Column Recently, we've seen a spate of reports of employers blocking the use of social networking sites at work. With one estimate suggesting that sites such as Facebook cost UK employers over £130m a day in lost productivity, this is perhaps unsurprising.
But the response from unions and technology commentators has been less sympathetic to the bosses. Employers who ban Facebook are painted as luddites who are out of touch with the times. There is the additional implication that they could pay a penalty for their conservatism.
In many respects, this is the charge 21st century businesses least like to have levelled at them. So, social networking sites are opening up interesting faultlines in the presumed relationship of business and new technology.
How many businesses are there that don’t claim to be in favour of technological change? One might think of the producers of classic goods such as traditional watches, classic clothes and wines. But elsewhere, the service industries that create around three-quarters of jobs in the Western world trade on an optimistic rhetoric of technological innovation.
To resist the sparkling newness of high-tech gadgets is to risk the apathy of investors, consumers, and employees. On the other hand, where businesses claim to be universally in favour of innovation, this is a recipe for hypocrisy.
Because businesses cannot help but be defined, at least in the medium term, by certain techniques of production. When these are superceded, it is hardly something for them to feel cheerful about. If the manager of a steel mill claimed to be excited by an innovation that made his mill redundant, he would most likely be a liar.
And yet the veneer must be maintained.
CEOs appear in Business Week in golfing wear, reciting the shareholder-targeted mantra that their management philosophy is ‘innovate or die’. Coming from a CEO, this philosophy is about as surprising as discovering that a football manager is asking for ‘110 per cent commitment’ from all his players.
The consumer must also be given the impression that, where a brand is concerned, they are never stepping in the same river twice – the product will change from one visit to the next. The words ‘new’ and ‘improved’ are now about the only features of supermarket packaging that never change.
As for employees, management rhetoric views them as an asset whose innovative potential must be nurtured. Nobody, apparently, wants to work for a company that is stuck in its ways.
So who is being lied to?