E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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Keeping a Closer Eye on Employees’ Social Networking Will Give You More Than a Headache

Gran Canaria - La FortalezaEarlier on today, I bumped into one of those blog posts that you know is not going to leave you indifferent; quite the opposite, because it touches base on a growing trend that you know is going to cause plenty of trouble ahead, specially for most businesses out there who are starting to embrace social software as their next wave of collaborative and knowledge sharing tools. Even more when that trend collides, up front, with some fundamental privacy rights of knowledge workers. And maybe of employers, too! Have you read Keeping a Closer Eye on Employees’ Social Networking by Joshua Brustein? If you haven’t, you should.

It’s one of those very interesting, and thought-provoking, articles that touches base on the rather delicate issue of employers monitoring the online social software interactions of their employees during working hours. Goodness! Isn’t that something like opening Pandora’s box? And not knowing the full consequences of venturing into something that in the long run could turn out to be rather nasty? Well, I hope I am wrong. Very wrong.

Joshua develops some very interesting insights with regards to a new service released a few days back by Teneros which "makes it much easier for companies to keep tabs on their employees’ social networking activities". And when one keeps reading the article throughout to the end, one cannot stop thinking how much longer will companies keep trying to control & monitor their knowledge workers; or, even worse, when would they realise that a command-and-control attitude in today’s knowledge economy is everything, but *the* ultimate competitive advantage. Rather the opposite!

There are lots and lots of things I could say about the subject of monitoring and controlling employees’ online interactions in social networking tools and perhaps a single blog post would not suffice. Even the latest episode of The Sweettt Podcast, where we spent over an hour and a half talking about this very same subject, was not enough! We probably needed a whole lot more time to cover all of the various different implications with initiatives like Teneros’.

Without entering the realm of European privacy laws, and whatever other privacy related issues, which, by the way, I am not an expert on the topic, but I can imagine how there would be plenty of controversial discussion on this new service (If you do have the skills & knowledge on this very important item on privacy laws and monitoring employees’ activities I would love to hear from you through the comments detailing what some of those challenges may well be, at least, in Europe…), I would like to spend a few minutes developing further on some of the main consequences that implementing such kind of service would create on *any* corporate environment: trust and employee happiness. Amongst several others that I will probably touch base on at some point in time on this blog, as I am sure this topic will be a recurring one…

Right, instead of me putting together a couple of paragraphs on those potential consequences, let’s look into it from the perspective of a couple of businesses and their interests; let’s come up with Company A, that will make use of such new service to monitor the online social networking activities from its employee workforce; and then let’s have as well Company B, which is well known for its rather open policies on using social software tools while at work as their business tools.

So, which company would you rather work for? Company A, the one that still, in 2010!, tries to monitor and control who you are, who you connect with, who you share your knowledge across with? The one that decides what your productivity should be like, because you don’t seem to know better, in the first place? The one that decides what’s best for you, and for the business, not allowing you to make conscious professional decisions, because that’s what you were hired for in the first place, right? Remember?

In short, would you want to work for Company A that doesn’t seem to trust you as a knowledge worker to behave like the professional you were hired for in the first place and make use of all of the various Web resources available out there for you to keep innovating, sharing your knowledge and collaborating across the board using social software tools with other knowledge workers? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

Or would you rather work for Company B, where ALL knowledge workers (No exceptions!) have been encouraged, throughout the years, to spend time on the Web, hanging out in various social networking tools, specially those where your customers and business partners are already spending a good amount of time!, talking and connecting with them in meaningful conversations where you can co-create your company’s next generation of great products by keeping up with the rampant innovation happening in multiple levels established by those social networks?

Would you rather work for Company B, that trusts you would get "to decide what you do each morning" as a knowledge Web worker and be the responsible professional you were hired for in the first place? That company which understands that "Happy People Produce Quality" and that having the right tools to get your job done is not only necessary, but essential? That being happy at work connecting with your social networks across the board, where your knowledge resides deeply, delivers big results time and time again? Well, maybe, maybe not.

Which of the two companies would you rather work for? The one that doesn’t trust you as a talented, responsible and professional knowledge worker who wants to have an enduring career in that company? Or the one who fully understands what major benefits there are out there by unleashing the knowledge, expertise, know-how, experiences and informal networks of the entire employee workforce? You tell me…

Then, finally, I would ask you to ponder something else that most people seem to keep forgetting, but that time and time again it’s becoming a growing pain in the corporate world, and most of us don’t even realise it. What happens to that growing corporate pressure, known as the baby boomer generation about to start retiring in the next two to three years? How do you think Company A and Company B would be able to not only retain some of that knowledge before it goes away, and, most importantly, how do you think Company A and Company B would be capable of attracting new talent (Those younger generations who live in social networks) to slowly, but steadily, replace that maturing workforce.

Do you think that monitoring employees’ social networking activities out there is surely going to guarantee you that next wave of talented, amazingly interconnected, rather innovative knowledge workers that will pick up the baton of the maturing employee workforce on their way out and retain successfully part of that knowledge and keep your business thriving?

Right! I didn’t think so, either! Thus be careful with that headache. It’s coming…!

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  1. Isn’t the key to this conundrum the distinction between ‘knowledge workers’ and everyone else?

    And doesn’t the anxiety to control kick in when access to social networking tools is made available to all and sundry.

    Maybe businesses are finding it hard to create a sensible boundary around what constitutes a knowledge worker and therefore opens access. Sensing ‘danger’, it then considers monitoring.

    Of course it’s clear that management feels it can’t trust ‘non-knowledge workers’ with this heady access to the outside (and inside) world.

    As you say, the headache is coming and this is just me taking the opportunity to make the discussion a bit more granular.

  2. Luis,

    I have a slightly different take on the product described in the NY Times. I agree with you that businesses are misguided when they try to monitor employees online activities because they see them as time-wasting.

    However, there is a real need for businesses to be sure that their people respect things like internal or client-confidential information. It is naive of us not to recognise that social media tools create the possibility of real information and compliance risk. They are a readily available channel for the commmunication (accidental or otherwise) of inside knowledge beyond the organisation’s control.

    Just as we should be careful tweeting when we are away from home so that thieves aren’t made aware of an empty house, so a business has a right (and a duty in some instances) to control the way critical information about itself and its work flows around the social web.

  3. One of the things I hope to show is the extent to which control has been an enduring management obsession throughout decades. The arrival of social technologies and the desire to monitor employees’ social networking activities is only the most recent manifestation. The potential scale and scope of online snooping scares me.

    Mark says: “There is a real need for businesses to be sure that their people respect things like internal or client-confidential information.”

    Yes, this is true. Control and compliance are obviously valid management concerns. It is how this is achieved that matters, and that has to be done within in a wider high-performance context, characterised by HR, IT and Facilities Management policies that communicate trust and transparency.

    I think I feel another blog post coming on. Thanks for a great read, Luis.

  4. Not to mention companies cannot monitor the *quality* of communications via employee’s social networks. If someone actually finds a solution to a company’s problem via asking her own communities, it would be crazy to have her penalised for spending ‘too much time’ on non-designated sites. I can see so much technological hiccups aside from the legal implications on this. Not good. Thanks for bringing it up, Luis.

  5. Woohoo Cathy. Nail on the head.

    This is why I liked JP (a couple of years ago) talking about agreeing objectives and timescales with staff and letting them find their own way to achieving them.

  6. I don’t have any problem with monitoring social networks. It is how it may be used that could cause an issue. If it is used for managing the worker then it can be a problem. If it is used to ensure security policies or understanding network bandwidth usage, then fine.

    What I would take exception to is a manager saying you have spent 20% of your time on social networks and not doing real work. It is similar to my current company which looks at overtime percentage. If I am working more deals and have higher signings than my team mates, then what does it matter if I work less overtime?

  7. Think two key things here are Trust and Responsibility from both employer and employee.

    We need to educate both the employer as well ans employee about the potential, but also the dangers of embracing social networks at work.

    In essence this is not much different than the other means of communication that we are using anyway like phone and email. Whilst it is inevitable that you have sometimes a private call or email, you shouldn’t spend 3 hours per day phoning your mom or best friend. This same thing applies to social networks as well. You can rely on your communities (Facebook, Twitter, Sap Developer Network, etc) for solving problems or getting leads, it’s a whole different thing to flirt all the time with that secretary from the 5th floor.

    Btw, one of my motivations for educating employees about the use of social networks is not necessarily to slap them on the fingers for using it for private usage, it’s rather to help them being more effective. But again, this is not something unique for social networks, also for email. I know way too many people that drown in their email inbox, mainly because they are living in corporate culture where email is the standard way of communicating. With a few simple tips and tricks they can drastically lower their email traffic and thus being more effective.

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