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With blogs and social networking sites becoming a part of our daily lives almost as much as emails, it may be tempting to be an active participant on these. For professionals, it may be both interesting and rewarding to seek out conversations related to their work. And why not? It is a sure way to network and expose oneself to new ideas and thoughts. But is your company management open to you engaging in the same?
Yes, a few companies are quite liberal in their outlook but most continue to keep a tight leash on what and where their employees talk. Not only in India, but all over the world including the US and UK, the two most mature Web 2.0 societies. Are the companies right in playing it safe, or are they losing out on benefits and opportunities in the process?
The fear factor
The biggest apprehension for companies is classified information going out. These include those related to clients, innovations and new developments, finance etc. But is a blanket gag the only solution?
"As long as you are talking about general topics, it should be fine according to me. But if there is a post specific to your company or related to it in any sense, definitely a clearance is required and should be taken," says Jaideep Khanduja, general manager, Group 4 Securicor.
Adds Balaji Sadana, group account manager at Bangalore-based The Lighthouse Consulting, "Such restrictive company policies are designed to cover those who may not have a complete understanding or knowledge to interact with media of any form. That is why one designates only a few people within the organisation to speak about anything related to the company's business."
A lost opportunity?
Despite some justified fears, companies may be the losers if their employees cannot benefit from participating in various online forums for their professional growth. They may also be putting themselves at a risk if employees start seeking out more open work cultures in other companies.
Says Jim Collins, CEO of US-based Affinity Internet, "In my own experience, creating opportunities for open communication significantly curbs the frustration that unavoidably builds in an organisation. Seeking candour, especially in times of difficulty, and enlisting the creative talents of the organisation on a path to problem solving does a much better job of keeping the corporate secrets secret than creating a thick policy manual. In the end though it is important to understand that secrets really no longer are secret. Therefore, the best way to make these leaks irrelevant is to make them yesterday's news."
"There is no denying these restrictions exist and would constrain employees from freely expressing themselves on social forums. Even on intranet forums, not too many companies are currently comfortable allowing 'unmoderated' content on their collaboration portals," feels Rakesh Vajpai, Director, Prosares Solutions. "I guess caution is only a natural response to such new developments. As time progresses, companies would realise the benefits they could reap by being more liberal in this regard. At the risk of exaggeration, Web 2.0 has the potential to convert your entire workforce into your Sales force,"
"Internally, a more liberal environment would help foster creativity, help embed organisational knowledge and its effective sharing. The experience of social communities managing their own content and flagging any inappropriate content has proved to be extremely beneficial. There is no reason it cannot be replicated in a corporate environment," he adds.
"Organisations talk a lot about the knowledge economy, about knowledge management and the importance of knowledge, yet they have absolutely no intention of altering the culture in order to facilitate the value of the inherent and explicit knowledge. Remember, Knowledge = Cost + Opportunity = Advantage. Not using this knowledge still incurs the cost, it misses the opportunity and diminishes the advantage.
"It is organisational suicide to place barriers in the way of knowledge capture, use and development. As the global competitive environment increases, the capture, use and development of inherent and explicit knowledge will be a survival necessity for all organisations. Those who fail to put in place the necessary cultural developments and management / governance mechanisms will increase their cost, diminish their opportunity and lose market share to their competitors," says UK-based strategic management consultant James Stuart.
Is there a way forward?
The official spokesperson policy adopted by companies when dealing with traditional media may not always work with new media. What one needs are a diverse set of voices who not only speak with authority and passion, but are also willing to engage with their audience in a conversational mode. But how do companies justify and manage a more liberal policy?
To start with, have no policy. "In my experience, the effectiveness of regulatory policy has an inverse proportionate relationship to the size of the organisation and the ease with which the policy can be violated. The seeming anonymity of the internet, combined with its utter pervasiveness and the emerging workforce's dim view of limiting expression create a fertile pasture for unwanted disclosure. Determining the drivers for such behaviours and working to address them in tangible ways is much more effective than the creation of policy," says Collins.
Employees can also make it clear that they speak on these forums in their personal capacity. "As long as an employee does not claim to represent the employer's views and does not share confidential information, the net effect of allowing the employees to speak up would be only positive for the employer," believes Vajpai.
"As long as they are not speaking as 'company employees' they can and should feel free to collaborate online using their individual educational backgrounds, their own ongoing self-education etc.
If employees have opinions or perspectives that are a result of their own resources and thoughts that are not directly related to the company or job, then why not participate in online collaboration for knowledge attainment and integration," says Sherri Dohemann, a US-based sales professional with Johnson and Johnson.
Will we see attitudes and mindsets changing anytime soon? Keep a lookout on the Web 2.0 space!
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