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Is Twittering a Productive Use of Work Time?

I was torn. On one hand, I was skeptical about Twitter. Despite its growing popularity as a social networking site, it struck me as superficial and geared toward narcissists. After all, users can post messages of no more than 140 characters, so they often wind up posting mundane details of their personal lives.

On the other hand, at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) we're paid to look at data, and certain Twitter-related data was showing something interesting and mysterious. It was a study of how Web 2.0 technologies are being used for learning purposes in organizations, one commissioned by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

Specifically, we asked about the degree to which certain Internet sites are useful for learning. Google dominated, with a whopping 94% of respondents saying it is useful or very useful for learning. By contrast, a mere 11% pointed to the microblogging site Twitter. But, out of all the sites studied, Twitter turned out to be the one most highly correlated with Web 2.0's contribution to learning effectiveness.

Huh?

We mentioned this finding at ASTD's recent International Conference & Exposition, where we presented some findings from the report. Sure enough, there were professionals there whose companies use Twitter for learning purposes, saying it can be great for tracking and communicating information on, say, leadership development.

Such comments, along with the fact that Twitter was reportedly playing an important role in the organization of and communication from protesters in Iran, pushed me to investigate Twitter as a workforce management tool and to become an actual "Twitterer."

So far, the jury is still out on Twitter's overall utility for business. About two-fifths of those surveyed in one poll said Twitter has business relevance, according to Doremus, a business communications firm. Another two-fifths didn't see the relevance, and the rest were undecided (Hoak, 2009).

And if you've used Twitter, you can understand why questions about relevance continue to crop up. It feels like millions of shards of disparate information and opinion thrown up onto the computer screen in a constantly shifting kaleidoscope. It's fun, distracting and beautiful in its own way, which helps account for an upsurge in its popularity. Research firm Nielsen Online reports that unique visitors to Twitter skyrocketed from fewer than half a million in February 2008 to seven million a year later (Frauenheim, 2009).

But is it useful in the workplace? Some believe so, stressing certain HR and management applications. Workforce Management, for example, cites corporate learning consultant Jeanne Meister: "She recently pointed to several possible uses of Twitter on her blog, including 'reminders of upcoming training events and reminders of key learning content,' 'preemptive help for learning a new process or procedure' and 'links to new articles of interest'" (Frauenheim 2009).

My own experience of Twitter is that its utility depends on how it's being used and what a Twitterer's job entails. I doubt that Twittering for fun at lunchtime is going to hinder work at many companies, but lots of personal Twittering during business hours could be a major productivity killer. Still, work-related Twittering for certain types of people—such as marketing or research types—probably makes sense. For example, Twitter can be used to "follow" all kinds of news sources and knowledge experts, so it can be a useful tool for scanning and tracking the business environment, in much the same way that RSS feeds are.

I am currently following business journals such as Fortune and BusinessWeek as well as scientific and political media. And I follow experts such as former GE CEO Jack Welch, writer Steve Baker, and HR guru Libby Sartain.

So, yes, I can see how Twitter can serve as a useful tool in the learning field if used to complement more conventional methods of training and development. I can also see how firms could use it to easily distribute quick tidbits of information in real time, helping to coordinate people. At the same time, the Institute's research demonstrates that many companies have security concerns about using such Web 2.0 technologies. In that light, several colleagues have mentioned that Yammer is another microblogging tool designed to be used inside company networks, reducing security risks.

The Institute's  Recommendation: It's easy to write off Twitter as a business tool. Twitter has the potential to be a productivity killer and security risk. It also has unique attributes that can, when used correctly, boost the productivity and effectiveness of some people in some organizations. As with many other social networking tools, the devil is in the details (and in the broader context). At the very least, Twitter is worth exploring, so managers better understand the concept of microblogging, even if it's only to gather their own personal stories about why it's just not for them.

References

Hoak, A. (2009, June 16). Don't rule out Twitter's usefulness as a business tool. Wall Street Journal.

Frauenheim, E. (2009, April 8). HR world not immune from Twitter craze. Workforce Management.

About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers, Institute for Corporate Productivity Mark Vickers is vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).