The corporate world's response to the phenomenal growth of social media has ranged from enthusiastic embrace to abject horror.
What one enterprise may consider a fantastic tool for building its business, another may determine to be a threat to the bottom line.
Both are right, depending on how social media tools are used by their employees. Here are some ways social media can help your employees be more productive, along with some ways it accomplishes the exact opposite.
1. Employees can find information they need faster
The Internet has made more information available to more people than ever before. There's tremendous value in that.
However, there's a downside: The Internet firehose can make it extremely difficult to quickly and easily find solutions to problems, even when a user does a specific search. After all, when you "Google" something, you don't get just one answer; you get pages and pages of search results. And they're not necessarily ranked in order of value to you. This often leaves users wading through search returns, some of which provide conflicting and even inaccurate information.
But when users turn to their social networks for information, they frequently get prompt, helpful and accurate answers.
Here's a brief example to which many of you probably can relate: About three years ago, I was trying to figure out how to get a keyword-based Twitter stream on a Web page. (Those are very common now, but back then they weren't.) I tried finding a solution through Google, but the search results weren't helpful. Then I posted a question to my Twitter followers. Within five minutes I got three specific responses, with links. Two of the responses recommended the same app. Problem solved.
Workers around the world have had similar experiences getting information through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Quora and other social networking platforms. Having a real (and knowledgeable) human being answer a question beats relying on an algorithm any day.
2. Social media = professional networking on steroids
Professional networking usually is thought of in terms of career advancement, and there's no doubt it's critical for that purpose.
But networking also can help you do your current job better. The right social networking connection can lead to contracts for your business, ongoing professional advice and awareness of educational opportunities (webinars, etc.) that can enhance a worker's performance.
Further, a good social media network is a pipeline for professional talent. The next person you follow, friend or connect with could be your organization's next star employee.
3. Stress relief
Make no mistake: Social media can be abused in the workplace (more on that later), but when used in moderation it offers a welcome break from the daily stress of a job.
Whether it's checking out a funny video recommended by a Facebook friend or reading an interesting blog post tweeted by one of your followers, social media offers a brief escape that can replenish a workers' energy and give their mind a rest before they return to the rigors of the job.
A study published two years ago by Australian scientists at the University of Melbourne concluded that the mental relief provided to workers from judicious use of social media sites, blogs and YouTube during office hours increased productivity by 9%.
4. Helps build teamwork, cohesiveness
This is especially true of companies in which employees are working from different locations. In-house tools such as private social network Yammer and wikis can allow groups working on specific projects to keep teammates updated in a more efficient fashion than email or the telephone (does anyone use those things anymore?).
Watching a project come together bit by bit through a workplace social network in and of itself can fuel commitment, enthusiasm and a collective sense of purpose and achievement. It also can keep people accountable, which is never a bad thing.
The rather unfortunate flip side
But there's another side to the social media coin, one that many of the self-proclaimed SM "experts," "gurus" and "ninjas" don't like to talk about all that much: Social media can be - in fact, has proven to be in many cases -- a productivity drain.
A March survey by social email software vendor harmon.ie, conducted by market research firm uSamp, concludes that the "proliferation of collaboration and social tools designed to increase productivity is actually costing businesses millions of dollars per year in lost productivity."
Specifically, harmon.ie says, here's why:
1. Workus interruptus
Social media is a source of constant work interruptions. The harmon.ie survey of 515 email users working at U.S. companies reveals that "nearly 60% of work interruptions now involve either using tools like email, social networks, text messaging and IM, or switching windows among disparate standalone tools and applications. In fact, 45% of employees work only 15 minutes or less without getting interrupted, and 53% waste at least one hour a day due to all types of distractions."
So while working at home may spare you the maddening bother of a chatty cubicle neighbor, escaping the social media time-suck is more difficult.
2. Tempting the weak
Having your focus disrupted is one thing, but even worse, some employees will stop working by choice to delve into their social networks because...well, because they can.
According to the harmon.ie survey, two out of three respondents said they "will interrupt a group meeting to communicate with someone else digitally, either by answering email (48%), answering a mobile phone (35%), chatting via IM (28%), updating their status on a social network (12%) or tweeting (9%)."
And that's during a group meeting! Those numbers undoubtedly rise when the employees are left to their own devices at their desks. Why do you think there are so many well-tended farms on FarmVille?
3. Shallow Al
Constant interruptions - either initiated or suffered - not only rob employees of time on the job, they also have a negative impact on the quality of a worker's thoughts.
As anyone with small children knows, you simply can't focus if you're routinely being sidetracked, voluntarily or not. Deep thinking requires sustained concentration. (And "now where was I?" doesn't qualify as a deep thought.)
Look at it this way: If Facebook or Twitter existed a century ago, Albert Einstein's famous equation proving mass-energy equivalence might have looked like: E=...LOL, dude!
Clearly there no easy answers. Social media in the workplace is here to stay, and companies that block access to social networks and non-business Websites (nearly half do, according to the harmon.ie survey) run the risk of alienating employees and losing out on the many advantages created by the social revolution. Probably the best thing to do is focus on a worker's effectiveness, and not waste time and energy in a morale-debilitating clampdown.
Nerney is a freelance writer who pens the Tech Business Today blog at ITWorld www.ITworld.com . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.