Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Wasting Time

In just about every setting in which I have worked, there has been someone in the managerial hierarchy obsessing about wasting time. Thus, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the question of whether or not using social software in the workplace was a waste of time. Since JP Rangaswamy has now taken on this question over at confused of calcutta, I figured it was time for me to do the same.

My own approach, of course, is to unpack the text into its underlying connotation. “Wasting time” is basically another way of saying “not doing what you’re supposed to be doing;” and it reveals two interesting aspects of workplace pathology. One is that, particularly with all the “knowledge technology” you have at your disposal, what you are “supposed to do,” does not take a lot of time, leaving you with time on your hands until the next thing you are “supposed to do” shows up (which is why you see so many screens with solitaire on them when you wander around the cubicles). The other is that you are in a workplace where you never have a particularly clear idea what you are supposed to be doing except when you are given a very specific task. I am not raising these examples to argue that we should go back to the assembly-line regimen of Barbara Garson's "electronic sweatshop" but to demonstrate that, particularly where “knowledge work” is involved, just about any workplace you choose lacks even a vague sense of what constitutes normative behavior. Yes, there are still managers that resort to "job descriptions;" but, when it becomes obvious to everyone that there is a wide gulf between what the job description says and what the job-holder does, it is a sign that the nature of the job probably has more to do with a normative behavior than has never been examined seriously.

I have now been in two settings where senior managers were virulently opposed to allowing staff to work at home, particularly on a computer. In the first the argument was that anyone with a computer at home will just use it to play games, and in the second the argument was that anyone claiming to be working at home might actually be out shopping. Neither argument had anything to do with “getting the job done,” because there was no normative characterization of what it meant to “get the job done!”

Now, while I have never been one for playing games on my computer, there have been definitely times when I felt a need to "play around" with new software prior to trying to use it seriously. When I first encountered Excel, I thought it was a monster; and the only way I could "tame" it was through such play. The first thing serious thing I did was to work out a way to keep track of expenses I could claim for a “side job” I had editing book reviews for a professional journal. In other words it was not related to the work behind my monthly paycheck. I got good enough at this sort of thing that, in my next job, I started to submit work-related summaries of travel expenses in Excel. (As a matter of fact, I maintained my report on my laptop while I was on my trip, since that worked better that sorting out, not to mention decoding, a jumble of receipts when I got back to my desk.) Not too long after I started doing this, our Accounting Department defined a specific Excel format to be used in all future travel expense reports! In other words, by investing personal time in one job, I helped define normative behavior in the next one! Needless to say, I never felt I was “wasting time” in either setting!

The question, then, is whether or not this kind of experience with spreadsheet software provides lessons to be learned for social software. However, if we think too much about the software, then we fall into that trap against which I have already ranted, that we deny the existence of the social world by being too fixated on the objective world of that software. Before asking whether "playing around" with social software is a waste of time, we need to look at what is already happening in the flesh-and-blood social world; and ask similar questions. Are you “wasting time” when you take your client to a karaoke bar? I know what the answer is in Japan; but I know of no business (Japanese or otherwise) that has ever bothered to think explicitly about this as a question of normative practices. My point is that we cannot have discussions about uses of social software in the workplace without first establishing a foundation of the broader scope of work-based social practices; and, until businesses recognize this, no amount of reasoning, whether from a white paper written behind a desk or with a PowerPoint presentation delivered in a board room, is going to bring social software into the workplace!

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