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.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.