Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

6 July 2010

The Social Media Cigarette Break

Clark @ 6:57 AM

In the course of my interviews for the mobile learning book, Robert Gadd (OnPoint Digital) made a comment that’s stuck with me.  He opined that the new ‘cigarette’ break was the social media break where employees will stand outside with their mobile phone and check in on their social networks.  The reason, of course, being that their companies block social media access via their IT infrastructure.

As a grad student, I took a summer consulting job with a defense contractor looking at their education policies.  At the time (and this was circa early 80’s), the company was investing in a new IT system (we’d now call it an ERP system).  I remember this because the company asked that the vendor turn off the email system as they didn’t want folks frittering away time being social.  These employees had phones, but the company didn’t trust them with email for some reason!

Now, of course, we would be hard-pressed to conduct business without email. I know many of my cutting-edge colleagues are talking about life beyond email these days, but it’s still a mainstream tool, for better or worse.  We wouldn’t think of not allowing it, in fact we’re expected to provide it for employees.  Yet that same mentality of not trusting employees to use resources responsibly comes in with social networks.  We’ll trust employees not to steal office supplies, and use phones and email responsibly, but we won’t trust them with “the web”!  Instead, we block access to certain sites.

The lack of trust in employees is sad.  I believe in education over censorship, coupled with careful observance to ensure that there are no abuses. It says a lot if you feel you have to restrict your employees instead of letting them know what the expectations are and ensure that they can follow the guidelines.

The worst part, to me, however, comes from the recognition that it’s no longer about ‘know how’ but about ‘know who’.  With my ITA colleagues helping me recognize that increasingly “work is learning and learning is work”, and that conversation is the best learning technology, cutting off folks from their networks is like cutting off part of their brain and still expecting them to be productive!

I always joke about how we cut off the flow of blood to the brain before we expect men to conduct business (my take on the business ‘tie’), but this is really a serious impediment to successful problem-solving in the coming workplace where continual problem-solving and innovation is necessary. Innovation isn’t solitary, and your best colleagues are not necessarily in your workplace.  You may need some discretion, but that’s already covered by policies about communication, and mediated interaction isn’t any different.

I reckon connecting to your colleagues is as important to work, going forward, as is your schooling and experience.  It’s the network, baby, so enable connections, don’t stifle them!


  1. This is a fantastic post. Like yourself I remember in the early 90’s management and IT not wanting to allow internet access to call center employees because they might waste too much time. Wasting time is the reason we are given now on why IT blocks access to social networking sites. I am sure in the next decade we will be blocked from something else for fear employees will waste time.

    Comment by Donna Farren — 6 July 2010 @ 10:42 AM

  2. Thanks Clark, I come across this a lot when talking to companies. They are so worried that people will be on Facebook all the time, I do point out that they could be using the phone or emailing, but they seldom see it as the same, which I find strange. I think it is going to be a huge mindset change, about the fact that just because you are on Facebook does not mean you are slacking off.

    Next people without a smartphone will be complaining about people with a smartphone taking too many breaks, similar to the smoker/non-smoker argument!

    Comment by Lara Solomon — 7 July 2010 @ 1:11 AM

  3. This is a fantastic post. Like yourself I remember in the early 90’s management and IT not wanting to allow internet access to call center employees because they might waste too much time. Wasting time is the reason we are given now on why IT blocks access to social networking sites.

    Comment by ed hardy bags — 8 July 2010 @ 5:13 AM

  4. I think there are two issues here. First is company oversight (management issue). The fact is that there are use policies and tools to enforce them with the “older technologies”. Investment in those tools and creating effective policies are time consuming, so companies don’t want to allow any of them until they have to.

    The second issue specific to social networks, though, is the loss of researches outside of the company. Many companies don’t like to share information WITHIN the company. They perceive social networks as a tool for leaking information outside of the company. Unlike email and phones, which can be controlled internally by the company, social media is controlled by the individual. Of course, companies don’t want to come out and say, “we think you’re going to leak information,” because then they might put ideas in people’s heads (their perception). It is much more acceptable in our business culture to say that employees will “waste time” rather than trying to take away their “free speech.”

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 8 July 2010 @ 6:49 AM

  5. Communicating friends through FB or other is always not harmful. As it brings freshness to the employee after working hard a long time on their job. I don’t think a sensible employee really tend to misuse the office resources rather doing their actual job. But it can be a real problem for that employee who is not concern about their job or company.

    Comment by Microsoft MCSE Training Courses — 13 July 2010 @ 12:33 AM

  6. […] The Social Media Cigarette Break – Clark Quinn must be telepathic, given our own comments, but his point about social media networking and trust is a strong one. If social media tools are to achieve their potential for collaboration, sharing and informing, attitudes towards access – essentially issues of trust – need to be addressed to. There’s little point moving to flatter organisations and open plan offices if we just rebuild the barriers with firewalls. […]

    Pingback by Fresh Crackers (24) « Don't Compromise! — 22 July 2010 @ 9:06 AM

  7. […] It increases knowledge share and facilitates collaboration. Not allowing the use has spawned “the new cigarette break”—where employees go outside and use their smartphones to check in on their networks. I’m not […]

    Pingback by Social media at work | Trends In Ed — 27 August 2010 @ 12:18 PM

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