Does the use of social media in the workplace benefit organizations and educational institutions and help productivity or hamper productivity? That's a question many leaders and educators are debating in organizations, even while students and employees immerse themselves in social media for both personal and business purposes.

" How much work can 'hyper-socializing' employees really accomplish if they are holding multiple conversations with others via text-messaging or obsessively checking social networking sites?" That's a question that John Agno in his Leadership Blog, recently asked.

His reply was, "They can accomplish a great deal in today's 24/7 virtual environment. The Gen Xs and Ys have a gift for multitasking (because they have integrated technology into their lives) and now have the ability to remain connected to each other and thus serve themselves and their employers well."

Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2009, says, "Because so many people in their teens and early 20s are in this constant whir of socializing—accessible to each other every minute of the day via cell phone, instant messaging and social-networking Web sites—there are a host of new questions that need to be addressed in schools, in the workplace and at home. Chief among them: How much work can 'hyper-socializing' students or employees really accomplish if they are holding multiple conversations with friends via text-messaging, or are obsessively checking Facebook?"

Let's take look at the arguments against the presence of social media in the workplace and our educational institutions. Critics contend that these hyper-socializers are serial time-wasters, that the bonds between them are shallow, and that their face-to-face interpersonal skills are poor. Many employers and schools have taken the step to ban social media for personal use, citing either some research showing it negatively affects productivity, or relying on the older managers' personal perspectives and preferences.

This much is known: Young workers spend more time than older workers socializing via their devices or entertaining themselves online. In a 2008 survey for, 53% of those under age 24 said this was their primary "time wasting" activity while at work, compared to just 34% for those between ages 41 and 65.

In July, 2009, Nucleus Research published a study, “Facebook: Measuring the Cost to Business of Social Notworking. Nucleus interviewed 237 “randomly selected office workers” about their Facebook use. Among the findings: 75% had a Facebook account; 61% accessed their site during working hours for an average of 15 minutes per day; and 87% accessed their site for personal reasons. Nucleus concluded that companies who allowed employees to access their Facebook site during work hours could expect to see total office productivity decline by an average of only 1.5%.

A study this year by psychology students at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga., found that the more time young people spend on Facebook, the more likely they are to have lower grades and weaker study habits. Heavy Facebook users show signs of being more gregarious, but they are also more likely to be anxious, hostile or depressed. Almost a quarter of today's teens check Facebook more than 10 times a day, according to a 2009 survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that monitors media's impact on families.

Part of the argument against social media in the workplace and learning place is the paradigm of what should go on in those places. We have separated social interaction from "work" interaction, seeing them as not only different but in conflict. Our society has viewed work and play as being separate and distinct. Think back. When today's older workers were in their 20s, they might have taken a break on the job to call friends and make after-work plans. In those earlier eras, companies discouraged non-business-related calls, and someone who made personal calls all day risked being fired. It was impossible to envision the constant back-and-forth texting that defines interactions among young people today.

Now for the argument for social media in the work and learning places. Zaslow argues that this generation has a gift for multitasking, and because they've integrated technology into their lives, their ability to remain connected to each other will serve them and their employers well. While their older colleagues waste time holding meetings or engaging in long phone conversations, young people have an ability to sum things up in one-sentence text messages, And given their vast network of online acquaintances, they discover people who can become true friends or valued business colleagues—people they wouldn't have been able to find in the pre-Internet era.

A new study just published by Australian scientists found that taking time to visit websites of personal interest, including news sites and YouTube, provided workers a mental break that ultimately increased their ability to concentrate and was correlated with a 9% increase in total productivity.The study was performed by researchers at Australia's University of Melbourne and coined the phrase "workplace Internet leisure browsing," or WILB. The activity helps keep the mind fresh and helps put you in a better place when you come back to working on topic, the scientists said. "People who do surf the Internet for fun at work - within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office - are more productive by about 9% than those who don't," said Dr Brent Coker, from the Melbourne Department of Management and Marketing.

Patricia Khul, a University of Washington professor and co-author of a recent study on social learning argues that social media can stimulate positive brain activity and learning. The study of Japanese students taking English lessons involved the creation of a computerized social program. The researchers found the students interacted with the language tools the same way they might in a social media environment, and their learning was accelerated.

Finally, numerous brain science studies have shown that social interaction and the stimulation of emotions as at the core of effective learning, decision-making and long-term memory.

What about business use of social media? released additional results of its milestone study of social media usage across American business, this time with a focus on B2B (business to business). This research should put an end to the argument over the relevance of social media in the industrial sector. In fact, it appears that by percentage, B2B is ahead of B2C (business to customer) in some key categories. This report is full of details by industry, job type, and social media platform. It’s significant because of the scope of the study and the statistical rigor applied to the results. The study showed a statistically significant difference in social media activity with B2B’s dominating in 11 out of 14 social media categories. So obviously, organizations are seeing the value of social media, and are attempting to leverage that advantage for business purposes. If social media is beneficial to business, why would they try to restrict its use for employees?

In many ways the issue of social media is one of determining who establishes both the value and need for products and services--the business supplier, which has been the norm till now, or the consumer/client, which has become the new paradigm?

The impact of social technology on business as usual is and will continue to be profound. Instead of the old model of change, from the inside out, the new model of change is from the outside in. Markets are shifting at the speed of a mouse click. These markets represent the rate of interest change (both economic interest and consumer interest) and the interest is changing based on the consumption of information and knowledge. The voice of the customer used to be analyzed based on old feedback mechanisms and survey’s which were poorly designed and time-consuming. Today the voice of the customer is instant, transparent and designed by the content and context of open and transparent conversations. The new world of instant communications controlled and influenced by the end consumer is the outside force forcing fueling organizational changes for those businesses wishing to thrive or survive. However, the pace and strength of these outside forces is changing the very change models used before by the leading management consulting firms and organizational change gurus.

McKinsey, one of the top management consulting firms in the world, is changing their approach to the creation and implementation of organizational change models. Organizations will have to learn change is now a permanent process and the only thing that should be managed is the rate in which you adjust to it. Not adjusting or accepting that change is permanent means you’ll be left by those that do.

I'm sure we'll continue to examine the issue of social media and productivity with champions lined up on either side of the issue. But a useful perspective on social media that can inform decision makers must be within the context of how to affect desired change in organizations, for the good of all.

Author's Bio: 

Ray B. Williams is Co-Founder of Success IQ University and President of Ray Williams Associates, companies located in Phoenix and Vancouver, providing leadership training, personal growth and executive coaching services.