Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/08/will_davies_facebook_at_work/

The 'Funky Business' consultants want to poke you

Back to work, back to Facebook?

By William Davies

Posted in Small Biz, 8th January 2008 06:02 GMT

Column Recently, we've seen a spate of reports of employers blocking the use of social networking sites at work. With one estimate suggesting that sites such as Facebook cost UK employers over £130m a day in lost productivity, this is perhaps unsurprising.

But the response from unions and technology commentators has been less sympathetic to the bosses. Employers who ban Facebook are painted as luddites who are out of touch with the times. There is the additional implication that they could pay a penalty for their conservatism.

In many respects, this is the charge 21st century businesses least like to have levelled at them. So, social networking sites are opening up interesting faultlines in the presumed relationship of business and new technology.

How many businesses are there that don’t claim to be in favour of technological change? One might think of the producers of classic goods such as traditional watches, classic clothes and wines. But elsewhere, the service industries that create around three-quarters of jobs in the Western world trade on an optimistic rhetoric of technological innovation.

To resist the sparkling newness of high-tech gadgets is to risk the apathy of investors, consumers, and employees. On the other hand, where businesses claim to be universally in favour of innovation, this is a recipe for hypocrisy.

Why hypocrisy?

Because businesses cannot help but be defined, at least in the medium term, by certain techniques of production. When these are superceded, it is hardly something for them to feel cheerful about. If the manager of a steel mill claimed to be excited by an innovation that made his mill redundant, he would most likely be a liar.

And yet the veneer must be maintained.

CEOs appear in Business Week in golfing wear, reciting the shareholder-targeted mantra that their management philosophy is ‘innovate or die’. Coming from a CEO, this philosophy is about as surprising as discovering that a football manager is asking for ‘110 per cent commitment’ from all his players.

The consumer must also be given the impression that, where a brand is concerned, they are never stepping in the same river twice – the product will change from one visit to the next. The words ‘new’ and ‘improved’ are now about the only features of supermarket packaging that never change.

As for employees, management rhetoric views them as an asset whose innovative potential must be nurtured. Nobody, apparently, wants to work for a company that is stuck in its ways.

So who is being lied to?

To some extent, the assurances of innovation to shareholders are only mood music and unlikely to be tested one way or the other. The only information that these stakeholders really scrutinise is the quarterly report. The question of whether or not the CEO wears a tie or not is of secondary importance.

That said, capitalism requires productivity growth, which in turn depends upon innovation. Investors can never afford to be too oblivious to new technology.

The promise of innovation to consumers is an equally sensitive issue. Often a veneer will do, but where the product becomes locked into an outdated technological paradigm, the consequences can be drastic – just ask the music industry.

For this reason, the way we consume has changed in a number of important ways, as retailers have exploited the potential of the internet. The creation of new online-only business models removes the inefficiency of running high-street stores, and introduces a far more 'personalised' customer experience.

Which leaves us with the promises made to employees.

There was a period around the turn of the millennium during which predictions were made that the very nature of work was about to change unrecognisably. Hierarchical organisations would be replaced by loose networks of freelancers. Offices were to become play-grounds in which creative entrepreneurs would sell their own human capital.

Books like Funky Business by Jonas Ridderstrale and Kjell Nordstrom, The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin and Happy Mondays by Richard Reeves proclaimed that business success was now dependent upon a liberated and happy workforce. Managers that misunderstood this would suffer the consequences.

Phenomena such as the growth of teleworking indicate certain changes in the nature of work have indeed materialised. But the Facebook-at-work debate demonstrates that there is a limit to how much innovation this realm of the economy can accommodate. Work must remain work.

"Never trust a hippy"

In Karl Marx’s world-changing analysis, capitalism is defined by the fact that workers produce more value for their employers than they receive in their pay-packet. The difference between the two (‘surplus value’) is what becomes capital.

There can be endless varieties of capitalism, built around any manner of production techniques, creating and satisfying an ever-growing variety of consumer needs, but one thing must remain constant – surplus value must be extracted.

The fact that many employees are technologically blocked from accessing social networking sites shouldn’t surprise us in the least. Contrary to the hippy philosophy of the New Economy prophets, obedience of workers to managers is the defining fact of capitalism. If they want to change that, it will take more than a reinvention of corporate culture.

It takes a particularly intoxicating digital exuberance to believe that new technologies are automatically beneficial to the economy in general or to productivity in particular. Those who believe that social networking sites should be embraced by managers generally fail to acknowledge one glaring fact: a social networking site is not enjoyable in spite of its damage to productivity, but because of it. ®

William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch.