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Twitter and Facebook: The New Tools of Productivity or Distraction

The argument is strong on either side of the case: do social networks increase or decrease productivity on the job?

It’s a landmark case where the decision will ultimately determine the fate of business within respective online communities of influence. Perhaps however, it’s also a decision that we may never realize.

On one side, the focus of employees and the output of their time and energy, is essential to the livelihood of the company that employs them. Unregulated distractions, especially those of an addictive nature such as real-time consumption and interaction on the Web, are potentially disruptive.

In 2009, several studies reported on the diversion of social networks and the decrease in productivity as well as the security risks they posed to corporate IP and overall production, efficiencies, and output.

As Caroline McCarthy reported for CNET late last year, Robert Half Technology found that 54% of U.S. companies block social networks completely and another 19% only permit it for business purposes. Of that, 10% of companies surveyed permit social networking for personal use and 16% allow “limited” personal use.

In a recent issue of Wired Magazine, Brendan Koerner shared two studies, one performed by Nucleus Research that revealed that Facebook shaves 1.5% off total office productivity and another by Morse that estimated on-the-job social networking costs British companies $2.2 billion a year.

In the context of security, Sophos published its Security Threat Report 2010, which revealed the social networks believed to pose the most prominent security risks.

Sophos reports a 70% rise in the number of organizations experiencing spam and malware attacks via social networks in 2009. And, 72% are of the mindset that employee behavior in social networks could endanger their business security, which represents an increase from 66% in the previous report.

Here’s where things become very real….More than half report receiving spam via social networks, and over a third claim to have received malware.  The total number of businesses targeted for spam, phishing and malware through social networking sites also increased dramatically, with spam rocketing from 33.4% in April to 57% in December.

According to the study, just over 60% of those surveyed named Facebook as representing the largest risk. MySpace followed with 18% and Twitter trailed closely with 15%.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos, said in a statement published on CNET

The truth is that the security team at Facebook works hard to counter threats on their site–it’s just that policing 350 million users can’t be an easy job for anyone,” “But there is no doubt that simple changes could make Facebook users safer. For instance, when Facebook rolled out its new recommended privacy settings late last year, it was a backwards step, encouraging many users to share their information with everybody on the Internet.

Three Sides to Every Story

As goes the saying, there are three sides to every story, one side, the other side, and the truth or resolution, somewhere in the middle…

Innovation and technology have always been the flashpoint of debate and concern over productivity.

The telephone…

The water cooler…(less technology, I know, but just making a point)

Desktop PCs and eventually personal notebooks…


Web 1.0…

Minesweeper and Solitaire…

Cell phones…


It’s a long list and the reality is that distraction is nothing new in the workplace.

In the same Wired article that opened with compelling data by Nucleus and Morse presenting the case against social networks in the workplace, the author suddenly slammed on the brakes, sharply turned the wheel, and jumped on the gas leading us suddenly in a new and enlightening direction. The article, after all, was entitled, How Twitter and Facebook Make us More Productive.

Studies that accuse social networks of reducing productivity assume that time spent microblogging is time strictly wasted. But that betrays an ignorance of the creative process. Humans weren’t designed to maintain a constant focus on assigned tasks. We need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform — pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking. Musing about something else for a while can clear away the mental detritus, letting us see an issue through fresh eyes, a process that creativity researchers call incubation.

Brilliant. And of course, everything in moderation…

Wired quotes the authors of Creativity and the Mind, a book that blends leading scientific research with experiences to help readers unlock their creative potential…

People are more successful if we force them to move away from a problem or distract them temporarily, observe the authors of Creativity and the Mind, a landmark text in the psychology and neuroscience of creativity. They found that regular breaks enhance problem-solving skills significantly, in part by making it easier for workers to sift through their memories in search of relevant clues.

Last year, researchers at Australia’s University of Melbourne discovered that taking time to visit “websites of interest” actually increased the ability to concentrate, boosting productivity by 9%. As part of the study, the scientists introduced a dedicated category of study, “workplace Internet leisure browsing,” or WILB and they believe that this activity helps keep the mind fresh.

Dr. Brent Coker, from the Melbourne Department of Management and Marketing, shared controversial insight from the study…

People who do surf the Internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office – are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t.

I took to social networks during and outside of work hours to ask the question, Do you believe that social networks decrease productivity in the workplace?

– Yes! I find myself wasting getting sucked in to the stream

– No, in fact, it helps me reset to jump back to work refreshed

– I’m not sure yet

As expected, I immediately received numerous responses that suggested the inclusion of a caveat that addresses those who are employed to participate in social networks as part of their job.

To keep things simple, I noted that if you engage in social networks professionally, the conversations and links you encounter in online work also pose as distractions and in some cases clicks can lead us further away from the task at hand.

This informal poll revealed that out of 785 responses, just over 49% of respondents do not believe social networks decrease productivity. However, 37% admit that they feel that their online activity leads them away from their primary focus. Notably 14% aren’t sure which way to lean yet.

Engaging strategically within communities of relevance with individuals who represent meaningful value to the company in various ways is already proving effective, lucrative, and instrumental to engendering goodwill, loyalty and advocacy. Any businesses affected by consumers with access to the internet will need to grant access to prominent tools, services, and networks to listen, learn, respond, lead, and contribute value. True collaboration in the next web will be based, in large part, on internal and external participation.

One could successfully argue that social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, realign focus, inspire creativity, and spur advocacy by introducing outside elements into existing culture and process. The top down support of such activity is particularly motivating and as such, harnesses the wisdom and energy of the crowds into an internal transformer for not only creativity and stimulus, but also serves as a hub for introducing and spreading enthusiasm and ambition throughout the organization.

Of course, as individuals, we are in control of our experiences and progress. Our production is defined, among many things, by our ambition, motivation and overall satisfaction. The decisions we make when engaging in social networks are striking, not simply because they affect our efficiency, but because they test our determination. The live web is developing and while it is enticing, it is not beyond our means to manage.

Rewarding insight, initiative, and ingenuity sets a standard. However, without guidance, guidelines, or healthy governance, we reap the risks and penance warranted by our lack of understanding and leadership…and this is true for both sides of the discussion.

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