A couple of months ago I received an email inviting me to join Facebook from one of the people working on a marketing book for which I had contributed a chapter. Given I already had more than enough blogs and RSS feeds to read every day, as well as work and personal emails to keep on top of, I decided to give the Facebook invitation a miss. It was a pretty easy decision to make to be honest, as it seemed to me to be little more than a slightly less garish version of MySpace.

In fact, I never really gave Facebook another thought until a few weeks ago, when I came across a news story claiming the site could be costing Australian businesses around $5 billion a year. The story originated from a report by internet filtering company, SurfControl. The company had calculated that if an employee was to spend an hour a day on Facebook, it would add up to a cost of over $6000 a year.

“Our analysis shows that Facebook is the new, and costly, time-waster,” said SurfControl spokesman Richard Cullen. He also claimed there are Facebook groups dedicated to slacking off at work.

So damning and, I believe, ill considered was the ‘$5 billion a year’ claim, I decided to sign up to Facebook and see this evil time-wasting menace for myself. It didn’t take me very long before I realised that I was now in possession of a valuable and extremely useful social networking tool.

Apparently many large business organisations don’t see any value at all in Facebook and have banned their employees from using it during working hours. In a post for the Marketing Profs blog, Gavin Heaton wrote, “Employers may well be concerned that Facebook could chew up a significant portion of their employees days, but it is clear that prohibiting access is not the answer.”
Just as there are expectations on employee behaviour and approaches to engaging and working with customers, so too should there be policies about ‘acceptable use’ for social networking sites.

According to Heaton, Facebook and social networks are the closest thing that many organisations may have to an ‘expert network’. “Somewhere out there, probably only a couple of connections away,” says Heaton, “your employee will have access to someone of great influence. They may be a great thinker, designer or writer. They may be creative or analytical.”

In my case, this observation turned out to be spot on. I needed to find a copywriter for a project, so I wrote a short post on my Facebook. I got three suggestions, all of them from people whose professional opinion I value very highly.

“Sites like Facebook provide a neat way of segmenting and activating communities of interest through their group functions,” writes Heaton. “And while not perfect, they work.”

Business strategy consultant Ross Dawson is another who believes that business should encourage, not ban, the use of social marketing sites in the workplace. Writing on his blog Trends in Living Networks, Dawson argues, “Being able to reach out to the right person for expertise and knowledge is one of the primary values of any knowledge-based worker.”

He cites respected names such as Deloitte, IBM and Procter & Gamble as examples of forward thinking companies that have actively encouraged their staff to use networking sites.

Deloitte Australia, according to Dawson, “actively uses Facebook inside its organisation, encouraging its staff to use the application to connect and keep in touch. It’s likely that Deloitte’s business performance would decrease rather than increase if it suddenly blocked Facebook.

“Research at institutions such as Harvard and MIT has consistently shown that employees’ personal networks are in many cases the single biggest factor impacting their productivity and ability to contribute to the company,” says Dawson.

Matt Moore, writing on the blog Engineers Without Fears, took a more light-hearted look at the $5 billion problem, predicting that, “Coffee will cost Australian businesses $20 billion.

“If 3.2 million Australian workers spend around an hour a day drinking coffee with each other (about the same amount of time employees are supposedly wasting on Facebook) then that means that coffee is four times as damaging to the Australian economy as Facebook,” argues Moore.

Commenting on a blog post about the great $5 billion scandal, Paul Donnelly wrote, “Oh my god, you’ve opened my eyes. I’d better sign out of Facebook now before the UK economy starts to follow that of Australia! Or maybe I’ll ignore the scaremongering and spend the time I would have spent making the next cup of tea seeing what my Facebook friends are up to.”

Summing up the whole time-wasting argument beautifully, Donnelly goes on to say, “There are lots of offices where people drink tea all day, but you don’t see their employers taking the kettle away, do you?”