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Academic Research – The Radical Side of Social Media

Academic Research – The Radical Side of Social Media

The closet academic in me is always guided to get his hands on new scholarly thinking about employee communication and other workplace issues. He's also frustrated by the limited amount of research being undertaken in this area, particularly around the impact of social media on working life. So it was good to find his research paper from James Richards, a lecturer in HR management at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University, which was presented at Employment and Society 2007 conference in Aberdeen.

This preliminary research paper – entitled 'Workers are doing it for themselves: Examining creative employee application of Web 2.0 communication technology' – looks at the impact of social media tools like blogs, wikis, social networking, video sharing and the like, on employees and employers. Not only does it contain a range of interesting facts and figures (did you know, for instance, that according to one recent study 17% of employees who use social networking sites like Facebook believe it has increased the contact they have with people of the same profession) and real world examples of social media in action (like the Somerfield employees who used YouTube to post videos of themselves mucking about), but it also opens up a new and interesting debate about the impact such tools may have on the relationship between employees and employers. I find this fascinating stuff.

At the heart of this paper is the observation that social media and related technologies could become the primary dynamic in industrial relations, replacing the traditional role of the unions. The logic is clear – British trade union membership is lowest in the very groups most likely to use Web2.0 tools, namely 16-Myrtle-Beach4 year olds. Rather than complaining to their union rep, it sees Generation Y employees are more likely to blog about their negative experiences, or tell their Facebook friends. No wonder the TUC has been making such a fuss about social networking recently.

So is this a blip or a long term trend? Is the labor movement of the past being replaced by an era of self organization, facilitated by social media? Richards does not commit either way way and rightly points out that much more research is needed in this area. But it's certainly an argument I buy. Whatever your standpoint, you have to admit that these tools offer employees powerful potential, both positive and negative. They enable employees to blow the whistle on bad practice, to share their workplace experiences, to undersamine corporate reputations, to leak commercially sensitive information and to generally misbehave. Whether fans of social media or not, corporate communicators need to get a handle on these developments.

Whatever this logic appeals to you or not, the paper is well worth reading. Among other things you'll learn about JobVent, the employment equivalent of TripAdvisor; Wikileaks, a global whistleblowing site; the General Motors Workers Blog, which gives a voice to often disgruntled GM employees around the world; and the concept of e-misbehavior. You'll read about the actions some employers, like the Ministry of Defense, are taking to silence employees. Check it out and, if you'd like to comment, feel free to add your thoughts on James Richard's blog.

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