When worlds connect

Introducing social networking into the workplace
By Elizabeth Caley
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/09/2008

In the mid-1990s, the hit TV show


introduced a concept to pop culture by way of George Costanza’s neuroses — the theory of worlds colliding. George feared that if his friends and girlfriend came into contact, both worlds would blow up.

The last few years have seen a number of threats of “worlds colliding” in the workplace. The mass adoption of social-networking tools, including instant messaging, has created a dilemma for human resources professionals as they try to answer the following question: Do tools used for social purposes have any place in the office?

A number of organizations and government agencies have taken the firm stance they do not. They ban instant messaging applications and restrict visits to popular social-networking sites. This hard-line approach has garnered media attention and stirred feelings of confusion and derision amongst Generation Ys entering the workforce.

Other companies have welcomed the collision of the social world and the work world by adopting networking tools to try and enhance productivity and engage employees in a positive and enterprising way.

If your company is on the fence, torn between embracing or rejecting the social-networking trend, there are a few things to consider.

The Generation Y factor

As more and more baby boomers take retirement packages, the corporate face looks younger and younger. Generation Y is unlike any generation before it. Raised on technology, this group — born between 1977 and 1992 — are quick to learn and, more than any other generation, apt to make career changes based on what might seem like a whim.

I once observed a focus group comprised of about 20 Generation Yers. In a discussion about technology, the group formed a consensus when it came to choosing a preference for e-mail or instant messaging. While instant messaging provides immediate responses, one participant said e-mail was about as effective as sending a smoke signal.

While the hyperbole is obvious, the sentiment is clear: Generation Y is adept at working in real time and feels hindered when forced to use “old” communication technologies.

Clearly, no HR professional is going to make recommendations for change simply to cater to a group of potentially bored employees, but a good HR professional should consider the effect of the technology on the workplace. Will it enhance productivity? Realistically, the answer is probably yes. Information can be disseminated quickly and questions answered on the fly, cutting down visits between cubicles or offices and drawn-out phone conversations.

How social networking fits in an office

So how does social networking fit in an office environment?

First, consider the purpose of a social network. While a web-based public network frequented by college students and populated with pictures of the most recent party might be the first image that comes to mind, the definition and applications of corporate social networks are much broader.

Within an organization, the goal of a social network is to enhance communication and collaboration, thereby increasing the productivity of day-to-day activities and projects. From an HR perspective, this type of tool can be immensely valuable.

For example, staffing issues can be addressed by having full visibility of which employee is connected to which team for each project. Team structures and organizational relationships can be built and navigated, 360-degree reviews co-ordinated and expert-matter resources pegged and allocated to the right teams with ease using a corporate social network.

Most importantly, overworked staff can be moved off projects, while underused resources can be added to teams, making for an efficiently run organization and happier employees.

Deciding upon a solution

If this makes sense for an organization, the next step is to consider the type of social networking tool to use. When deciding, three factors should be top of mind: Ease of use, security and functionality.

In order for HR to sell a social networking product to the rest of an organization — and particularly to an IT department — it is critical the product is user-friendly and compatible with existing technology. As with any new tool, the easier it is to interact with, the quicker it will be adopted and more effectively it will be used. Software built upon already familiar technology makes sense for many organizations as the learning curve will be smaller and integration of the product with existing technology will be seamless.

When creating a corporate social network, it is imperative the information is secure and not open to vulnerabilities. To ensure this, invest in proven technology that has built-in security features. HR needs to work with the IT department to settle upon a product with security settings that mesh well with existing IT infrastructure. By choosing a secure social networking product, employees will be more willing to share information and use the tool to its full potential.

If done properly, worlds won’t collide when you introduce social networking into your company — they’ll blend. And that’s enough to let any HR professional’s inner George Costanza breathe a sigh of relief.

Elizabeth Caley is a group product manager, office servers, with Microsoft Canada.

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