Social Networking Beats Working

From my perch in the stratosphere…

I look down on this Monday morning and see American workers, busily sending Linked-In and Facebook invitations to each other. These networks are sprawling now, as if fueled by Red Bull and Miracle-Gro, their tendrils reaching and burrowing into the minds of once-productive employees now shaking hands and exchanging business cards in virtual reality.

From Information Week, you get the feeling it’s happening right under the noses of senior corporate executives.

Hinting at the potential of social networking at work, thousands of employees of Shell Oil, Procter & Gamble, and General Electric have Facebook accounts. A Facebook network of Citigroup employees–only those with Citigroup e-mail accounts can join–has 1,870 users. Procter & Gamble employees use Facebook to keep interns in touch and share information with co-workers attending company events.

Further evidence of Facebook’s rise among the business card crowd: People over 24 are its fastest-growing demographic.

Still, there are reasons for business and technology managers to be wary of Facebook, as well as MySpace, LinkedIn, and other social networking apps. They can sap employee productivity or, worse, be a source of governance violations or breaches of company protocol. A poll by Sophos found that 66% of workers think their colleagues share too much information on Facebook. Forrester Research recently found that 14% of companies have disciplined employees and 5% fired them for offenses related to social networking. No wonder half of companies–Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, UBS, and Lehman Brothers among them, according to Financial News–restrict access to Facebook.

The city of Toronto blocked access to social networking sites four months ago. “There’s potential for staff to spend an inordinate amount of time on sites like this,” explains a spokesman for the city. “Is it necessary for work?”

Certainly not if you consider that some of the most popular apps on Facebook include fortunetelling and comparing yourself to a celebrity. “A girl in my office and I send each other nonsense and Dane Cook quotes from 10 feet apart,” admits one Facebook user.

Wasn’t that always the point of networking? Someone you amuse with a plagiarized joke today might hook you up with a great job or new client tomorrow. All that’s changed is the setting.

Facebook is a lot more efficient than what businesspeople used to do to sell themselves. Or maybe you’ve never played golf. It takes hours, pretty much shoots the whole day. Before the Internet, golf during the week was encouraged if it meant you could warm up a customer. And what about that networking classic, carousing? Take a client to a bar, get him good and soused and then embark on a drunken adventure together. Such debauchery earned many a young exec an “attaboy.” Even though he spent most of the next day with his head on his desk.

Flipping a joke over the electronic transom might be a waste of time, but not a lot of time. Your employees might not be doing much work, but at least they’re at their desks where you can find them.

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