Thursday, October 16, 2008

Do public social networks have a place in government offices?

Some departments block them totally, others just monitor usage, is there a case for allowing or even supporting public social network use in government offices?

The other day the Sydney Morning Herald published an article on The pain and potential of Facebook in the office where Nick Abrahams, a Deacons law firm partner provided his personal view on the use of public social networks within a corporate environment together with some statistics from the Deacon Social Networking Survey 2008 on usage in nearly 700 Australian organisations.

Without giving clear conclusions, Nick raised some interesting points around the commercial risks of allowing these networks, including potential over-use, harassment, discrimination and the release of private or corporate in-confidence information.

He also flagged the risks of blocking these networks - such as reduced collaboration, unattractiveness to younger potential employees and being seen as out-of-step with accepted social conventions.

A couple of the findings Nick highlighted were that 20% of organisations blocked access to public social networking sites, only 14% of employees (currently) use social network sites during office hours (including lunch!) and that 76% of employees believed that organisations should allow staff to access these sites in the office.

Demographically only 4% of employees over 35 used social networks at the office, whilst 25% of those 25-34 and 33% of those under 25 years did. Also 46% of respondents who used social networks stated that, given the choice between two job offers that were otherwise roughly equivalent, they'd pick the organisation that did not block Facebook.

There is clear evidence that social networks provide benefits. The experience of many organisations now using internal social networks bears out that they do support collaboration - where they are supported by an appropriate organisational culture.

The efforts by the US intelligence services (an internal facebook equivalent) and the work by software providers such as Microsoft to develop social networks for organisations indicates that in the future more online social networking in organisations is likely to be the norm, rather than less.

However internal social networking is different - easier to manage and control than public social networking. Once it goes public an organisation relies on each and every individual involved to conduct themselves responsibly at all times where their comments are visible.

Is the situation with public social networking any different to where we are with telephones, letters, emails and even online forums (which are not commonly blocked)?

With these mediums we put appropriate policies in place, sometimes train people on acceptable conduct and rely on trusting individuals to do the right thing, to act in their own self-interest (continued employment) and back these up with potential legal options (scaling up from disciplinary action) to ensure usage is appropriately managed.

Should government agencies treat public social networks differently to other mediums, as people are behaving in a less formal manner but may still be indirectly representing the organisation?

Or should they use the same principles of policy, training and actions as for other mediums?

6 comments:

  1. A more professional networking site that is making great headwinds and may be useful is www.uBoast.com

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  2. THanks,

    There is also LinkedIn - which I have used at work to get contact details for people I need to reach.

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  3. Blocking is crazy. Try being a web developer and needing to look up a 'firefox css hack' ... the top (and useful) resource is pornel.net/firefoxhack ... try getting to that in a department with a fear of hacking and/or porn ...

    Too many false positives with blocking. I wish there were more trust in employees.

    Thankfully advances like iPhones and prepaid mobile broadband are making departmental blocks moot (at a cost to the individual).

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  4. sure organizations should block social networking. Website Block http://www.ashkon.com/webblock.html is just one of the software tools that can do that

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  5. Craig
    In relation to policies, there is nothing to stop a public sector worker from divulging information to the press, through an anonymous letter or email or call. There is nothing to stop a worker picking up the phone, writing emails, surfing the web, and if permissible, using social networking sites. What stops them is knowledge of their appropriate behaviours and their obligations in various Public Service Acts.
    As a blogger for a number of years, I have had to be very careful about what I publish as, generally, public servants are not allowed to make public comments about their work.
    Blocking social networking tools will not stop people blabbing about their work or wasting time on non-job related activities. They are just another tool that people can use like the pen, phone, computer and Internet. And external social media will always be better technology, and have more connections that are more personal than work-based ones.
    With appropriate policies and trust in staff (which requires some monitoring), social networking can be very effective in the workplace. Increasingly, people will ask not just their colleagues at work, but others in their personal networks for help and support. Without giving away confidential information, that has significant benefits for the organisation.
    Otherwise, we would still be using typing pools and In trays / out trays.

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  6. Hi Luke,

    I walk the same high wire when blogging, which is why I wrap my blog in the disclaimer that it is purely my personal views and my managers are aware of my blog (but do not read everything I write).

    The value I receive from sharing views and getting reflections back from peers is enormous - as is participation in online lists and groups related to the areas in which I add value for my agency.

    If the government wants people across agencies and different government levels to work closer together than as part of this process talking to one another about the issues we face and experiences we have had is a critical requirement of sharing knowledge.

    Therefore by default there is that choice between siloing people or permitting discussion - online is simply a mechanism to achieve discourse, and one that ironically is more accountable and controllable than conference conversations, sporting events or other meetings (without 'minders').

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