- How can we control it?
- How do we stop people at our workplace from abusing it?
- What can go wrong?
- How can we use it to make money?
These are the same questions that were asked about phones, e-mail, mobile phones and blogs in the workplace. And now they’re being asked about online social networks.
Why do we keep repeating history? In my view, it’s because we can get so overwhelmed by the possibilities of the tools that we lose focus on the basic functions of communication and how these tools can help us with them.
Here’s a quick review of communicators’ key functions:
- We assist organizations in achieving their visions through the implementation of their strategic and business plans.
- We bring communication skills to the table, which help an organization to create, maintain and improve the relationships needed to operate.
- We help build relationships that assist the organization in operating efficiently and meeting changing demands, including emergency and crisis situations.
- We help identify the right tools for communicating with stakeholders in ways that get through to them.
Online social networks can be useful in all of these functions, helping businesses to build relationships and reach people in ways that are relevant to them.
Nature of relationships
Communication researchers John Ledingham and Stephen Brunig identified certain attributes of relationships that are particularly relevant to social networking. They noted that the fundamental basis of any relationship is trust, and that you cannot create relationships without dealing with people at the three levels of their lives: professional, personal and community.
If you don’t reach stakeholders at each of these levels, relationships become superficial and, in the case of professional relationships, may be perceived to be based only on the profitability of the relationship. This will not produce stakeholders who remain with you during the tough times.
The advantages of social networks
Social networks allow people to relate on all three levels: professional, personal and community. For example, with a social network your employees can start their own job-related network or join a community action group.
Other advantages include:
- Social networks are not personally intrusive. Participants choose how much of the relationship they wish to develop without feeling bombarded by the organization or that the organization is intruding on their privacy.
- Social networks are capable of multifaceted communication. Multifaceted communication is more effective than two-way communication because you utilize existing networks and rely on the effectiveness and credibility of “word-of-mouth” (in the broad sense, including e-communication).
- Social networks allow expression of experiences and feelings and a sense of connection. Those experiences and feelings are real to the people who express them. This makes social networks valuable research and evaluation tools.
- People obviously enjoy them, as they continue to use them despite also having e-mail, SMS, mobile phones and, well you get the picture. As communicators, we are constantly looking to reach out to stakeholders in ways that they will enjoy, so hesitate before you discount social networking sites altogether.
- Employees, families and friends use them, and all the while employees are gaining knowledge and training. Wouldn’t the technology behind Facebook make a great internal contact directory? Every visit to a social networking site is relatively cheap training. Your employees gain skills that they then bring to the workplace.
- They establish a creative environment for your workplace. Social networks provide a relatively easy way to encourage innovation and change in the workplace.
Beware the bad news stories
On a straight cost-benefit analysis, every minute of productivity lost from time spent on a social network is potentially worth much more as a result of the creativity, knowledge and training gained. How many of us can say that we have ever worked for an organization that has a sufficient training budget or a really effective innovation program?
Keep in mind that the studies and reports you see in the media and hear on the grapevine tend to paint small and sensational pictures of social networking. Coverage of the virtual world involves multiple commercial interests. Is it coincidence that Facebook has become the focus of bad press since it started challenging News Corp’s MySpace for dominance in social networks?
What to do about it
Before spending hours writing up new policies and putting in barriers, go back to the basics. A manager asking for an inappropriate friendship and an employee spending too much time on a social network are performance issues that can probably be dealt with by your organization’s current policies.
Go to your organization’s leaders and go through the pros and cons of social networks based on your organization’s strategic and business plans and performance policies.