Thoughts on Portsmouth’s Facebook ban

Portsmouth Council announced this week they’ve decided to ban access to Facebook from its computers after it was revealed staff spent an average of 400 hours a month on the site.

Council bans on Facebook are hardly new; many have restrictions on access thanks to the requirements of Government Connect. But this story focussed on “waste”, noting 400 hours a month equates to between five and six minutes per month spent on the site by each of the 4,500 PC-based staff.

Firstly, the statistic isn’t a sound one; Portsmouth Council admit they can’t differentiate between business and personal use, nor between dwelling and active browsing, which means they don’t know how much of that 400 hours is clocked up by windows left open while the user does something else.

Second, the headline doesn’t reflect the real issue behind this story. Organisations have had this debate many times already, over the potential for employees to waste time if given a telephone, email, or access to the internet. In all of these cases, it’s a manager’s job to tackle any perceived timewasting, and so too it should be for Facebook. But instead of looking at the quality of performance management, Portsmouth Council are trying to solve the problem from the centre.

This strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People are already talking about us on social networks. We can either choose to ignore those conversations, or we can listen to and learn from them.

As Carl Heggarty notes, would we consider a member of staff visiting a village hall and listening to community issues and communicating with them about councils services a waste of time, or would that be considered community engagement?

Employees listening out for the organisation on social networks gives us an extended network of “eyes and ears” able to highlight problems and bring them to our attention before they spiral out of control and become significant reputational risks.

By banning access, we prevent employees from listening on our behalf, identifying problems so they can be given attention by more conventional means. But heavy-handed bans also prevent employees from speaking for us. Employees can be powerful advocates for what we do, and are likely to speak highly of us in their social networks, both on and offline. By banning access we limit employees ability to advocate for us online.

By limiting the extent to which informed and engaged employees can advocate on its behalf, Portsmouth Council is failing to get the full value from its internal communications.

Finally, centrally-imposed bans on access could also be said to have a negative impact on employee engagement. Hertzberg argues that dissatisfaction with employment is primarily motivated by company policy, supervision, salary, interpersonal relations and working conditions (what he termed ‘Hygiene Factors’). Portsmouth’s policy of blocking social networking sites could be seen to create dissatisfaction among employees, as it could be seen to be heavy-handed centralised supervision, and limits their ability to manage their work-life balance and build working relationships.

The Work Foundation found access to new technology affects how people view their organisational culture: “People who have access to newer technologies are more likely to characterise their organisation as one that is loyal with mutual trust, that is committed to innovation and development or is focussed on achievement and not rule bound”.

The holy grail of employee engagement is discretionary effort. Engage your staff and they repay you by investing more time and effort into their work; fail to engage – or actively disengage – and employees are not motivated to contribute more than the bare minimum.

A more nuanced look at Portsmouth’s Facebook ban might reveal it has a negative impact both on employee engagement and on community engagement, resulting in far more “waste” than the five to six minutes a month currently spent on Facebook.

Guardian readers more influential than those of other papers, says, err, The Guardian

I just receieved some spam an email from the folks in the Guardian’s ads department about their research project Word of Mouth (not to be confused with the Guardian’s excellent food blog, also called Word of Mouth).

This looks at the power of what we in government comms call advocacy.

“We have been researching influence, idea propagation and word of mouth. Through an extensive, multi-discipline programme of methodologies we have established what traits and abilities make one person more influential than another and have created a framework through which to identify them.”

Well, the research isn’t exactly rock solid, comprising a few interviews and a reading list which wouldn’t pass in an undergrad dissertation.

“Weak Ties, Bridging Capital and the Status Bargain are the core of what makes a person influential. When combined these factors allow people to access and spread ideas and opinions faster and more persuasively than others…”

(Those of us with academic backgrounds in social sciences will vaguely remember this from half-forgotten lectures on Bourdieu and the like).

“Having an abundance of Weak Ties gives an individual access to new sources of information and the ability to spread that information. Bridging Capital enables them to package this information up in a way that makes it easier for other people to take it on board. And the Status Bargain helps them to make more informed and influential recommendations based on a range of opinions.

“Underpinning these three concepts is a set of measurable characteristics (known by the acronym ACTIVE) which are evident in higher incidence among influential people. They are: Ahead in Adoption, Connected, Traveller, Information Hungry, Vocal and Exposed to Media.

“Our research has proven that these qualities are prominent in individuals that others would characterise as ‘influential’ and that readers of the Guardian and Observer (both online and offline) score more highly against these characteristics than consumers of other media. They demonstrate a greater propensity to both generate and spread word of mouth.”

So what they’re saying is that Guardian readers are more influential than those of other quality dailies. They consume more media, but they also produce more, and have more conversations with more people than your Average Joe. Persuade a Guardian reader, and they’ll persuade others for you. Bingo.

The research might be a little lightweight, but on the other hand I find the conclusion absolutely believable. The Guardian is read by almost everyone at management level in the public sector and in the media. It’s the paper of choice for captains of the cultural industries, for instance, individuals who by definition are highly connected. Do a straw poll on Twitter, and I strongly suspect you’ll find the Guardian or its site are read by more than any other paper.

Advocacy is an enormously powerful communication medium, but one that communicators are struggling get to grips with (in part because, by definition, it can work against you as well as for you).

At the same time, internet advertising is fast moving away from the old sheepdipping approach to a more mature, targeted and focussed model based on customer insight. The idea of targeting your adverts with the express purpose of persuading others to advocate for you is an interesting one, but one that needs further and more robust research than what’s presented here.

Interesting start, though. What do you think?