One easy prediction for 2012 is that it will be the year that social media invades the office as a major addition and supplement to texting, teleconferencing, videoconferencing and, of course, the venerable e-mail. Social media – basically a private, internal version of Facebook – has several important advantages. First it is a way to confirm that you are communicating with the right people. This is not always easy in the virtual office. It also creates the opportunity of creating a “virtual office” on your computer – laptop or tablet – that can unify your work team across worldwide distances while connecting it to the larger organization and, possibly, to customers and suppliers as well. The effect will be the electronic equivalent of the traditional office in which each department had its own space inside the corporate office building.
It also combines real-time and store-forward communications of various kinds, including IM, video, and graphic communications, e-mail, and status posting. And each communication comes with the sender's full identification attached, so again you know who is sending the message. It also provides a mechanism for self-publishing within your workgroup, department, or the entire organization.
All of this will encourage closer teamwork and collaboration and a sharing of ideas that can lead to everything from improvements in workflow to the development of new products or services as ideas bounce from person to person through the organization and accumulate comments and thoughts on the way. However, it also has a potential for disruption and abuse. One of the problems with e-mail has been the proliferation of low-value messages – everything from announcements that someone has left their headlights on in the office parking lot (particularly helpful for people who work remotely) to birthday announcements, apartment rentals, and other things that once went in the “classifieds” section of the office newsletter.
The challenge here is not technical – several social networking technologies and services for business are already on the market. The issues have more to do with office etiquette and in some cases ethics, and someone with the proper authority needs to take responsibility for establishing rules to minimize disruption and maximize business benefit. And these rules are not always easy to create.
For instance, is it good etiquette for people to solicit support for their favorite causes via the office social media system? For instance, if someone is participating in a walk-a-thon for cancer research can they advertise that in some way? What if they are walking to support gun control instead? What about supporting a political candidate? The problem is that some charities, while totally legitimate, are very controversial, especially in the present political climate, and can become disruptive in the office.
Another question is how can different kinds of information be published. In the pre-network days this was not a problem – individuals submitted their announcements to someone usually in HR who edited the office newsletter and who decided what could be printed and where. If you didn't care about this month's birthdays you didn't have to read them. Then e-mail came along and people started sending out all-company messages for everything under the sun, with no control. Social networking can provide an opportunity to eliminate those interruptive e-mails and instead publish the announcements in a single place – an electronic classified section, perhaps – where they are less distracting but still available for those who are interested.
Another issue is that individuals may post information meant only for their work group or department but that then is distributed across the office. This could be anything from preliminary figures on the quarter's company performance to information on a new product under development. All employees have to be kept conscious of the need to control distribution of their communications, whether on the new internal social media platform or traditional e-mail. And some information is too sensitive to put on the social media platform at all.
Action Item: Social media is going to become more important in business over the course of 2012. While it offers real advantages to corporate productivity in this era of telecommuting and virtual work groups often spread across large geographies, it also creates challenges. Companies need to establish clear rules upfront to avoid problems.