Collaborate, Create, Communicate

Not working or networking?

We’ve been advocates of social media for a long time. So it was encouraging to see the Special Report on social media from the Economist, which extols the benefits of social networking technologies that are “the beginning of an exciting new era of global interconnectedness that will spread ideas and innovations around the world faster than ever before”.

Hear, hear.. this statement is coming from the same Economist who in 2008 predicted the early demise of social networking. Quite encouraging!

So… non-believers among you… beware… you may change your mind too!

The series of reports by Martin Giles, The Economist’s US Technology correspondent sought to de-mystify the magic surrounding social networks and their phenomenal growth.

Likening it to the ‘network effect’ as seen in the rapid spread of telephones once upon a  time, he shares how social network sites like LinkedIn and Facebook saw sluggish growth for months when they first launched, before a certain point when the number of users suddenly increased in leaps and bounds.

The Economist goes on to argue that a huge reason for the unprecedented success of social networking sites launched in the last five years is due to the fall in costs of storage and data processing hardware. Something that social sites from the 1990s could not leverage on as their membership networks grew, causing them to fail.

So armed with low-cost maintenance and free, open-source software available, many social networking sites have found ways to manage the network effect and come out smelling like roses.

So why do we often find ourselves questioning the use of these sites?

Within the CGIAR, our biggest concerns are likely to be:

  • Not working as opposed to networking

The Economist report questions the validity of claims made about the threat of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to corporate productivity and wealth. Many of these reports fail to recognize that people have become used to sharing and collaborating outside of the traditional workplace and expect the firms they work for to be open and collaborative too.

Firms that block network access assume their staff would actually work when they have spare time that would otherwise be spent on social networking. Such office downtime could easily be spent by staff in other activities, taking a coffee break for example… or stepping out for a smoke if you are so inclined… and even those are actually great ways to ‘network”.

I used to work for an organization where smokers used to meet at the “swimming pool” (a small fountain really)… that was the place to go if you wanted to know what was happening, who was doing what, if you wanted to have some intelligence…. well, as a non-smoker I kind of felt left behind, so for me (and I am sure other non-smokers share the same feelings) social networks are helping break down communication barriers.

Within the CGIAR we have experienced quite a fast adoption of Yammer. The steep growth in number of users since the last quarter of last year should help us confirm this.

Growth of users on the cgiar.org Yammer network since January 2009

So, we looked at what the Economist had to say about Yammering away at the office.


The issue of privacy in social networks is often at the heart of why organizations are slow to warm up to them. Yet this is an issue that can hardly be solved easily. Social networks need user traffic to boost profits from advertising, yet users are wary of giving away too much of their private information by signing up. This push and pull factor treads a fine line and most people are aware of the “cost of a free lunch”, says the Economist’s special report.

While the world has managed to make the internet work for government organizations, corporate firms and small and medium business enterprises, the Economist reminds us of what the founding father of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee said in his book ‘Weaving the Web’, “the internet was always meant to be more of a social creation than a technical one. The ultimate goal was to come up with something that first and foremost, would make it easier for people to collaborate with one another.”

Social network sites have contributed significantly towards achieving this objective. Anyone with an internet connection has a powerful medium in their hands. “The democratization of technology is driving the socialization of the web and fundamentally changing the way people interact with one another, as well as with businesses and governments” (the Economist concludes).

And if we still are not convinced, can we really stop the usage of social networks by staff at work by citing work productivity studies and user traffic statistics?

These days the internet can fit quite easily within your palm through the mobile phone…and that’s beyond workplace control as many organizations are finding. The CGIAR is at the threshold and if it acts fast, it can set itself up to be a pioneer in the social media revolution. The ICT-KM launched its social media series last year for CGIAR staff who wanted to learn about social networking for exactly this purpose.

Martin Giles from the Economist says, “Online social networks are changing the way people communicate, work and play, and mostly for the better.” That means a whole new generation of stakeholders is unfolding by the day.

In order for us to stay relevant in communicating our research and collaborating with partners, we need to re-think the way we communicate and work in the CGIAR.

Perhaps the question is no longer: is social networking disruptive or subversive?

Instead it might be whether we can afford to ignore or discount the power of social networking…. what do you think?