E-Learning 2.0 and Employee Access to Social Network Sites

Peter Kim offers an interesting observation on the way social networking relates to the qualities of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and the insight offered by Michel Foucault that Bentham’s design served as an exemplar for organizational discipline in the industrial age. Peter notes that Bentham’s design made prisoners uncertain whether the prison guards were watching their behavior at any particular moment. He also points out that the design of modern cube farms in offices not only foster collaboration but also afford observation by managers and peers.

In the 21st century, the panopticon has moved online. Today’s IT departments install keystroke loggers and web proxies that monitor employees’ computing activities.

Employees usually react to panoptic observation by falling in line and acceding to discipline – or leaving the company (only to fall into the same situation, different brand on the door).

But social computing fosters 100% anti-panoptic behavior. People become exceedingly transparent and open. Observation loses its power as workers share the information anyway.

Peter’s point is not trivial, that social computing challenges the prevailing wisdom on managing the way employees communicate with management and peers within their organization and others outside it. He is also on target to note that the issues of discipline and control remain central concerns in the prevailing wisdom. As suggested here previously, the integration of social computing into the Enterprise raises issues of risk management, whether it involves e-Learning 2.0, Community 2.0, Marketing 2.0, or any other X2.0 phenomena. Moreover, the risks perceived probably differ depending on the functional area of the Enterprise in which social computing initiatives occur.

A recent report from the eLearning Guild, E-Learning 2.0: Learning in a Web 2.0 World, offers the following data on companies that restrict access to social network and shared content sites on the web.

The eLearning Guild’s research drew from 1,160 of its members from 979 different organizations. The numbers distinguish between organizations with more than 10,000 employees and those with less.  Organizations with more than 10,000 employees appear slightly less willing to permit employees access to social networking sites, with the exception of Wikipedia to which almost everyone appears to allow access.

In their followup with around 36 members regarding why their organizations block access to social networking sites, the Guild researchers report the following three types of reasons. 

So, why do organizations block these sites? We corresponded with several dozen Guild members, and they gave the following reasons:

  1. Concern that workers would engage in frivolous activities,
  2. Concern that allowing unfettered access to sites like YouTube would cause bandwidth problems, and
  3. Concern that some social networking sites might contain malformed pages that, when accessed, would download and run malicious software code.

Given the dependence of eLearning professionals on IT infrastructure, it isn’t surprising that technical concerns about the risks posed by social computing to bandwidth, or vulnerability to malicious software, dominate the perception of why their organization blocks access to social networking sites. A survey of marketing or public relations professionals would likely show quite different sets of concerns about the risks posed by social computing. However, Peter’s rhetorical question, and implicit conclusion, on the issue seems right to me. He asks,

You may block Facebook and Twitter today – but how long will it be until the Enterprise wakes up and realizes that community participation is the key to success?

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5 Responses to E-Learning 2.0 and Employee Access to Social Network Sites

  1. I read in a recent report that “the top concern of businesses is that social networks …[require] employees to enter information about themselves into the social network and distracting them from their work”.

    That’s an old-fashioned view of enterprise social networking as potentially just another version of tired knowledge management. The issue is not about being distracted about ENTERING information it is about being thrilled by the value of what they extract and find.

    Moving to Web2 and information-sharing and capturing knowledge has to be generative, that is, pulled from the shop floor. That requires a focus on collaboration (not collection) a focus on sociability and then the all important encouragement of use. Without that it won’t work.

    I’ve just finished an assignment from the CEO of a 5,000 person engineering enterprise who previously encouraged and rewarded his staff on being operationally and functionally lean, mean, and independent. Now he realizes that he really needs information sharing, but how?

    The answer is in the hygiene factors of the right infrastructure and tools, and then all the right human and social factors.

    Facebook and purely social (as against enterprise social) networks already engage people, and employers worry about participation at work, whereas ESNs won’t just take off in the same way. Employers will be challenged with the reality of actually getting people to use them. I don’t believe that there is a strong correlation between the use of the Facebooks and ESNs and that this requires real effort and attention, of the kind I mention above.

    By the way, although I was commissioned by the CEO and COO to undertake that work on how to make ESN successful in their organisation, my report really stopped them in their tracks. They were kind of expecting that it was about getting access to Internet across the organisation and the rest would follow – of course I managed their expectations to a degree but the reality of the organisational and leadership effort dawned on them very quickly.

    Walter Adamson

  2. Larry Irons says:

    Hi Walter,

    Nice story, thanks for sharing.

    I agree with your assessment that an effort to get employees to engage with ESNs does not face the same barriers that knowledge management systems faced in getting employees to enter metadata about chunks of information. I also agree that collaboration and sociability [sociality], on top of the tools and infrastructure, are key elements in making an ESN succeed. He is also saying that, at least some, social computing permeates the walls of an ESN even if it doesn’t officially permit the flow. Think here back to my distinction between process and practice.

    I think the overall point Peter Kim made is that ESNs don’t need to be enclosed to succeed, and in fact related social networks and communities shouldn’t be enclosed by the ESN. A good example would be blogging. We know, for example, that if a company wants its website to rise in the google rankings then traditional SEO approaches are not enough. It is incoming links that are most likely to increase your ranking, So, having employees blog off the company’s website not only fails to support the perception that their views are authentic, but also fails to contribute to their company’s reputation in the communities and social networks their blog engages. Better to encourage employees to write their own blogs, even on company time, on separate platforms and link back to the company all the while placing a standard disclaimer, that their views don’t represent their employer’s even though most of the time the two will be in alignment.

    The point doesn’t mean that ALL social computing ought to be allowed to permeat the ESN, but in some instances the overall purpose of doing an ESN actually requires such flows of practice to achieve effectiveness. The overall question seems to be when the benefits outweigh the risks.

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  5. […] sometimes fail to recognize this simple fact, assuming instead that their organization can control the way individual employees learn as well as the learning resources available to them. As the quote above from Jay Cross suggests, the assumption is increasingly […]

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