It seems like whenever something distracts American office workers from their daily hamster wheel duties, whether that be a transit strike, reading blogs at work or the release of the latest Star Wars movie, the business press has to make a big deal about hypothetical figures totalling up how much the distraction is costing American businesses. I guess it sells more newspapers when one can point to an outrageously overinflated number and make a big to-do out of it. In late October, Advertising Age claimed that workers would spend the equivalent of over a half million years in 2005 reading blogs, with the implication that this whole blog-reading thing must be stopped before it brings American productivity to a screeching halt and Russian tanks start rolling down Madison Avenue.
My point of view on this issue is unpopular in corporate America. If anything, American businesses - especially advertising agencies and marketing companies - should be encouraging their employees to be active contributors to online communities. Doesn't matter whether those communities are blogs, message boards, discussion lists or whatever. Heck, they should be active netizens in general.
There are quite a few justifications for this. The first is that almost every company in America should be using the Internet to communicate in some way. Whether it's used for internal communications, external relationship management or some combination of the two doesn't matter. What matters is that staff expertise in the workings of the Internet benefits companies, no matter what business they're in. Period. How comfortable would you be, as a company CEO, asking someone in your company to give you advice on eCommerce if they've never, say, bought something from Amazon? Would you be able to realize an investment in a time-saving company intranet if none of your employees knew anything about using the web? Exactly.
Secondly, the relationships that employees develop online, whether they represent the company in any official capacity or not, are valuable in and of themselves. Those relationships pay dividends in many forms: saved time, information, human interaction, etc. I can't tell you how many times an online friend has fed me a piece of information I used in a client presentation, or how many times message board acquaintances of mine had offered great advice. Not to denigrate relationships by expressing them in terms of value, but what calculation of the impact of online communities on business productivity includes things like the 10 hours' worth of research someone saved you by e-mailing you a report they had put together? How many of those calculations include direct and indirect benefits of online social networking? None of them.
Lastly, (and perhaps you may not consider this valid), work hours and responsibilities have expanded over the years such that few people truly work 9 to 5 jobs anymore. I think the trade-off is a bit of personal time, whether that's to shop online, participate in an online debate, send and receive personal e-mail or what have you. You may disagree. I personally believe that people need time to have a life, and considering how much my company intrudes on employees' personal lives during the course of your average week, the least I can do is have a permissive work environment that's not going to get all uppity about people updating their MySpace pages at work or taking personal IMs and e-mails. As long as people get their work done and don't expose the company to legal liability, they can pretty much do what they want. YMMV.
It really comes down to this: As a communications guy, I want my people to be able to communicate and be plugged in. There's no way to operate in the space if you don't live it every day. The next ad environment, marketing program, distribution methodology, communications platform or whatnot that could be used to the benefit of my clients will be discovered or conceptualized by an employee. And the skills they pick up and develop in the normal course of simply being a netizen are partly responsible for that.
By way of example, I'm getting up to speed on MySpace in part through one of our employees here. She knows the ins and outs of the community, mostly through using MySpace to network and help her in her side job of promoting new bands. Why would I want to keep her away from MySpace during business hours? What she's doing now could help me come up with a marketing concept next week.
Of course, there are limits to everything. People need to get their responsibilities and tasks covered. I'd probably be pretty ticked if someone missed a deadline because they were exchanging IMs and not putting in the effort they should have as a result. But like I said earlier, if people get their work done, I have very few problems with them plugging in to online communities during the business day.
So when I see stories like the one in Advertising Age, I get a little tweaked because I think such alarmist stances solidify the status quo and make it tougher for forward-thinking businesses.