Does social media help us work smarter?

September 29, 2015 - 05:01

Social media was meant to help us work smarter. So far it has only given us additional work, according to new research.

Social media can get large organizations with many departments and people to collaborate better. At least in theory. (Photo: Carl Martin Nordby, NTB Scanpix)

A number of organizations have adopted different types of social media (social collaboration solutions), such as yammer or jive business software in the workplace. The solutions are especially developed for the workplace, with inspiration from Facebook and other popular social media.

Such social media were meant to help free up time that could make us more productive at work.

Researcher Lene Pettersen's doctoral project at BI Norwegian Business School examined whether the expectations of increased productivity and economic growth have turned into reality.

Three years in the field

Pettersen has conducted a comprehensive study of an international consulting company, which introduced a social collaboration solution for employees across more than 20 countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

Social media was adopted to make it easier for employees to share knowledge and tips and create contacts and networks across continents no matter where they work everyday.

Pettersen followed work practices in the company for three years using field studies, in-depth interviews of staff and key informants, participant observation both inside and outside the interaction solution and analysis of employee networks and user statistics.

More work, not less

Lene Pettersen finds that instead of freeing up time for more tasks, the use of social interactions on the contrary creates extra work for many of the employees. Rather than supporting the way many of us are working, the introduction of social collaboration solutions adds new tasks in addition to new ways of working together.

- We write posts, comment and participate in discussions in the social solutions. For many, sharing content formulated in a personalized format to people we might not even know is also a new experience. This can quickly create extra work, Lene Pettersen maintains.

Lene Pettersen has studied whether social media in the workplace makes us smarter and faster.

The study also shows that employees risk getting more email than before because alerts are sent out every time something happens in the social interaction solution. It also takes longer to find information because the solution does not provide enough opportunities to search for content that was shared previously.

Missing out on information

On Facebook we are mainly friends with people we have already met face to face. This is a trend that is also reflected in the use of digital social solutions at the workplace. We prefer to establish networks with colleagues we work with on a daily basis rather than establishing many new relationships.

- Naturally, we will not receive content from people who we do not follow on social media. And as a result, we risk missing important information, Pettersen warns.

Social media in the workplace can also help to create new divisions in the organization between the active and passive participants. The study also points out that social media in the workplace provides managers and other colleagues with new opportunities to monitor what others are doing.

Advice to Managers

Although Lene Pettersen finds that social media in the workplace does not live up to its expectations of increased productivity so far, it is not certain it's a waste to invest in such tools in the workplace. It comes with certain positive aspects. We can for example see that the distance between offices and departments becomes shorter.

Based on the doctoral study she gives seven practical tips to managers who are considering introducing social collaboration solutions at work:

  1. Identify the tasks to be solved and how employees do this job.
  2. Provide digital tools that support the work to be done.
  3. Ensure that social solutions help us work smarter, not create more work.
  4. People can have very different tasks and different needs for support from social interaction solutions.
  5. Do not make it a goal to have employees interact for the sake of interaction itself. There must be a good reason to interact, otherwise it is often better not to.
  6. Create physical venues where employees can get to know each other. It creates relationships that can be extended to digital meeting places.
  7. Lower the expectations of what social collaboration solutions will give you.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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