Rejoice! Employee use of social networks has tripled!

Palo Alto Networks is out with its annual numbers on employee work time spent on social networks. The company’s conclusions are based on analyzing raw data from 1,600-plus companies for a seven-month period last year. Their press release on the study confirms something we already suspected: “explosive growth in global social networking and browser-based file sharing on corporate networks, with a 300 percent increase in active social networking. (e.g., posting, applications) compared with activity during the same period in the latter half of 2010.”

The press release quotes the company’s CMO, René Bonvanie, saying “Whether or not employees are using social networks or sharing files at work is no longer a question; this data clearly demonstrates that users are embracing and actively using such applications.”
But, since network security is Palo Alto Networks’ business, the conclusion Bonvanie reaches is that you’d better watch out because productivity and network security are at risk. So the reporting of the study will serve mostly to encourage the lockdown of social channels at work. That conclusion, as far as I’m concerned, misses the point entirely.

In fact, a tripling of employee access to social networks is a cause for celebration, not panic.

For example, the numbers point to widespread adoption of Twitter at work. Nobody’s playing Farmville on Twitter, but we know from the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) study, “The New Symbiosis of Professional Networks,” that professional peer groups have moved from proprietary networks to Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s likely that a lot of the tweeting going on from work is work-related.

In 2010, the bandwidth consumed by employees for Faceboook apps, social plugins and posting was 5 percent. In the new study it has risen to 25 percent. isn’t it interesting, though, that Palo Alto Networks includes “posting” as one of the activities driving the increase.

The numbers also point to file sharing sites as the source of a lot of bandwidth consumption. Of course, posting to and visiting Slideshare and Scribd, for instance, are good things, not something to worry about. These are places where knowledge is transferred.

The reason workers are using social networks is, in large part, that these channels are increasingly becoming a routine part of how work gets done. Yes, I understand that some people abuse their access and that companies need to address concerns over the introduction of viruses and other infections, but these issues need to be addressed without hamstringing the bulk of the population that uses social networking to improve their productivity and the company’s performance.

Social channels is exactly where employees need to be, given the results of Edelman’s 2012 Trust Barometer, which was released today. According to the Executive Summary

(As trust in CEOs dropped, trust in) “a person like me” has re-emerged as one of the three most credible spokespeople, with the biggest increase in credibility since 2004, and now trails only academics and technical experts. Regular employees jumped from least credible spokesperson to tied for fourth on the list, with a 16-point record rise. Social-networking, microblogging, and conte-thsaring sites witnessed the most dramatic percentage increase as trusted sources of information about a company, rising by 88, 86, and 75 percent, respectively.These results alone should make it clear that a tripling of employee engagement in these channels bodes very, very well for companies.

If you need more evidence that this is just the way people communicate, there’s another report from ReadWrite Enterprise that wonders whether dumping email as a channel for employee-to-employee communication might just make sense. One of the reasons online veteran David Strom cites is that, “as social media becomes more prevalent, it becomes easier to have conversations in the public eye, or at least on the corporate Intranet.” He lists activities like posting questions and replies in these channels.

There are other shifts leading to email’s demise –- the shift to mobile, and that IM, group chats and other technologies work better. Of course, email between the company and anyone outside the organization would remain a regular communication tool.

But Strom’s post reinforces the point that we’re using social nertworks at work as an important part of getting the job done because it’s just more efficient. That’s what technology is supposed to do. Of course, there are organizations that get this. CNN Money profiled nine companies from the list of the best companies to work for that have added social networks to the workplace. For example, Intuit’s @TeamTurboTax draws upon product managers and engineers to tackle customers’ problems. Intuit says that when the tax season comes around, employees throughout the pipeline volunteer to contribute to the effort to respond to customersk. So, would all those posts be counted in the Palo Alto Networks’ “posting” data? And if so, that kind of traffic needs to be viewed as a company advantage,something to be nurtured, not a cause for locking down the organization.

I posted an item to my blog last week praising Zappos for its handling of the server security breach. One of Zappos’ actions was to send an email to customers. A few of the few commentsto my post came from people who hadn’t gotten that email. It didn’t take long before someone from Zappos left a comment that apologized, explained that the emails are going to tens of million of customers in batches and that took a while. He then let everyone know what to do without waiting for the email. He signed his comment, “Jonathan, random Zappos employee.” Again, these are legitimate work-related purposes to which these channels are being used. I’d start training employees to do more of this, not make it harder.

But Palo Alto Networks has an incentive to put its view out there as a press release that’ll find its way into the inbox of a lot of executives, and that’s why you’ll continue to see companies blocking employee access, like the more than half of companies in Ireland do.

Finally, remember the Altimeter Group’s social media preparedness study, which points out that companies that train their employees on policies and practices experience a far lower risk of problems arising from social media than those that bolt the doors.

If your employees aren’t among those whose use of social media at work has tripled, you have a reason to be concerned. Your competitors that understand that shift in work processes are primed to kick your ass.

I initially reported on this story on today’s episode of For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report.” It is cross-posted from my primary blog at holtz.com

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