Would you like to reduce the time your employees spend on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social-networking sites instead of doing their job?

Try building your own social network.

CFO recently reported that the question of social networking is one of the most discussed topics in company boardrooms. Businesses want to know how much bang they’re getting (or could get) for their social-media buck. On the flip side, they’re concerned about the loss in revenue and productivity they experience as their people spend more time loading and reloading Twitter feeds and less time e-mailing clients, conducting sales calls, and finishing reports.

In a 2012 Salary.com survey of 3,200 people, 39% reported spending one hour a week or less browsing the Internet for nonwork-related purposes. Nearly 30% said they spend two hours a week at work using their computer for personal business, and 21% said they “waste” up to five hours a week. Because these estimates were reported by the workers themselves, the percentages could be on the low side.

Last fall Eli Federman, senior vice president and chief communications officer at 1SaleADay.com, a privately owned daily deals website, was informed that his company’s 300 full-time employees were spending more time than ever on social networks. 1SaleADay didn’t have a formal social-media policy, and Federman thought his employees could easily circumvent one with mobile devices. So instead of implementing a policy, the company’s leaders presented their employees with an alternative: they deployed an enterprise social network.

Enterprise (sometimes called internal) social networks, like Salesforce’s Chatter and Microsoft’s Yammer, have been around for several years. But Ted Shelton, advisory management director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says companies are beginning to examine their business benefits.

Such networks can improve business processes within individual departments and boost collaboration between departments, says Shelton. In fact, PwC, a network of firms in 158 countries with more than 180,000 employees, has itself recently deployed an enterprise social network.

“These networks stretch across functional, geographic, and organizational boundaries,” he says, suggesting they can enable communication more efficiently than e-mail.

Shelton says that as CFOs add operational responsibilities, their challenge increasingly will become measuring efficiency and productivity. “Enterprise social networks actually give you some tools as CFO to help you understand what an organization is doing and why [it’s] doing it, and then start focusing more energy on process improvement,” he says.

1SaleADay chose to adopt Yammer, which starts at $3 per user per month, last October partly because Federman believed it was the solution that most resembled Facebook, and Facebook was the biggest culprit in keeping employees from doing their work. (The respondents to the Salary.com survey agreed, with 41% reporting they visited the site regularly during work hours.) Within a couple of weeks, every employee was participating in some way on the Yammer network.

“They all really wanted to get on the bandwagon to see what was happening within the company,” Federman says. By watching the various communication threads on the Yammer platform, Federman and other company leaders say they could almost immediately see more collaboration among employees. He also believes people were making decisions and solving problems at a faster rate than they could have by holding traditional meetings or corresponding via e-mail.

1SaleADay’s customer-service department tracks its employees’ productivity based on the number of e-mails an agent is able to respond to during a given time period. The department saw a 48% increase in productivity soon after the company’s implementation of Yammer, Federman says, although he admits that percentage may be inflated by the typically heavier e-mail volumes the company receives around the holidays. Even more impressive was that managers throughout the company reported a 90% average reduction in external social-media use within their departments.

Shelton says such a sharp reduction is pretty typical of organizations that deploy enterprise social networks. “If you don’t provide this outlet to your employees as an important part of your IT infrastructure, they’re going to find other outlets,” he says.

But more than providing a virtual water cooler for workers, Shelton believes finance chiefs will find valuable insights embedded in enterprise social networks. His takeaway for CFOs: they should themselves take part in internal social-media networks to encourage the improvement of business processes through communication. By “jumping into these social networks,” Shelton says, CFOs can learn more clearly what really goes on in their organization, as well as have a chance to make a valuable contribution to the conversation that powers the life of the enterprise.

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