Now Reading: Network Citizens-Power and Responsiblity at Work

Not long ago I was ordering coffee and needed to wait a few seconds for the person taking my order to end a personal cell phone call. Once the call ended, she was extremely courteous, warm, and service oriented. I now realize that she was tapping into her social network, using her own information technology, at work.

There’s an ongoing conversation in many workplaces that starts with “(name your social network) is blocked by by my employer.”

This white paper, written by Demos, which bills itself as the think tank for every day democracy, delivers a broad look at social networking, and goes beyond, “your company should allow access to social networks.” On that point, though, here is what is said:

First, smart businesses recognise that ‘social’ networking is not neatly separable from ‘professional’ networking. Attempts to control employees’ use of social networking software in the office may end up damaging the organisation in the long run by depleting its network capital. Of course, bans on Facebook or YouTube are in any case almost impossible to enforce; firms may as well try to put a time limit on the numbers of minutes allowed each day for gossiping. A network permissive culture requires a degree of trust on the part of managers and responsibility on the part of employees; but to the extent that networks add internal economic value, this is usually a risk worth taking.

So, controlling access to networks in the workplace is futile (think about the coffee employee’s cell phone) and has negative consequence on recruitment, retention, and innovation among other things. At the same time, there’s an interesting conversation about the risks of networks, and not the kind of risks most people commonly think of:

Networks can build meritocracy, openness and democracy – but then can also exclude and discriminate. They can help to diffuse power away from hierarchical structures – but they can hoard power for themselves, too.

The authors point out that most social networks are opaque, compared to the transparency of the organizational chart. It’s easy to look at these and see who is connected. This is where responsibility comes in. Organizations should “go with the grain” of social networks and those engaged in social networks should be good network citizens and use the power they get from the network to further the goals of the organization. This comes together in the creation of a kind of network “constitution” or social contract, which supports good relationships, rather than hard rules. I think some companies, like Sun Microsystems, are starting on this journey through the creation of progressive social networking policies.

Some organizational approaches are to create Bespoke services, which are internally supported social-networking-like applications, and these carry some risk, as pointed out in one of the case studies:

The issue with our company is that the answer to every problem is a database. The problem is actually time – this utopian vision of being able to look up all this information and draw it down from the database is a bit unrealistic. – Interviewee, large professional services firm

I think Bespoke services can be successful if their purpose is thought of carefully and not as the solution to every problem. Every organization will likely need a portfolio of tools to support the needs of employees of today and tomorrow. The paper has a high philosophical tone, and the social networking analysis is very interesting ( I have to try that soon ). The idea here is to support the exploration of what those are in an open environment.

In this context, the fact that the person taking my order for coffee after tapping into her social network doesn’t bother me at all. I have a feeling it will help them and the organization they work for provide even better service in the long term. I hope this paper and blog post might help some have the conversation about whether (social networking tool) should be blocked or not.

Feel free to comment with your experiences in your organization, of course.


Ted – as we've discussed before, when I'm onsite at government facilities (in my case Health and Human Services) I am blocked from sites like linkedin, twitter, and ning, which are all sites I use for business purposes and sites that include contact information or the preferred mechanism for contacting certain colleagues. My cell-phone based access suffices sometimes, but is definitely not ideal.

Great point, Anita –

It seems possible that given the incoming Administration's affinity for new media that a more thorough look will be given to using the power of networks by the Department of Health and Human Services to improve our country's health. I am sure many of us would be happy to support this exploration with the experiences we've had,


Ted Eytan, MD