The telephone: The original social networking tool

I would have thought senior technology executives had had enough of all the social networking talk but “enabling communities” was the focus of discussion at a meeting this evening of the CIO Association of Canada’s Ontario chapter. As it turned out, it was an audience member, and not a presenter, who made a point that got me thinking.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for the entire event, but the presentation by an Info-Tech analyst started out by going over many of the well-worn issues: that social networking tools are everywhere; that young employees simply can’t get enough of them; that they have the potential to create enhanced forms of collaboration and communication; and, as the analyst stressed, the need for monitoring and vigilance.

A CIO put up his hand. “I have a question,” he said. “Do these things really require more policing than our phones or our phone systems?”

Your first reaction might be “Hell yes!” but that’s in part because of the pervasiveness of the Internet, not the social networking tools themselves. The other issue, of course, is that there’s often a semi-permanent record of social networking activity, which is predominantly a text and image-based medium. I understood the CIO’s underlying point, though. Like any resource offered to employees, there is the potential for abuse, and don’t we need to give those employees a certain amount of latitude?

I recalled on my way home that at one point phones were the kind of social networking tools that many businesses did, in fact, try to clamp down upon. Remember convenience stores, where teenaged employees sitting behind the cash register would be talking on the phone the entire time, from the moment you brought forward a purchase to after they handed you your change the receipt. Tough bosses would drop by unexpectedly to make sure this wasn’t happening. Others turned a blind eye, and avoided the more irate customers.

In corporations, many of us continue to use an individual calling code in order to place long-distance calls. Those that abuse this service may find themselves with a record of their calling history and are asked to pay up. With the rise in mobile communications, you could argue that the phone is a more powerful and accessible social networking tool than Facebook and MySpace combined. Only the relatively intimate and one-on-one relationships we nurture through it prevent us from treating it as a Web 2.0-style service.

I don’t know whether the CIOs at the event tonight will create policies around social networking tools that IT managers and their staff will be required to enforce. I only know that if they do it will be one of those areas of the job that IT managers enjoy the least. Or any business leader, for that matter. Earlier today I asked, “What is the difference between managing and nagging?” A few minutes later a friend offered me an answer: “In my experience, the difference is trust.” What’s interesting is we had this exchange on Twitter.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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