by Mike Altendorf

Social media – the IT equivalent to free love?

Aug 23, 2010
IT LeadershipIT StrategyNetworking Devices

So what is it about social media that strikes such fear into the hearts of normally rational human beings? Up and down the country the debate is raging in HR departments and boardrooms as to whether or not their employees can be trusted to have access to the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

For some reason senior managers seem to be under the illusion that the ability to log into Facebook from a desk will make a normally trusted and responsible employee throw caution to the wind and start posting company secrets alongside holiday pics and rants on the state of the train services into Paddington.

If companies employed the draconian policies that many have for social media on other forms of communication, business as we know it would be impossible. Can you imagine banning access to email or the post box? Even prisoners get access to a phone!

I am not saying that companies shouldn’t have policies on social media but – as the old saying goes – a workman shouldn’t blame his tools. Anyone foolish enough to put information out that they shouldn’t is just as likely to do it on email. In 90 per cent of cases the information is more embarrassing to the individual than the company anyway (drink seems to make sane men terribly boastful about their sex lives…).

The fact is that social media is here to stay. Chances are your employees are accessing it via their phones and from home computers so banning it in the office makes not a jot of difference. For today’s ‘wired millennials’ restriction is simply not an option anyway. Increasingly employees entering the workplace now have social media so tightly integrated into their everyday lives that they would turn down a job rather than accept restrictions on access to Facebook. Fundamentally though it comes down to trust and if you don’t trust someone you shouldn’t hire them.

While senior managers are wrestling with the ‘should we, shouldn’t we’ question they are missing a huge opportunity – to embrace social media and make it work for them. Whether, like Intel, you use it to harness the knowledge of your customers to help improve your products and create your product roadmap or, like Dell, take a direct approach and use it to sell (if you are in the market for a PC check out @DellOutlet on Twitter). The hard thing for many is that in order to do that successfully you have be prepared to relinquish some control – something senior managers are very reluctant to do.

When I talk to CIOs I sometimes have to remind them of the fact that the internet means that to a certain degree control is an illusion anyway. Ever since its use became part of our day-to-day lives anyone with access to it has been able to share information with whoever they like, whenever they like. Most companies gave up trying to restrict it and I suspect we will see the approach to social media follow the same pattern. Better to be sensible about it now and by empowering employees as brand ambassadors, harness it for the benefit of your business.

And when you look at what companies like Intel have done – what’s not to like? Not only are they ‘crowdsourcing’ in the truest sense of the word and using customers to help decide where they go in terms of product development, they have also created a community that solves its own problems – no doubt saving considerable amounts of money in customer support. Members of the Channel Voice community can pose questions and other members can answer them rather than having to rely on a helpdesk.

Don’t get me wrong I am not proposing the IT equivalent to free love. These social media based communities have rules. There are publicly available guidelines about what can and can’t be posted and the company is actively engaged in the community – identifying unanswered questions and finding solutions but also as the ‘bobby on the beat’ – policing the virtual streets and making sure the service is being used properly.

A recent report by Forrester (The CIO’s Guide To Social Computing Leadership, March 31, 2010) had some interesting findings on what employees use social media for. The top three reasons given for using social media platforms were (in order of popularity) staying in touch with the news, getting ideas to help me with my job and researching information for work. Staying in touch with friends was down at number four.

There is no doubt that guidelines are needed – for helping employees understand what is expected for them as much as for security purposes. If you want my two pennies’ worth I think it boils down to three simple rules:

1. Never publish anything as a representative of your company that you wouldn’t put on a personal blog or Tweet;

2. Embrace and encourage social networking within your work environment and consider what it can do for your company as well as for you personally;

3. Remember that at all times you are a brand ambassador and are being trusted with that brand so look after it.

And just remember, in five years time we will all look back on this and wonder what all the fuss was about.