Social Networking Policies – Balancing Collective Wisdom With Individual Stupidity

This post was originally post by me at IntranetExperience.com in March, 2009. However, I felt it still applies since many companies are still trying to build their social media policies. I thought it might be a good idea to cross-post it here, with hopes that it can assist in the process.  Enjoy!

Each day, it seems that more and more folks are dipping their toes into the world of Social Networking by creating Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and LinkedIn accounts. And each day, we’re entertained with stories of folks who get “Facebook fired”, shoot off an improper Tweet that lands them in hot water, or and share confidential information on their personal blog. Recently, Helen A.S. Popkin wrote an excellent article for MSNBC.com called “Twitter gets you fired in 140 characters or less” which details some of the follies of folks who have overstepped the boundaries from responsible social networking into, well…just TMI.

Unfortunately, these types of activities are fodder for the cannons of reactionary corporate zealots who use these follies as examples of why companies can never allow employees to blog, tweet, or otherwise engage in social networking on company time or about any company activities. In fear of expensive litigation, disciplining employees, or losing valuable corporate information they would rather conjure up hard line policies stating that no employee may engage in these activities using corporate resources during work hours. As if these policies are actually going to stop employees from updating Facebook or slipping in a periodic tweet from their Blackberry.

Flashback To The 90s…When The World Wide Web Was The Target Of Corporate Policies

I remember a time in the late 90s when I was working for a major Telecom company that required VP approval to have access to the Web at any PC. The company was so worried about employees wasting time surfing the Web that they turned a blind eye to the fact that it could be used as a powerful research tool. In addition, the corporate policy on computer usage clearly stated that those found in violation of the Internet policies (meaning using it without VP approval) could be subject to discipline and/or terminated. Fired…for surfing the Web.

Unfortunately, those of us that were around during these times also remember why these draconian policies were in place. Come on…you remember the dolt in the cube next to you who just couldn’t resist sharing that latest chain email (remember the Nieman Marcus Cookie?) or risque photos (a polite term for porn) using the “Reply to All” button. These folks were the reasons that the rest of us were under house arrest when it came to Internet access. They surfaced the dark side of the Web, driving the need for restrictive policies.

Luckily companies have evolved and removed or relaxed these types of restrictions and often encourage their employees to use the Web as a powerful research tool. Some have even moved some their primary business applications to “Software As A Service” (SaaS) applications like SalesForce.com. So instead of playing “duck and cover” and shielding their employees from the dangers of the Web, they’re realizing that, while minor infractions to corporate policies my occur, the benefits of using the Web as a tool far outweigh the risks.

Fast Forward To Today, As Companies Wrestle With Social Networking Policies

So how do companies deal with social networking without repeating history and sticking their heads in the proverbial sand? The first step is to recognize that these activities are not going to go away. They’re not a fad, and they can be just as useful business tools and the Web has become. To ignore these tools or discourage employees from using them would be just as narrow minded as pulling the Ethernet cables from the backs of their computers ala the 90s.

Employee Collaboration Fuels New Opportunity

Employee Collaboration Fuels New Opportunity

The second step is to understand the tools. All too often I hear folks who say things like “Twitter…I just don’t get it.” Yet these very folks have either never created a Twitter account or have never spent time researching the whys and hows of Twitter and how it has worked for others. Instead, they scratch their head and shake their fist at a new, strange technology. By learning about the successes of others, we can all identify new uses within our workplaces for new technology. Feel like you’re out of touch, get yourself a Social Media mentor, as suggested in the ChristyWeb.com article “Do you have a social media mentor?

The third step in embracing social networking tools is to guide your employees on their usage. Note that I didn’t say “Discourage Their Use” or “Mandate against their usage” or even “Tell them how to use them”. I very clearly said “guide your employees”. Let them know that their knowledge is valuable and that they are encouraged to share their thoughts and views, as long as it doesn’t violate the existing privacy policies, NDA agreements, or Intellectual Property agreements that are in place. Remind them that sharing information on the Web in any form can be perilous and that they should consider whether they would want their boss, spouse, or mother reading or seeing their online exploits. Often, a simple reminder of good judgment can have as powerful of an effect as a harsh corporate policy. Yes, you are going to have the dopes who just can’t seem to keep their “inside voice” from leaking out to tweets and Facebook updates and you’ll even have the odd photo or video that stirs up an HR hornets nest, but the reality is…those same individuals would probably be in HR jail even if Facebook never existed.

The other 98% of your employees will explore the technologies and some will find useful ways to grow your organization. Maybe they’ll find ways to enhance collaboration, present themselves to others as a leader in their field, or maybe even find new products or customers. The reality is, they will find new uses and opportunities when given the chance.

What’s the alternative? Write a complex policy banning them from social media activities that is both unrealistic and unproductive.And what fun is that??

For the record, I am blessed to work for a company that has chosen to embrace Web 2.0 and encourages their employees to find new, innovative ways to blog, tweet, and explore the value of emerging technologies. The result is engaged employees who think about new technologies and think twice before they hit the ‘Submit’ button.

Have thoughts or comments? I always appreciate feedback and constructive criticism through comments.

  • http://twitter.com/VictorGaxiola/status/88688943985459200/ Victor Gaxiola (@victorgaxiola) (@victorgaxiola) (@VictorGaxiola)

    Social Networking Policies – Balancing Collective Wisdom With Individual Stupidity via @SocMedSean http://t.co/BjDB9Mz

  • http://twitter.com/TheTop10Blog/status/110696776994000896/ Tony Hastings (@TheTop10Blog)

    Social Networking Policies – Balancing Collective Wisdom With Individual Stupidity http://t.co/FyU8FaI RT @lizstrauss via @SocMedSean

  • http://waynemcevilly.blogspot.com Wayne McEvilly

    Sean Nicholson –
    This post provided me with a very bright light on a subject which ‘does not directly concern me’ since I pass my time outside the corporate cubicles and come into contact with the issue of company usage of social media only through communications with others – at the same time, I found the treatment of the subject here both revelatory and applicable to my general understanding of the world within which I live…I made a sort of ill-considered off the cuff tweet to you about this post – ‘what about balancing individual Wisdom with collective Stupidity?’ and immediately thought – ‘you know, Wayne, you are probably going to learn something by reading this post and not just the headline’ and so I did, and I am glad of it.
    Thank you very much.
    Wayne

  • http://twitter.com/waynemcevilly/status/110698306497286144/ Wayne McEvilly (@waynemcevilly)

    @SocMedSean just read your Balancing Collective Wisdom With Individual Stupidity http://t.co/JgKKbix LearnedSomething cc: @lizstrauss

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