There’s an old joke (or is it a thought experiment?) that’s been updated for the Web 2.0 world:

Q: If you gave an infinite number of  monkeys an infinite amount of time, would they reproduce the works of Shakespeare ? A: Now we have the blogosphere, we know that they won’t.

The Internet, or more specifically the Web that runs on top of it, has given hundreds of millions of people the ability to share ideas and thoughts with each other. We are seeing what that means in the public, consumer space, but what does it mean for businesses?

Enter Jemima Gibbon’s new book “Monkeys with Typewriters – Myths and realities of social media at work” . I had the pleasure of being at it’s launch last night, in a packed lecture theatre at Cass Business School. Jemima (@JemimaG) was joined by a panel featuring Euan Semple / @euan, Luis Suarez / @Elsua, and @Suw, chaired by Clive Holtham / @bunhill and with Jemima of course.

The panel was presented with a series of questions, followed by a Q&A with the audience, then a vote on the question – a kind of wireless quiz show for grown ups. I’ll go through the questions, with points from the panel that struck me, and a few points from my own perspective.

Does online social networking during office hours waste valuable working time?

This one is almost an old chestnut. Euan pointed out that we focus on social networking and social media, but don’t question other wastes of time like meetings that don’t come to a conclusion, or time spent writing unused reports. Then there’s the motivation problem, as Suw put it, if employees are wasting time on Facebook, you don’t have a social networking problem, you have an employee engagement problem.

Luis made the business case for social tools in the workplace:  What about wasting time trying to find the right expert? He said that in IBM they found that it could take 2-3 hours. With social networks, they are able to find the right expert in less than 5 mins.

The questions from the floor were pretty supportive of social networking. I actually voted “yes” to the question, simply because the tools are used to waste time – there are employees who will make recreational use of social networking. That doesn’t mean that it should be banned or that the tools are a waste of time, rather that employee engagement should be looked at, and people taught how to use the tools professionally and productively.

Vote Result: 83 Votes with 47% Yes / 53% No.

Is email the best way to share information and ideas?

Luis obviously had a view on this one (Luis / @elsua is most famous for having spent two years working almost totally without email). He made the point that if you reply to emails, you only get more. He went on holiday and had only 4 emails when he came back. That sounds wonderful to me! Suw talked about the ‘interruption’ cost of email – after that ‘bing’ goes off, how long does it take to get back into flow state? We end up like little skinner rats, pressing on the lever (checking email) to see if something nice will have arrived for us with each press of the ‘check button’.

Email is seen as a proxy for productivity – if you get and send lots of email you must be busy – and Suw talked about how email is used by people to cover their rears. Euan argued that it is about self preservation – you need to learn to let things go.

Ask “do I really need to send this email?” – there may be a better way of doing it… …the more I hang out in email the less I get done for myself


I know from data collected for the Continued Communication research project that only a tiny percentage of users consciously choose what  communications channel they use – people generally respond through the channel that a message was received by: calls with calls, emails with emails. This is one of the reasons we are building tools to keep people out of their inboxes. People prefer to use email, as they perceive it to “not disturb the other person”.

Vote Result:  65% No  – 35% Yes.

I’ll talk about one more question, specifically because it has come up on the blog here before (“Hubs to meshes – Person to Person Management”):

If companies allowed employees to “self-organize” would nothing ever get done?

A wonderfully provocative question, with suitably robust answers from the panel:

“It is not a situation of will anything get done, it is a question of when can we do this across the whole organisation?” @Elsua

Luis painted a very clear picture of how knowledge management is transforming the work place, while Jemima cited the example of The Tuttle Club as a self-organising collective. Suw pointed out that small groups can self-organise easily, large ones cannot. In the end the panel and the audience made a compelling argument against a yes/no answer – it seems to be a matter of individual, role and extent. Euan raised the topic up another level, asking if organisations are tolerant enough of failure?.. One of the characteristics of long-lived organisations is tolerance.

In the end the Vote Result: 80% no, 20% yes, but with quite a lot more abstentions than the other votes!

I think there were a few moments when the audience and the questions got themselves confused between yes’, no’s and double negatives, but it made for a vibrant debate, touching on the many issues that need to be thought through. Biased as I am (I’m featured in the book), I would highly encourage you to grab yourself a copy. Jemima’s writing style is wonderfully engaging and you’ll hear opinions from a broad selection of those active in the space, including Tim O’Reilly of all things Web 2.0 , JP Rangaswami of BT and Lee Bryant of Headshift.

Pictures (CC) Benjamin Ellis