There was a brief kerfuffle over the summer about the pernicious effects on office efficiency of Facebook and other social-networking internet sites. It was all sparked off by some rather dodgy research published by a recruitment law firm, which asserted that British businesses were losing £130m a day (or 233 million hours every month) because feckless young folk were whiling away their working hours e-mailing their mates and swapping amusing videos.
Calls to ban such vile abuse of office equipment were met with outrage from the TUC, which insisted on every worker's inalienable right to do a bit of cyber-socialising on the boss's time. Shortly afterwards, research by Sophos, a company involved in IT security, found that half of all businesses actually ban the use of social-networking sites from the workplace.
So should businesses ban all this technical trivia and get staff to knuckle down to their jobs? Or is there a case for going with the flow, and trying to harness the new technologies to the benefit of the business? How you answer might well be determined by your age, but there's a growing body of opinion favouring a whole-hearted adoption of these new collaborative technologies. And much of the IT industry sees it as potentially one of the next big growth areas.
It has come about with the rise of Web 2.0, an amalgam of internet technologies that share a common thread - they all hand over control to the consumer or user to supply material and manage their own networks of contacts. This has led to the rapid expansion of the likes of YouTube, citizen journalism, blogs and, of course, social-networking sites like Facebook, Myspace and Bebo. The question now is whether this organic and somewhat anarchic approach to managing information could be applied to business.
One company that believes it can is Gartner, an IT research company that has the ear of IT directors around the world. It sees the potential of the Web 2.0 technologies to come together with many of the systems we already have in place to create what it calls the High-Performance Workplace.
The phrase, from the HR world, builds on research going back 10 years focusing on the recruitment, management, motivation, development and retention of good people. Its new IT-based counterpart looks at how to provide the best people with the best tools to allow them to perform at their full potential.
This is how Gartner defines it: 'A high-performance workplace combines technologies, processes and management so workers can create more value. This area integrates multiple technology perspectives, including collaboration, information access, content and knowledge management, messaging, portals, e-learning and productivity tools.'
We already see many of those components in action - from e-mail and spreadsheets to business intelligence tools and intranets. But bring them together and mix in some Web 2.0, so the thinking goes, and you can really start to show dramatic improvements in productivity.
According to Jorge Lopez, industry research chief at Gartner, the focus of IT has been to cut costs by automating tasks that can be broken down into discrete processes. But it has achieved all it can in that respect and any further improvements would be marginal. The next frontier for IT is the non-routine work that lends itself less readily to automation - and here the talk is of 'augmentation': helping people come to decisions more quickly, and helping support any consequent action.
'With knowledge workers, such as managers, who deal with non-routine kinds of work, the idea of productivity is different. As (management guru Peter) Drucker pointed out, you don't pay them by the hour but by results,' says Lopez. 'The question is: how do you help that class of worker become productive?'
Part of the solution lies in developing communications, he says. 'What we have today is unprecedented in history - the instantaneous access of individuals to each other, at nominal cost. Now we're looking at what will happen when people begin to band together as a group who have a common view of something.'
He cites the open-source movement, the loose association of software developers around the world who collaborate on software applications, often just to show they can do better than Microsoft. They comment on each other's work and maintain the products for the common good, although few of them have met face to face. The same model can work within large corporations, Lopez says, where the technology allows individuals to interact and collaborate with many more people outside their immediate department.
This can lead to greater innovation, because 'if you suddenly engage with orders-of-magnitude more people than you did in the past, the odds of coming up with good ideas just get better'.
If we believe the reports of a worldwide shortage of available talent, companies will have to move in this direction, anyway. New entrants to the workforce who graduated since 2000 have grown up with computers, electronic games, mobile phones and texting. They write and organise their lives on social-networking sites, and store photographs online. They see no reason why the same kinds of features should not be present on the systems they use at work.
'Someone of 21 has always lived with a computer,' says Clive Holtham, a professor at the Cass Business School. 'They're not interested in technology, but they take it for granted and want to use it in their own way.' In California, he notes, some firms are already finding they cannot attract or retain staff because their IT infrastructure fails to meet the demanding standards of the new generation. He supports the idea of giving flexibility to employees to use the technology in new ways, and to encourage them to be creative with it.
These systems do not displace the financial ledgers and stock-control systems that have to be exact and well managed, but they can add another layer of working that changes the ways in which people interact. 'People who use Web 2.0 applications will accept inadequate systems, but they put a huge premium on doing things quickly and with zero learning-curve,' adds Holtham.
A prime example of that is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute and where entries are constantly updated by visitors. On the whole, it is hugely useful, covering as it does just about anything you could be interested in. But it is also open to abuse by interested parties (politicians' entries are often defaced or sanitised), although global peer review usually redresses the balance quickly.
Consider also the website run by 10 Downing Street, which hosts a portal where citizens can start e-petitions and raise issues with their political masters. It famously backfired on the Government last year when nearly 1.5 million people petitioned against road pricing, demonstrating both the power of the technology and its Pandora's Box qualities.
Yet, despite their potential downsides, wikis and online portals could deliver many of the functions that software has been trying to achieve in business for years, such as capturing the knowledge in people's heads so that it can be shared with other colleagues.
IBM certainly believes so. The lumbering giant that nearly went belly-up in the early '90s is now pioneering the new way of working with its Lotus Connections system. The company describes this as 'social software for business that empowers you to be more innovative and helps you execute more quickly by using dynamic networks of co-workers, partners and customers'.
It has blogs, wikis and portals built in, plus a 'profiles' feature that allows users to find someone with the skill or knowledge they need in their organisation at the touch of a button. IBM even advertises the system in a short video on YouTube. Microsoft is expected to follow the same path, as may Google for the mid-market.
Some aspects of Web 2.0 have already found a place in business. Chief executives have discovered the power of the blog to get information around the organisation and to spark discussion. Others use podcasts to address the troops. Some hi-tech firms, such as Cisco, encourage staff to write blogs and engage in online chats, because it tends to yield much franker feedback about what is happening than earlier, more formal channels.
But technology alone will not boost performance. Good people need to be empowered and trained to use the tools. Says Richard Edwards, an industry research analyst with the Butler Group: 'Businesses continue to be disappointed with their IT investment, but their training budgets are stuck at the same levels of 15 to 20 years ago,' he says. 'Those companies that do invest in training are pulling away from the others. You need a well-trained workforce, not only to exploit the basic technologies provided but also to use them to make a real difference in the way they go about their job.'
He mentions an insurance company that installed Microsoft Sharepoint collaboration software, only to discover that few employees used it. Rapid turnover of staff and little training meant that most had no idea how to. 'This can apply to any piece of technology, from video- and phone-conferencing to the buttons on a feature phone. If you don't show people how to use it, they will stagnate and just use the basic functions.'
An issue here is that it presumes a lack of hierarchical structure, which may apply only in smaller firms. In other words, they may be too important for you to approach directly. Some senior management may also see blogs and social networking as just too free-and-easy - more low-performance playground than high-performance workplace. And some traditional IT departments may baulk at the introduction of what they see as Mickey Mouse technologies.
But, regardless of whether management allows Facebook, YouTube or instant messaging into the office, smart young employees will find a way round the restrictions and carry on anyway, or they will leave to work in an environment that more closely matches the way they run the rest of their lives.
Adds Edwards: 'When I was an IT manager and e-mail was first introduced, we had to take our graduate intake to one side and tell them: "You're at work now, not the college dorm, so don't spend all day e-mailing each other. You need to get some work done."'
Social networking faces the same suspicious reception, but it has the potential to deliver the same benefits as e-mail, and a lot more. Time-wasters will always find a way to waste time. If you want a high-performance workplace, the key is to recruit the right people in the first place, and keep them properly motivated. And that probably means giving them full rein to exploit the technology.
ALLEN & OVERY, ALUMNI PROGRAMME KEEPS FORMER STAFF IN TOUCH
International law firm Allen & Overy dipped a corporate toe into online social networking with a scheme that seeks to reach out to former employees and keep them in touch with each other and the firm. 'The main objective of the A&O Alumni Programme is to spread goodwill and make people feel they are still part of the family,' says partner Alex Pease, who chairs the programme.
All ex-employees are invited to join, even those at competing firms. The system runs on software from SelectMinds that allows the website's users to check out what other alumni are doing, upload photos, and see what's happening within A&O via a noticeboard. It also allows for blogs and wikis.
A full-time editor runs the site. 'There has to be some sort of discipline,' says Pease. 'If people put silly, time-wasting stuff on the web, one has to have a chat with them. But if they put useful stuff on, huge numbers of people can be informed extremely quickly about a lot of subjects. It's really, really powerful.'
The social-networking concept has now been extended to the firm's new India programme, also run by Pease. This aims to promote A&O on the subcontinent. The wiki feature has been particularly useful in this context, allowing members to contribute information and build up a body of knowledge quickly.