

The article points to multiple instances of employees compromising intellectual property using social networks, then points out: “Last month many German companies, such as VW and Porsche were so afraid that their employees would give away trade secrets and be less productive with social networking sites that they completely blocked them.”

The stupidity of this argument is so deep it’s difficult to know where to begin. But let’s start with Beth Israel’s Paul Levy who, in the same post cited above, notes that confidentiality can be violated anywhere, even an elevator. Employees don’t need Facebook to do it. That reminds me of the instance of the Coca-Cola employee who stole a vial of liquid and some papers from a filing cabinet and tried to sell them to PepsiCo (which, to its great credit, turned the employee in; she’s now doing time).

Facebook and other social channels are nothing more than one more channel through which company IP can be distributed — and it’s not much different than email, when you get right down to it. And let’s not forget that employees don’t need the company’s network in order to disclose IP. Many employees carry smartphones with access to social channels, or they can do it from home after work. Blocking access does nothing to stop this bad employee behavior. Training, education, and enforcement of policies will do far more.

And it’s also worth noting that Porsche, as clueless as its blocking effort is, opted to keep YouTube open because of the wealth of training material available through the video sharing network.

That leaves only one more argument from Mr. McPeake:

Slows a company’s internet connection

Barclays Communications argues, “Streaming videos, constantly updating news feeds, playing games and downloading pictures will utilise a large majority of a company’s broadband speed.”

Technically speaking, this is true. I know one hospital that reluctdantly locked down staff access to Pandora, the music streaming service, because so many people were using it and leaving it on all day that vital patient data was moving slowly through the network.

But consider the parallel situation 25 years ago when communication was largely print-based rather than digital. Did you ever here of one of those organizations proclaim that they wished they could send out an employee newsletter but, damn, they just didn’t have enough paper.

The notion is absurd. Companies bought enough paper to meet their communication needs.

Bandwidth is the paper of the digital age. If normal use of bandwidth is slowing the network to a crawl, get more bandwidth. It’s easy to make a business case for this bandwidth, particularly as organizations begin to recognie the substantial business value that exists when employees (adhering to policies) can access social media from work.

That’s business value to which Mr. McPeake is blind. Instead, he says, “We would recommend that you completely block social networking sites with a Firewall such as Smoothwall.”

Do you get the feeling Smoothwall is a Barclay Communications client?

In any case, my advice to Mr. McPeake is to stick with IT and leave business decisions such as these to people who understand that the risks he cites are no risks at all when properly addressed. You have to wonder if Mr. McPeake ever read a quote from Allan Seckel, Deputy Minister to the BC Premier and head of Public Service, who has spoken widely about opening access for all BC employees. Social media, he said, is playing a more and more important role in the everyday work of public employees. Blocking access can impede the ability of employees to do their work, leading them to circumvent blocks and use their own equipment.

And, as an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, “Email as we know it will soon give way to a more fully networked form of communication, which companies will learn to adopt. The only question is whether they will do so early or late.”

It’s time to chuck recommendations and arguments like Mr. McPeake’s into the trash, where they belong, and begin looking ahead to the networked realities of the world of work.