A new report is talking up the positive influence of social networking, and has even suggested that businesses should not be so quick to dismiss the business benefits from websites such as Facebook, MySpace and even Skype.

That is according to a new report by UK think tank Demos, which was commissioned by the mobile operator Orange.

The use of websites such as Facebook within the enterprise is something of a fraught issue for IT managers, given well publicised security concerns when allowing staff members access to such sites.

However, Peter Bradwell, a Demos researcher and author of the report, believes that the benefits outweigh the risks.

"We started this project because we were interested in how social networks relate to formal structures in an organisation," Bradwell told Techworld. "We found that collaborative tools have become central to way people work. Applications such as IM and Skype are absolutely essentially to allow people within an organisation to stay in touch."

He also pointed to the use of Facebook and LinkedIn in developing working relationships, although he admitted that a lot of organisations tend to ban these applications

"People find these technologies useful to stay in touch," said Bradwell. "The lines between social and working relationships are blurring, and so the companies that are banning them, are missing a trick. Trying to ban these tools is like trying to ban gossip."

He pointed out that during the current financial downturn, the natural inclination for businesses was to batten down the hatches. Instead Bradwell feels that allowing workers to have more freedom and flexibility, although it might seem counterintuitive, appears to create businesses more capable of maintaining stability.

He also advises companies to make use of social networking sites to stay in touch with employees who have left the organisation.

"Firstly, there is huge value in staying in touch with past workers and alumni, as it adds value," said Bradwell. "These people don't disappear, and often those relationships are important because these people can offer organisational perspective and knowledge, which can be tapped into. These people have 'network capital', they know who to go for advice, where the links are to knowledge, all of which skills are hard to transfer."

Instead of banning social websites, Bradwell feels that setting proper rules of engagement are a better bet than banning, although he admitted some caveats.

"For example, it is not wise to do sensitive business on Facebook," said Bradwell, "but there are platforms that allow for the sharing of information and collaborative work. It all comes down trusting your staff and the context in which these sites are used."

Bradwell came up with the following guidelines that businesses should consider when auditing and analysing their own networks:

  1. Do not separate 'social' networking from 'professional' networking. Attempts to control employees' use of social networking software in the office may end up damaging the organisation in the long run by depleting its 'network capital'.
  2. There should be value placed on networks with people outside the firm. Too often, it is only senior staff who are encouraged to build relationships with people outside the organisation. The power of horizontal networks across organisational boundaries is clear, and growing.
  3. Keep in touch with employees that have left the organisation. The temptation during a difficult economic climate is to hunker down; but this risks cutting off flows of network capital. Companies should consider how to keep former employees in the network.
  4. Do not police networks but consider how they operate and what could be improved. This should be a first step towards collective conversations about the 'rules of the game' when it comes to operating within networks.