Online Social Networking: Is It a Productivity Bust or Boon?

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I recently had an article on Faceblocking published in the March 2009 issue of Law Practice magazine: Online Social Networking: Is It a Productivity Bust or Boon for Law Firms?

Steve Matthews and I conducted an informal poll to see if we could confirm that law firms were blocking access to social networking sites. Our theory was proven in the results. (You can download the raw survey data (.xls) if you want to see the underlying data.)

Of those responding to the survey, 45% said their firms blocked access to social networking sites. The three most blocked sites: Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Those are also 3 of the top 10 most visited sites on the web. We also published some of written comments from the survey respondents: Speaking Out on Social Networking.

The survey is very unscientific. Steve and I thought that it would be useful to get some data about what law firms are doing about access to social networking sites. I was surprised that 45% of firms blocked access to some social networking sites. Perhaps those working at firms subject to blocking were more likely to respond to the survey. I was also surprised that the 45% blocking percentage was fairly consistent across firm size. So small law firms were just as likely to block access as big firms.

I conducted two surveys of the summer associates at my old law firm, the vast majority went to Facebook at least once a day. It seems to me that if you are recruiting young workers, you should not cut off one of the ways they communicate. Deacons published a survey indicating that an employer’s policy regarding on-line social networking would influence a significant percentage of workers’ decision to join one employer over another.

Although I am an advocate of open access, I do so with the caveat that you need to let the people in your organization know what is proper use and to monitor their compliance. I fear that many firms use blockage as their policy. That may have worked 10 years ago, but not today. You can just as easily access these sites from iPhone or blackberry as you can from a firm computer. Blocking does not stop the bad behavior that it is trying to prevent. Blocking merely changes the access method.

There is a fair amount of research, the most prominent of which are two reports from McKinsey, showing that access to social networks at work, coupled with a good policy results in a more engaged, more motivated and potentially more innovative workplace. You should set sensible policies and set reasonable expectations for your employees. Social networking sites at their core are communications platform. You should be able to adapt your policies on email, confidentiality, marketing and similar policies to easily include social networking sites. If not, those other policies probably need updating anyhow.

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15 Responses to Online Social Networking: Is It a Productivity Bust or Boon?

  1. Matt Groves March 10, 2009 at 10:44 pm #

    As a self confessed social media junkie, I find the adoption and strategic decisions taken within Law firms (esp UK – as that’s where my client base is!) absolutely fascinating. It amazes me that there is this negative perception and fear of social computing, yet widespread adoption of the 19th hole… Relationships and conversations are key, the technology is an enabler, it is no different when stripped down to the fundamentals…

  2. Alin March 11, 2009 at 1:33 am #

    Blocking new media tools is understandable, just like any other ‘media panic’ reaction. And just like any other Media Panic, I am hoping these ‘reactions’ will fall apart with the understanding that banning these tools is working against the firm rather than protecting it.

    Just remember that once radio was considered too corrupting to use.

  3. Doug Cornelius March 11, 2009 at 6:30 am #

    Matt –

    A follow-up survey might want to focus on who made the decision to ban. I would guess that it came out of IT and not HR, marketing or the lawyers. The rest probably went along based on some of the poorly thought out fears I address in the article. That seems representative of some of the decision-making processes I have seen in law firms.

  4. Doug Cornelius March 11, 2009 at 6:35 am #

    Alin –

    Spot on. The web is now a communication platform. You need to treat it like one. You no longer need the firm for internet access. My home access is as fast as my office internet access. My iPhone can access these sites and publish information.

    If your policy is merely to block the sites, then you do not have a policy. People will be able to do all of the bad things that you are worried they might do. And you have not told them what they should not do.

  5. Vanessa DiMauro March 11, 2009 at 8:13 am #

    If you look at the underlying data (the excel sheet Matt has linked to) there is even more interesting information about perception. Respondents to the survey fell into two distinct camps.. those that viewed social media as a clear time waster and worthy of being banned, and those that saw business application to social media and therefore business value. I imagine a lot has to do with exposure to the different tools and reasons for use.

    For sales or business development purposes, online networking is a critical success factor, as an example. As the usage and understanding of social media within a business context becomes more mainstream, the penetration will necessarily increase and firms will grow more accustomed – dare we say reliant on the online business tools.

    To Alin’s point, most of us can remember when use of email and web was banned… purposeful use of technology is a change agent and cultural adoption is always the final frontier.

  6. Doug Cornelius March 11, 2009 at 9:30 am #

    Vanessa –

    Thanks for stopping by. Online networking is another tool that could help your business. I do not expect everyone to use them and I don’t expect everyone to think they are a good idea. (As you saw in the comments, there were many different thoughts about online networking tools.)

    I think they offer a great way for some businesses with their customers and potential customers. Not all, but many.

    But if you block them, you will not be able to learn how to use them.

    Even worse, you block them at the office with no policy. Then your employees identify themselves as being associated with your company and do the bad things you were trying prevent. Blocking alone is not effective.

    Just as worse, you block access and do not monitor what your employees, customers and potential customers are saying about you. You become unable to respond.

  7. Chris O'Brien April 9, 2009 at 8:38 pm #

    Has anyone joined the professional networking site http://www.legalqb.com? It is a professional networking site. It allows legal professionals to network with each other to collaborate on real issues they may be facing within their firms.
    You know the major problem with these social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace is that most of our “friends or connections” are truly social connections and 95% of all communcations on the site are social. Try http://www.legalqb.com to see for yourself.

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