Twenty years ago, very few people knew what an email was, and even fewer had actually sent one. Instead, we were passing memos around the office, sending faxes, and calling in the bicycle messengers. A lot has changed since then. The idea of distributing a printed memo around the office seems quaint. People get puzzled if you ask them to send a fax. You can spend an entire day in New York City without seeing one bicycle messenger. Email seems to have taken over the world.
Actually though, many baby boomers and Gen X’ers don’t realize it, but an entire generation now considers email old-fashioned, too. Ask Gen Y’ers to send an email, and they’ll look at you with the same puzzled expression you get when you ask someone to send a fax. For them, social media website messaging has taken the place of email. In fact, the only time many Gen Y’ers use email is to confirm their registration on a new social media site!
Gen X and the baby boomers still love their email, but they’ve jumped on the social media bandwagon too. As a result, most online communication today actually takes place via social media sites like Facebook. Of course, email still makes up a large part of online communication, but it’s in the minority now, and its slice of the communication pie is getting smaller. In the workplace, email is still king, but that’s only because businesses are taking to social media with reluctance and fear, seeing it as a time-waster and a security threat.
Instead of being blinded by the risks of social media, businesses should open their eyes to its potential. Think of a large company with thousands of employees scattered around the world. With the older communication methods, it’s practically impossible to know who else is in the organization, unless you’re one of the lucky few who have developed a wide network of internal contacts over the years. Otherwise, when you want to get the scoop on someone you need to work with, the best you can do is get it from the friend of a friend of a friend. You have to cooperate on a project with this new person, but you don’t even know what he looks like, or what things you might have in common. When you send an email to him, you might not even hear back, because he doesn’t know you, either. What if you could bypass all that, and make it easier to establish rapport? You could get so much more done.
Social media networks like Facebook can help companies solve that problem. Companies can either use the public websites, or, if they want to keep their network in-house, secure white-label networking tools for corporate intranets abound. And these days, because social media has become so popular outside of the workplace, most employees immediately understand how to make use of a newly-installed internal network, too. Tools like these can make it so much easier for employees to connect with far-flung colleagues, shortening the time they spend building trust with each other. Instead of asking friends of friends of friends what a colleague is like, or working with people for years without even knowing what they look like, employees can establish rapport in minutes. And since they can see which friends and colleagues they have in common, they can build trust much faster, too.
This works doubly well for new employees who haven’t established any relationships yet, not even with the people in their own building.
Unfortunately, though, companies tend to see social media as a time-waster. They see it as something that distracts employees and steals their focus from work. When companies look down on social media as a waste of time, then of course they can’t see the benefits it can bring.
I urge them to change the way they view social media, to start seeing its potential to help their employees get more done by spending less time navigating the company’s inefficient social networks. Social media sites like Facebook have grown so large so fast for a good reason: In order to ignite their creativity and bring value to the world around them, people need contact with other people. You don’t get synergy when your people are hidden away from each other.