In my conversations with people who are trying to figure out the costs and benefits of encouraging the use of more open forms of digital communication within organizations, a common feeling is that the use of tools like SocialText, Ning, Facebook, etc. will either cause or encourage time or resource costs as a result of employees who may use these technologies to waste time online, flame colleagues and start digital fist-a-cuffs, share unprofessional personal information, etc., all of which could lower the overall benefit to a point where the use of the technologies is not worth it.
During a discussion yesterday with a former student (in Facebook), it occurred to me that there is a useful distinction to be made between intentional and unintentional problem activities.
If an employee spends 5 hours a day on Facebook or writes hateful messages to his colleagues through an internal social network, the problem is not with the technology or a lack of fluency, but rather with the person’s motivation, their ethical compass, and ultimately with the HR department who hired a person who is not motivated to do their job.
If an employee finds himself accidentally leaking private information through Facebook, misjudging the norms of using a particular digital technology or getting confused about how to interact with multiple online communities, the problem probably is probably one of fluency, and not one of intention.
To get an accurate picture of the costs and benefits for encouraging or allowing the use of these sorts of tools, an organization needs to distinguish between these two potential costs. They also need to realize that the ways of lowering each sort are very different. To lower the second sort of cost (unintentional), Human Resources people need to know how to recognize digital fluency in current employees and potential new hires. It also requires that they make efforts help develop fluency in the existing employees who are less fluent. To lower the second sort of cost (intentional), HR must become more careful about hiring for proper motivation, personality and ethical commitment, perhaps more so than in the past.