Facebook: Valuable Business Tool or Waste of Time?

Question: How do the Internet's many distractions affect \r\nworkday productivity?

Clay Shirky: There are several different trends at work \r\non the work day.  My friend, Dalton Conley over at NYU, the sociologist,\r\n in fact, has just written a book about the way in which the formerly \r\nrelatively sharp dividing line between work and home has blended.  That \r\nwas a tradition in a way that started long before the Internet, although\r\n the Internet has certainly accelerated it.  In a way, Mine Sweeper, \r\nright, the old time-waster, has been replaced by Facebook, the new \r\ntime-waster.  But Facebook is a certainly more pleasantly addictive \r\npastime use of the service than Mine Sweeper was. 
\r\nBut to the larger point about going into your workday, spending all day \r\nanswering emails, dealing with interruptive things, and then leaving \r\nfeeling as if you’re getting nothing done... it seems to me that we are \r\nat the crux of a fairly, fairly significant social change in the way we \r\nconduct ourselves in the workplace because, to make a bold prediction, \r\nthings that can’t last, don’t.  Right?  Since it takes longer to answer a\r\n question than to ask one, we can actually all make each other too busy \r\nto get anything done by just asking each other a bunch of questions.  \r\nAnd the initial assumption when email, later instant messaging, and \r\nother forms of group communication came into the workplace, is that now,\r\n finally, we could be better coordinated.  The better coordination means\r\n more and more communications interfaces, thus leaving your friends, and\r\n in fact, all of us leaving the workday feeling like, oh my god, all I \r\ndid today was communicate but I accomplished nothing. 
What \r\nwe’ve seen in the kind of vanguard of social movement—the open source \r\nsoftware movement is the largest sort of collection of participatory \r\ntools—is that open source software projects have consistently grown to \r\nsuch a size that they can’t actually host all of the internal \r\ncommunications.  And what they do is they then subdivide themselves and \r\nthey develop tools, not to help them communicate, but rather to help \r\nthem not communicate.  Which is to say, tools which allow individual \r\nworkers to get their job done with a minimum of coordination.  And \r\nthere’s going to be a competition among businesses to who can create the\r\n best environment for their workers that minimizes interrupt logic and \r\nminimizes coordination.  Because I think that the pain your friend is \r\nfeeling, and again, that all of us feel, is really indicative of \r\nsomething quite deep, which is we can now communicate as much as we \r\nalways thought we needed to in the business environment and it turns out\r\n to be catastrophic. 
So, in large-scale enterprises, the \r\ntrick is not starting to be to figure out which kinds of communication \r\nare critical and which are just sort of “cover your ass” constantly “cc”\r\n everybody occupational spam uses of the tool.  And to start fairly \r\nrigorously stamping out that second category of them because if we all \r\nhave each other communicate with one another as much as we think we need\r\n to, we’ll all swamp each other.  Right?  The source of your friend not \r\ngetting anything done is other people, including him, on instant \r\nmessages and email threads.  But he is also himself the source of other \r\npeople not getting anything done.  And it’s going to take coordinated \r\naction, probably by the leadership of those companies to put the company\r\n back on a footing where you can minimize coordination and collaboration\r\n to the critical moments rather than having it swamp everybody. 
How should companies deal with these online distractions?

Clay Shirky: You know, different companies deal with it\r\n differently.  I think increasingly, between the cultural expectations \r\nand the difficulty of shutting off access, this is becoming like the \r\npersonal computer, like email, like instant messaging.  Every one of \r\nthose things—and you know, now Facebook and Twitter—every one of those \r\nthings was brought into the business.  Not because somebody in the \r\nexecutive suite said, “Now we have to have personal computers.”  They \r\nwere dragged into the business because the accountants hated talking to \r\nthe mainframe guys. And so, once Visicalc came along, they just brought \r\ntheir own PC’s into the enterprise and hid it for a while. 
If\r\n you went and talked to somebody about email in the mid-‘90s, you’d you \r\nknow, maybe they heard about it, maybe they hadn’t.  You know, there \r\nwould be some, “oh, maybe some day we’ll get an email address.”  \r\nRight?   You go down and you talk to the sales guys and their business \r\ncards all have AOL addresses on them because their clients have demanded\r\n it. 
Instant messaging, if you talk to the Wall Street guys \r\nabout instant messaging in the late ‘90’s, “do you ever talk to your \r\nclients on IM.”  Oh, no, no.  The FCC would never let us do that.”  \r\nRight? The brokers have an ICQ number.  So, the second phase of all of \r\nthat is the business then panicking and saying our employees are doing \r\nsomething that we didn’t allow them to do.  At which point the hurdle \r\nthe technology has to cross is, this is embedded enough in the cultural \r\nand business logic of this company, you can’t not do it. 
People\r\n in call centers will lose that battle.  Right?  If you’re in a call \r\ncenter and it’s gonna be you’re in a cubicle farm and you’ve got your \r\nscript, and if you’re, you know, spending a lot of time on Facebook when\r\n you should be on the phone, they’re going to shut that down.  People in\r\n magazines, people in newspapers, people in the media are at the other \r\nextreme.  Of course they’re going to have maximum access.  But my guess \r\nis, that as with the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, \r\nparticipating in social networks as a way of figuring out what your \r\ncustomers are doing, figuring out what your vendors are doing, figuring \r\nout what you’re clients are doing, recruiting new hires, all of these \r\nkinds of characteristics are going to be... are going to seem to have \r\nenough value that after awhile most companies are going to capitulate \r\nand reopen the firewall inasmuch as they’ve shut it down.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

Like the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, social networks are now vital for businesses—even if they are also distractions.

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