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IM-ing and Social Networking Sites

A frequent topic of conversation at this year’s Association for Accounting Marketing Summit was the use of instant messaging (IM) within firms. A collateral topic was younger professionals’ frequent visits to social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn during business hours. Plenty of CPA firms are blocking access to such sites and have removed IM capability in their offices.

Here’s what I learned from my young mentor (yes, I have both a senior and young mentor) and from other members of the Millennial Generation: both IM and social networking sites are useful professional tools, and in the case of IM-ing, are viewed as essential communication techniques. For young team members, instant messaging is the same as talking. It is a conversation like any conversation, except it isn’t face-to-face. And just like any conversation, some IM-ing will be productive, some will simply help to cement relationships between people, some will be purely technical or informational, and some will be worthless. The key for firm leaders is to understand that IM-ing is absolutely a conversation, and forbidding IM-ing is like asking your older team members not to speak to each other. That’s certainly not productive.

As to social networking, things get a little more complicated. Having recently signed on to LinkedIn myself, I can easily see how large blocks of time can be lost on such sites. But here’s another side to it. A technology speaker (and a Boomer) at the AAM Summit recounted how his team was meeting to solve a specific problem for a client. Suddenly, his youngest team member began feverishly and obviously typing on his Blackberry, without saying a word. The team leader, a Boomer, was put off by this behavior, but wisely stayed silent. Within a couple of minutes, the youngest team member blurted out a solution to the problem. When Boomer Leader said “How’d you figure that out?”, Millennial Man said, “Well, I just emailed my group from LinkedIn and asked them. One of them knew the answer right away.” That’s a great example of the potential productivity boost from social networking.

The key to using both IM and social networking appropriately in your firms is employee orientation. On their first day, you need to tell team members your philosophy and policy regarding these tools. Tell them they are professionals whose access to any and all communication and research tools will not be blocked. Also tell them that their productivity and results are carefully monitored at your firm, and that if they are wasting time, their team leaders will know about it and will discuss it with them.

It comes down to communicating your high expectations of team members from their first day. Treat them like adults even if they aren’t, until they give you a reason to do otherwise, but make your policies clear. Open your minds to new ways of doing things and these innovative, technologically driven young people might just turn out to be some of your greatest assets.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009