The impact of social media on employee performance – a study by IBM Research

There is much debate about the impact of social media on employee performance. Some organisations are very positive about the impact, others are very concerned about decreasing performance and probably the majority lie somewhere in the middle ground. There have of course been many surveys of the use of social media in organisations but usually they are not longitudinal studies. A longitudinal study is one in which the same cohort of respondents are surveyed over time. Most surveys are one-off projects, often designed to support a vendor PR effort. The work involved in scoping and managing a large-scale longitudinal study is very significant but the trust that can then be placed in the outcomes is of considerable value.

At the 2014 CHI conference in Toronto N. Sadat Sharmi, Jeffery Nichols and Jilin Chen, all at IBM Research Almaden, presented a short but very important paper entitled “Social Media Participation and Performance at Work”. This short paper summarises a project which examined whether there was in fact any impact on performance through the use of internal social media applications. The sample size was just over 75,000 employees for the period from 2010 – 2012. In the company concerned performance is rated quantitatively on an annual basis, and in this study the extent of contributions to status updates, community forum posts and blogs was correlated to performance evaluations. The analysis of this data was quite a challenge!

The results indicate that contributing to forums and providing status updates is positively associated with performance but the authors emphasis that this does not mean that social media contribution results in improved performance. Perhaps more importantly the study does show conclusively that increased social media use does not result in decreased performance.  The authors suggest that organisations that are ambivalent about social media should see the results of the study as a reason to encourage employees to adopt social media.

One of the interesting outcomes of the project was that blog posts had significantly less visits than forums or even the employee’s profile page. The implication is that using blogs to signal expertise is of less value that participating in forums. My take on this is that in a forum expertise can be challenged and refined, something that is much more difficult to achieve with a blog. Although the research has been conducted by IBM Research the paper does not specifically state that the work was carried out at IBM.

There is related paper from a team at IBM Research in Haifa entitled Most Liked, Fewest Friends: Patterns of Enterprise Social Media Use. One of the interesting outcomes of this research is that the smaller someone’s online network size in an organisation the more highly assessed they were by colleagues. It is well worth reading both papers because the research teams do provide a valuable descriptive framework for social media applications and their use which could have wider benefits to organisations seeking to understand how social media is being used by employees. Incidentally there is a very good literature review on the use of social media in organisations, entitled “Social Media Use in Organizations: Exploring the Affordances of Visibility, Editability, Persistence, and Association” by Jeffrey W. Treem and Paul Leonardi in the 2012 edition of the Communication Yearbook.

The caveat to both papers is that they represent research in an individual organisation, and scaling up the outcomes to a generic level is unwise. Nevertheless the research methodologies are very sound and provide an invaluable starting point for future research projects. See also a post on a similar project in the insurance industry in Greece.

Martin White