Sunday, February 24, 2013

When can regulating social media at work be a bad thing?

Once again I tackle the issue of social media policy by organizations. However this time in the context of research and readings that I have been doing.

Recently I read Gavett's (2013) blog post discussing the issues of employees airing criticisms of employer via social media and what's legal. I also read earlier an article by Feldman (2013) on the issue of government looking into company social media policies. Both articles reveal the issue of how employers have been able to take advantage of the lack of legal regulations pertaining to social media use by employees to dismiss workers. However, there are now legal loopholes that Gavett (2013) identifies in regards of workers coming together and organizing themselves similar to unions using social media. My own perspective on the matter is that companies are over-reacting to the negative consequences of social media use, and should adopt a more positive social media policy approach, which I hope to briefly outline here.

To begin the discussion, I would like to raise the issue of how people get work done in this new "knowledge or service economy". Orr (1996) showed us that part of workers' getting their job done is through forming communities in which they can discuss their work ideas and exchange solutions to problems, a practice commonly called forming communities of practice. Further, it has been suggested by researchers that such communities can be enriched innovatively when persons have electronic networks connecting to persons not only in their local geographical communities, but also persons outside of their organizations (Teigland & Wasko, 2005). Usually, top management ignores that the way that people get work done is not just individually sitting at their desk, but also through having ties or relationships with other persons that are able to help them solve problems (Brown & Duguid, 2000). When the work environment is unstable, workers tend to use and trust their online connection rather than their co-located relationships to get information that help them solve work problems (Hirsh & Dinkelacker, 2004). As such, management, by creating strict and stringent social media policies may be actually interfering with the electronic networks that their workers use to get information and communicate in order to solve work problems.

My recommendation is that rather than just specifying in one's policy how not to use social media and rather than attempting to limit or block social media use at work, management and organizations need to

  1. discover how workers are actually using social media to do their work. This could be done by surveys or interviews. One such study that comes to mind is the one by Lampe, Vitak, Gray, and Ellison (2012) that studied university employees for how they use Facebook as an information source. While the study did not conclude whether Facebook was used only for work purposes, it did conclude that some of the employees surveyed preferred to ask questions via social media in order to get more tailored and trustworthy information (Lampe, Vitak, Gray & Ellison, 2012). This perspective of first, applying the Taylorist principle of studying workers before creating policies, can help inform management as to whether or not workers are actually getting information from social media that may be having an impact on the organization's productivity.
  2. Elicit stories or incidents from workers where they were able to successful solve a problem at work because of social media. Having such stories can help management see directly how social media is being applied practically to solve work problems. These cases can also be shared with other employees as a form of knowledge sharing about how social media can be positively used at work. In  Lampe, Vitak, Gray, and Ellison's (2012) study, not all workers saw social media as a place to get answers to information queries. Hence, management can therefore use such success stories to train existing employees to see and recognise when they can exploit social media for work problem solving.

 With regard to point 2,  management may argue that workers may divulge proprietary information to outsiders through social media. My own take on the matter is that social media only documents what people do in everyday life. I am sure workers go to the bar or other unregulated spaces and from time to time share with other outsiders what they do at work. Yet, such sharing sometimes is more beneficial than harmful, as it leads them to find persons working on similar problems or having similar interests or even expertise that can be leveraged to help workers arrive at faster solutions to work problems.

In closing, I just want to argue that when an employer hires a worker, they are not just hiring one person, but they are also hiring that person's network of connections that the worker will turn to in order to get information in complex work problems that he or she cannot solve on his/her own. Hence, the informal networks and connections that a worker uses to get his or her work done is as important to the organisation as the worker's skills and knowledge, especially depending on the type of work being done and the tasks that are assigned. As such, when creating social media policies, companies must not only consider the PR nightmares and tragedies of other companies, but must also consider how social media may be positively used by its own workers to make the company successful.

On that note, I end with some conclusions from Choo (2002) that were written for the Web in general, but which I find also applicable to social media:
  • the Web is not just an information network, but also a work space where employees communicate in order to acquire and access actionable information for work purposes.
  • more liberal Web [and social media] policies are required and fewer controls in order to empower workers to use these resources to 'promote self-directed learning and problem solving' (p. 196).
  • spaces for sharing what employees discover on the Web [or social media] that may be useful to others in the company could be created to permit collective or organizational learning and memory. 
This is the challenge that I suggest organizations take on rather than just adopting a negative or anti-social media use policies.


Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Choo, C. W. (2002). Information management for the intelligent organization : The art of scanning the environment (3rd ed.). Medford, NJ: Information Today.

Feldman, B. (2013, February 15). The government is watching social media policies. PRWeek Retrieved from

Gavett, G. (2013, February, 21). Is Your Social Media Policy Useless? Harvard Business Review [HBR] Blog Retrieved from

Hirsh, S. & Dinkelacker, J. (2004). Seeking information in order to produce information: AN empirical study at Hewlett Packards Labs. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 55:807-817. doi:10.1002/asi.20024

Lampe, C., Vitak, J., Gray, R., & Ellison, N. B. (2012). Perceptions of Facebook’s value as an information source. Paper presented at the CHI '12 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Austin, TX, USA. 3195--3204. doi: 10.1145/2207676.2208739

Orr, J. E. (1996). Talking about machines :An ethnography of a modern job. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press.

Teigland, R., & Wasko, M. (2005). Knowledge exchange in electronic networks of practice. Encyclopedia of information science and technology (pp. 1757-1762) IGI Global. doi: 10.4018/978-1-59140-553-5.ch309

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