Social Networking in the Workplace

Social networking in the workplace is one hot topic these days. Read why.
Nov | 23 | 2009

Nov | 23 | 2009

Social networking is one hot topic these days. Many people at least partially understand how to use social networking tools on a personal level. However, fewer are sure about what if anything these tools can do at work. Many people wonder if they should even be on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn while on company time.

I spent a decent amount of time discussing this topic with interviewees for The New Small. After extensive conversions a whole host of interesting folks, I have reached one less-than-revolutionary conclusion:

Many largely unanswered questions remain about social networking in the workplace, but we are starting to answer them.

So, in this post, I will share what I have learned.

What’s are the benefits of social networking in the workplace?

At a high level, social networking tools allow organizations to improve communication and productivity among employees. Possible soon-to-be buzzword alert: Collaboration is one word that we’re hearing quite a bit. More efficient platforms allow for information to be disseminated among disparate groups of employees. Communication with vendors and suppliers is also enhanced.

Is there a formula for successfully implementing social networking tools?

No. Let’s be clear here: One size does not fit all. In other words, the benefits of these social networking apps and tools vary on the following dimensions:

  • the type of app deployed
  • specific features
  • employees’ familiarity with Web 2.0 tools
  • the organization itself
  • a host of other “people-related” factors

Fine. I get it. You’re clearly not in sales. What potential benefits can social networking tools provide?

With that disclaimer out of the way, social networking tools can help organizations and their end users by doing the following:

  • Preventing overloaded email inboxes
  • Allowing more open communication filtered by relevance. This leads to enhanced information discovery and, ultimately, knowledge.
  • Allowing employees to answer previously answered questions–and search those answers.
  • Allow employees to discuss ideas, post news, ask questions, and easily share links with one another.
  • Organizations can tap into knowledgeable resources throughout the company.

Are these tools being rolled out in a manner similar to previous IT projects?

Not always. Most organizations have traditionally rolled out software from using a top-down approach. This is particularly big corporations. In the past, the IT department purchased enterprise software, often with some input from the lines of business (LOBs).  Many organizations purchased software as follows:

  • key internal players and departments looked at feature lists for different vendors’ products
  • IT ensured that these products were safe and secure
  • Often with the help of consultants, IT rolled them out only to find that nobody used them–or at least not optimally

One size does not fit all.

Social networking is different because many products are based on a freemium model. Free trials enable employees to decide what product they want to use before organizations write large checks to software vendors. Rather than the top-down approach, new products can spread organically within organizations for one simple reason: employees already enjoy using them. This approach makes the purchasing decision much easier for IT. Basically, IT merely has to ensure that the product is safe and secure. IT knows that the employees already want the product, as evinced by their levels of adoption and engagement. In short, the purchasing challenge is not as significant now. Adoption of the new tool is less uncertain.

What are some of the most common mistakes that organizations make implementing social networking tools?

I actually addressed this a while back in a previous post. To recap, I’d cite three main mistakes. First, organizations often fail to implement usage policies that establish a clear set of guidelines. Second, without encouragement, training, and guidelines, employees are sometimes scared to use new apps and tools. Other times, employees are confused about how these new tools work. Third, old habits die hard. Many people will continue to rely on what they know: email and voice mail. Organizations need to wean themselves from long, drawn-out email chains and encourage people to embrace new ways of doing things.

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  1. Michael West

    Interesting. The jury still seems to be out on this topic. I take it that your next book has a chapter about this?

    • Phil Simon

      The new book has social technologies at its core, among others.

  2. philsimon

    Yes, Jay Miletsky is writing it. I’ve sent him a note to comment on this. He’s a really smart guy who actually lives a few miles from me.

  3. Jason Miletsky

    Thanks, Phil, for the intro – not so sure about the “smart” part, but I can at least agree that I only live a few miles away!

    Here’s the thing about social networking in the workplace: employees are going to do it anyway. Social networking is not a tamable monster – it’s out there, and like it or not it’s a permanent part of our lives. Companies can either leverage its benefits or lose out by failing to do so. You can continue to let them chat it up at the coffee maker, or have better control over the conversation and gain a real value by moving the conversation online.

    All of the points that Phil made are spot on, so I won’t rehash those. I will, however, add another bullet point that should be addressed: using social networking to turn your employees into brand advocates.

    Allowing employees to engage with each other online while at work will ultimately effect how they communicate the brand online outside of work. There’s no way to harness what employees post on their Linked-In profiles or their Facebook status updates when they’re home for the night, but one thing is for certain: at some point they’ll be talking about the company they work for. Giving them access to information through internal social networking provides businesses with an ideal opportunity to educate their employees, make them feel closer to the company and provide them (subtly) with talking points to relay to their personal networks. At the same time, internal networking gives upper management a way to get a pulse on the working environment and take action to fix issues before they develop into more serious morale problems.

    Employees are too often overlooked as the most important market for brand advocacy, but as a unit, a workforce wields a significant amount of power to sway those around them positively or negatively. Smart companies won’t ignore social networking for fear of the unknown, but rather seek to exploit it capabilities and control the conversation for the greater good of the brand.

  4. philsimon

    Jay – Great addition. You know much more about marketing than I do. I approach social networking from a different perspective but I suppose that’s the point; there isn’t just one way to use the tool.

  5. Heather

    About the “head in the sand” phenomenon. (You see this a lot in open source software licensing, which is the area I work in.)

    I was on a call with a bunch of lawyers earlier this year — a conference call for some ABA sub-committee. The subject of social networking came up. Someone asked what the various lawyers’ law firms’ policies were on use of social networking. One lawyer from a very “white shoe” firm in DC said very seriously, “Our firm has a strict policy against use of social networks.” I dove for the mute button because I was laughing so hard. Three observations about this.

    1. In law firms and other service businesses, the employees are pretty much the *only* conduit for business development. So prohibiting lawyers from using social networks — in the depth of a recession — was economic suicide.

    2. This firm was supposed to have a technology/IP practice, they it was prohibiting its lawyers from participating in — and thus meaningfully understanding — an entire technology sector.

    3. While still on the phone, I found dozens of their lawyers on Facebook.

    Just as with open source, companies have to wake up and smell the coffee. You need a policy that works, not one that looks good on paper until someone points out that everyone ignores it. Companies are better off training their employees how to use social networking responsibly — or at least creating alter egos to post their “lost weekend” photos.

  6. Michael Krigsman

    Social networking is here to stay, the only question is how, and in what time frame, large scale enterprise adoption takes place.

    There is a natural tension between IT and the lines of business that certainly does exist. However, both sides do need to cooperate and work together for social adoption to occur successfully.

    At the end of the day, if both sides don’t cooperate then organizations may build it (and spend lots of money in the process) and the users just won’t show up.

    And that is one face of what IT failure will look like in the future. This is especially true as larger system deployments give way to smaller implementations.

  7. Jim Harris

    Well, I don’t live anywhere near Phil and I am not as smart as either him or Jay, but…

    First of all, I also agree with the points Phil made in the post. And I agree with Jay that companies can not ignore social networking for fear of the unknown.

    However, I recommend to my clients that the best approach is to first establish a corporate policy regarding what is permissible for employees to say about the company on “external” social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, as well as other social media platforms such as the employees’ personal blogs.

    Next, I recommend that my clients use an “internal” social networking platform such as Noodle, Yammer, or Social Cast (to name just three of many choices) for employees to use while at the office. You might not have to go as far as blocking “external” social networking sites, but employers should strongly encourage all work-related social networking be performed within the safety of the intranet and not out in the serendipitous “Series of Tubes” also known as the Internet.

    I don’t disagree with using employees for brand advocacy – it can in fact work very well, and Jason is correct is saying that employees will eventually talk about their company outside of work anyway.

    However, not every employee is a good candidate for being a brand advocate. Especially when you consider the fact that this year’s “holiday bonuses” are unlikely to be much to post a positive status update about on Twitter or Facebook.

    So, bottom line – companies should start by using “internal” social networking for robust communication and collaboration, and using “external” social networking for “listening purposes only.”

    Brand advocacy via social media is important – but doing it poorly does a lot more harm than not doing it all.

  8. philsimon


    This is easily the best discussion on my new site. The variety of viewpoints is just amazing.


  9. Jill Wanless

    Excellent story and discussion. Where I work the powers that be are so busy discussing strategies and policies it could be another year before anything concrete is agreed upon. In the meantime people are on Facebook, they are tweeting and there are even some rogue blogs out there. If management was social savvy they would realize they are loosing much more than they would be risking…and aren’t true leaders supposed to take chances to affect change?

    I say start small with some basic guidelines and adjust as you go. Something is better than nothing.


  10. Alan Peters

    There are also opportunities in discovery, metrics and a whole host of other applications.

    Here’s a couple more thoughts on my blog at Elevator magazine on implications of Salesforce Chatter

    Alan Peters

  11. Tim

    Great post and comments Phil.

  12. Angelica

    I think Instant messaging is essential for successful social networking.  Is the possibility to communicate in real time
    what is important independently of the application used.
    Angelica <a href=””>Urinozinc</a> reviewer

  13. Whitney Segura

    You make some very valid points about why networking in the workplace is important. I agree completely that many make the mistake of not clearly specifying workplace rules and regulations in association with the workers. Great tips, I really enjoyed reading this one.

  14. Karla

    This has been an excellent read! I’m trying to set up an internal networking site at the moment, with little support from managment. I am attending a senior management meeting to really sell the benifits of such a transparent, immediate, dynamic, fair, interactive platform for information sharing. This has really given me the confidence to move forward and thrown in some great tips too. Thanks Phil!

  15. Peterdking

    I have used all the social networking tools and whilst I like embracing change I have some doubts.  The questions I have are
    1.How can they be made effective so they do not waste huge amounts of time and distract users from
    the task at hand?
    2. How can social networking be balanced against “really communicating with people in the real world? How can you have real meaningful exchanges without non verbal cues? Where is empathy and emotional intelligence?

    • Phil Simon

      Those are lofty questions for a comment! There’s always a downside with any new technology and social networks are no exception. 


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