I recently saw The Social Network. It was a fascinating look at the story of the founders of Facebook. I found it to be thoroughly entertaining and I recommend it if you haven’t seen it.
It is truly amazing that the events in the movie took place such a short time ago given Facebook’s current popularity. A report earlier this year revealed 6.8% of business internet traffic goes to Facebook and by now that figure could be higher. As you can imagine, all this Facebook use at work has employers concerned about loss of productivity and security risks. As a result, some have chosen to restrict access to Facebook or block the site altogether.
So what? What if your employer blocks access to Facebook? I mean, you are using company resources, and those resources should be used in a way that benefits the company. Why shouldn’t they restrict or block access to a site that just sucks up bandwidth and wastes time?
But is Facebook a waste of time? Sure, it can be. But does it have to be? More specifically, is there any business value in allowing employees access to personal Facebook accounts from work?
At one point in the movie, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) discuss whether it’s time to monetize their creation. Zuckerberg responds with “we don’t know what it is yet” as an objection. Later in the movie, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) echos the same sentiment. In the same way the characters in the movie needed to understand what Facebook “is” before figuring out how to capitalize on it, organizations need to figure out what it is in order to understand how it might benefit or harm the business.
So what is Facebook?
First of all, Facebook is not a social network despite the movie title. Rather, Facebook is a website, service, and software platform that helps people build and interact with their social networks. So in a larger sense, in order to understand the business value of Facebook, we have to understand the value inherent in the activity of employees building and maintaining their social networks.
So what is a social network?
A social network is social structure where people or organizations are referred to as nodes, and they are connected by interpersonal ties . These ties can be either weak or strong, and they represent the amount of information that is transmitted between the nodes. A strong tie carries more information and a weak tie carries less information.
It’s all about information
So a social network is really all about people and the information that passes between them. Understanding this flow of information is key to understanding and evaluating the value of a social network. So in terms of information, can you guess which ties (strong or weak) are most valuable within any given social network? Keep reading to find the answer.
This is where the lights came on for me. I did not inherently “get” Facebook. In fact, I remember the first time someone suggested to me that I should sign up for an account. The conversation went something like:
Julius, you should sign up for Facebook. It’s more grown-up than MySpace. I was able to reconnect with a friend from middle school through it. It’s really great!
I think I smiled and was polite and all, but I really had no interest at that point. My personality and perhaps my generation made me disinclined to see any inherent value in establishing digital ties to people I may have known long ago but now are practically strangers.
My attitude changed two years ago when I attended my 20 year high school reunion. (I know, I’m dating myself) That reunion was a blast! Through that experience, I understood how much fun it can be to reunite and catch up. One of the first things I did when I got back to San Antonio was sign up for Facebook.
Ok, so two years ago I went from believing Facebook had no value, to believing Facebook was fun. Like the person who suggested I sign up, I became an advocate and encouraged other people to sign up. Why? Because it’s fun! If anyone had asked me then if there was any business value to being on Facebook I would have responded “that’s what LinkedIn is for”. However, after learning of the relationship between social networks and information, I began to change my tune.
Social network value
I credit Andrew McAfee with helping me see Facebook and other social software platforms in a different light. Because of him, I learned the shocking truth about the value of weak ties. Yes, weak ties! If you guessed (like I did at first) that strong ties are most valuable then you would be wrong.
The theory, first introduced by American sociologist Mark Granovetter in his appropriately named paper The Strength of Weak Ties , goes something like this (paraphrased):
Strong ties carry lots of information, therefore the people who share strong ties also share a lot of common or overlapping knowledge. Weak ties carry little information, so people who share weak ties have less knowledge overlap. What this means is, the biggest potential to receive novel information (something you didn’t already know) is through a weak tie.
So being connected to people with whom I share little common knowledge gives me access to novel information. This was a huge revelation by itself, but McAfee helped me recognize something else about the value of Facebook. He pointed out a specific innovation built into Facebook and other emerging social software platforms that makes it possible to get value from social networks in a way that was not possible with previous forms of communication – the status update.
With a status update, you can post information you want to push out to your network. You can also receive information from your network by reading their status updates. In this way, you can share things with your network they probably didn’t know and you can learn things that you didn’t know. Hopefully, some of the things you learn will be useful to you.
Mobilizing the network
But you don’t just have to hope. A status update also allows you to post a question as well. By posting a question in a status update, you can mobilize your network of weak ties to provide you with information – specific information that can help you resolve a variety of problems. Just because Facebook is social, doesn’t mean the problem can’t be work related.
So maybe you are faced with the dilemma of what to do about all that traffic at your organization going to Facebook. Maybe you have considered blocking access. Maybe you have already blocked it. In either case, make sure you consider the potential benefit of keeping access open. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake I did of believing Facebook has no business value or it’s only about fun. It’s really about information, and blocking access will cut you off from the potential benefit of that information.
So instead of a complete ban on Facebook at work, consider the following strategies:
Remind employees that work resources are primarily for work purposes and that they should limit social activities to reasonable levels
Have clear conversations about what information is ok to share and what is not ok
Train yourself and your employees about the potential business value of social network activity – they may be like I was and think it is only useful for entertainment
Encourage employees to share updates about company events – new products and services, web seminars, promotions, job openings, etc
Encourage employees to mobilize their networks to help solve company non-sensitive problems they may be stuck on by posting questions as status updates
Ask your employees for their ideas on using Facebook for business – especially the younger ones
What do you think? What is your company’s stance on personal Facebook access from work? Are you convinced like I am that there is potential business benefit to keeping Facebook access open at work or do you think it’s hogwash? Please feel free to weigh in with comments below.