Can Tweeting The Workday Away Save The Economy?

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Between Reddit, Pinterest and whatever new distraction just popped up this morning, it's hard to believe employees should be encouraged to use even more social media in the workplace. But according to an extensive new report on the value of social-media tools, the potential benefits of workplace tweeting are far too substantial for companies to ignore.

The report, released by the business consulting giant McKinsey Global Institute, showed that social-media tools stand to add $900 billion to $1.3 trillion to the economy -- largely through increased productivity among skilled workers. That's trillion with a T: To put it in perspective, that's more than twice the annual revenue of Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM), the top company on the Fortune 500.  

The report was aimed at "unlocking value and productivity through social technologies," and it contains some rather surprising insights. For instance, while Twitter may occasionally distract employees who stop to check out an Lolcat photo, social-media tools as a whole can improve communication and collaboration between co-workers and even across enterprises -- potentially increasing the productivity of workers by 20 to 25 percent, according to the report.

The benefits are particularly noticeable for high-skilled workers, including managers, who can use such tools to share their expertise in a more efficient manner.

Drawing from an analysis of 4,200 companies, the report did not just measure the beneficial effects of social-media websites like Facebook and Twitter. It also saw huge benefits in wikis, internal chat rooms, instant messaging and other tools -- anything that cuts down on use of slower communication such as phone calls and (God forbid) face-to-face meetings. Even email is outdated in terms of efficiency. Whereas work-related emails keep important information locked away in inboxes, social sharing allows that same information to be becomes easily "accessible and searchable," according to the report.  

And all that virtual chatter has shown to improve companies' bottom lines. Michael Chui, one of the authors of the report, told the New York Times that "the industries with the highest percentage of [workers who interact] have the highest spread of profits per employee."

Still, McKinsey Global found that the real benefits of social media have yet to be mined. While the report found that 72 percent of companies use some form of social media, very few are anywhere near to achieving the full potential benefit. "In fact, the most powerful applications of social technologies in the global economy are largely untapped," the authors wrote.

The study's findings fall in line with increasing research about the myth of social media as a workplace distraction. While some studies have found a link between social media and lost productivity, others have countered those claims. In June, a ComPsych poll of 1,236 workers found that only 4 percent admitted to being distracted by personal communications tools such as instant messengers, social media and cellphones. In fact, the biggest distraction was "personal relationship issues" -- which, as most of us know, have been distracting workers since the beginning of time.  

To reap the full benefits of social media, the authors of the McKinsey Global study urge companies to "become more open and nonhierarchical and to create a culture of trust."

"Ultimately, the power of social technologies hinges on the full and enthusiastic participation of employees who are not afraid to share their thoughts and trust that their contributions will be respected," the authors wrote.

Read the full results of the social-media study in PDF form here.

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