The advent of the Internet and specifically social media applications (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare) has brought to the forefront what I am sure is a long tradition of tension between employers and employees when it comes to how much information about your workplace should be shared with the public and who has control over that information.
Before the advent of the Internet, the scope of the average person’s ability to disseminate information about their workplace was rather limited. Friends and family were often privy to information that an employees might want to keep close. But the existing trust network that existed between those people was generally enough to comfort a company. Only rarely would someone venture outside that network to the media or other large distribution mechanism. And while “leaks” certainly occurred, they were usually for higher profile events through traditional media outlets, not mundane everyday looks into corporate life.
The Internet and social media has changed all that. It is now near effortless for anyone to broadcast every detail of their life, including events at their workplace. A tiny sign of that is that only within the recent past has here been a need to create a term such as “oversharing.”
In an unfortunate, but understandable reaction, some companies have reacted badly to this newfound ability of their employees and made attempts to prohibit this behavior. Neal Stephenson in his classic novel, Snow Crash, uses this as a plot premise. Technology is created to try to control the thoughts of their employees at all times to protect the corporate interests. (The results? Not so good for humanity.) While fanciful in it’s implementation, I get the sense that many companies worry that it is getting too easy for employees to share information they consider proprietary and would love to have a form of “intellectual DRM” at their disposal.
In an attempt to control this information, companies often take a reactionary approach and blame the technology. Technology is used to try to impose controls and policies to block the usage of such technology. In the workplace this can take the form of blocking access to social media, monitoring of internet usage, and even taking disciplinary action against their employees. Outside of the workplace, companies have developed tools to monitor the online activities of their employees And provide information back to their supervisors. (I will ignore the fact that it is virtually impossible to block these services given the advent of smart phones and devices which are always connected to the Internet.)
This is completely the wrong approach. Technology is not the problem. Technology is only a tool which allows people to share. What they share is important, not the fact that they share information about their workplace. The type of information people share is a direct reflection of their attitude about their workplace. If an employee is happy about their job and their work, the sharing of that information is a benefit to a company. The social media world can help share that in a way that PR never will. However, if a company has created a negative atmosphere for it’s employees, that will be shared. Imposing draconian policies on employee’s right to share will fail in two ways: it will not prevent the information from getting out and will only make the information they share worse when they do.
Technology is not the problem, nor is it the solution. Creating an environment of trust and respect in the workplace will enable a company to leverage the new technologies benefit. You can see this in the new generation of companies that promote the use of blogs, Twitter, and Facebook to share information and promote the company brand.
If you are one of these companies, resist the urge to take a reactionary approach to technology. Learn to embrace it and use it to your benefit. Your company and your employees will be better for it.