In the past year or so, it has been amazing to witness organisations finding ways of using social media to engender innovation and creativity. By offering employees full access to these tools, innovative use of applications like Twitter and Facebook can come from all parts of the organisation.  Restricting  access to social media risks placing an organisation at a competitive disadvantage.

These tools can be used in an enormous variety of ways. They can support and enable common business processes such as sales, marketing, customer services and recruitment. In addition, they can even support industry specialists that seek to improve the ways in which they do things. Specialists in industries from aeronautical engineering to zoology are finding ways of using social media to support, enhance and transform their business activities.

I recently met up with an ex colleague who now works for Carnival Australia, a cruise company. To most people, it is not obvious how Carnival might use social media for business purposes. But, some creative and innovative individuals within the company have found ways of using Facebook to enhance customer service and improve customer experience. In addition, to setting up pages that are used broadly for marketing purposes, Carnival also sets up Facebook pages for each cruise. Customers of the cruise are then invited to ‘like’ the group for their cruise. On the page, they can share information with other customers and with Carnival employees. Discussions commence in which customers can gain information, relating to their cruise, from peers in addition to corporate information from Carnival. So far, Carnival has found that this feature is popular with their customers and the company believes that it improves customer experience significantly.

Given that there is clear evidence of social media tools, including Facebook, being used for innovation and to increase productivity, why do some companies continue to use web filtering tools to restrict employee access to social media? The short and polite answer is that the people who make these decisions often have very little understanding of the relationship between business and technology. In the 1980s, when spreadsheets were first widely used, some myopic employers were concerned that their employees would spend too much time using spreadsheets for personal use such as creating shopping lists. A similar argument was used if we go further back to the widespread introduction of the telephone in the work place.

Today’s managers should not spend time worrying about employee use of social media. Instead, they should view these new tools as opportunities to gain a competitive advantage. They should be encouraging employees to find ways of using social media to improve their performance as well as the performance of their organisations.

Rather than using cumbersome software to restrict Web access and introducing new management processes to determine which sites can be accessed and which sites cannot, organizations need simply introduce policies and guidelines that require employees to use social media in a responsible manner and to use their tools primarily for business purposes when using business assets and business time. Sure, they will sometimes use these tools for personal use. But this is no big deal considering that most employers are happy to allow employees to use business telephones for personal use, within reason. Besides, if an employee is performing, the time that they spend using social media should not be a cause for concern.

A much greater concern should be the extent to which the organisation is leveraging social media. Failure to offer employees full access to social media seriously threatens an organisation’s competitiveness.