Are social tools used by optimists, or do they make optimists?

A new report from Google reveals how social media is used in the workplace.

There's a strong correlation between business and personal optimism, and use of social tools in the workplace, according to a new report from Google and Millward Brown.

After interviewing 2,700 professionals from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden, the researchers found that frequent users of social tools at work are:

  • Happier in their jobs. 38 per cent are very satisfied with their jobs, compared to 18 per cent of non-users
  • More successful. 86 per cent have recently been promoted, compared to 61 per cent of non-users
  • In faster growing companies. Frequent users of social tools are more than twice as likely to be working in high growth companies compared to non-users.
  • More optimistic about their future growth. 59 per cent expect the performance of their company to improve over the next year, compared to 38 per cent of non-users.

Sadly, Google and Millward Brown don't unpick the most interesting part of these findings, which is the direction of causality involved. Clearly the internet services giant has a vested interest in pushing the idea that using social tools will make you happier, more successful, and more productive; but it would be an equally interesting finding if it were the case that people who are optimistic, both about their own prospects and their businesses.

Similarly, Google will want to emphasise the idea that social tools may help your company grow faster, but an alternative causal story may be that fast growing companies have more freedom to experiment with new technologies and work styles than those which are struggling to stay afloat.

Thomas Davies, the head of Google Enterprise in the UK, argued that adoption of social tools in the workplace wasn't an if, so much as a when, and that as such, what is important for Google and other purveyors of such tools is to understand the where and the why of social adoption. He added:

It won't be long before sharing online is as natural in our business lives as it is in our personal ones. . . Having the ability to find the people and information you want faster speeds up the decision-making process allowing businesses to be more agile and competitive.

Also present at the report's launch was Matt Knight, Ocado's marketing chief. Discussing the online supermarket's social strategy, he described how the company, which now has 5000 employees spread over 10 sites, deliberately attempts to retain the manoeuvrability it had as a smaller company. They had great success with an internal wiki, and 18 months ago, switched their company to Google's enterprise tools. Knight also spoke about the company's consumer facing social media strategy, which, frankly, seemed a lot more barebones.

Ocado, like so many companies, seems to know it ought to be using social media to interact with customers, but doesn't really know why. Ten per cent of Ocado's customers follow them on Facebook, and Knight envisaged a situation where a customer could "like" an individual product, but there was little vocalisation of what this would bring the supermarket. Whether social media is publicity, marketing, sales or something else entirely, it seems clear that internal tools are used in a far more result-driven manner than external ones.

One correlation which Google weren't so keen to highlight: The two countries in the study which are the most enthusiastic users of social tools? Spain and Italy, with 74 per cent of respondents eager to use them. Meanwhile, the least enthusiastic was Germany, where just 53 per cent. Linking those figures up with the macroeconomic state of those countries doesn't paint quite such a rosy view.

Businessmen utilising social tools outside of the office environment. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.