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Don’t Use Foursquare To Improve Your Workplace

2010 May 18

I am normally a fan of articles from Mashable, the popular blog focused on discussing social media as a source of inspiration for discussions of technology applied to work.  But a recent article by Sharlyn Lauby on Foursquare’s use to improve the employee experience in the workplace as an HR intervention struck me as absolutely ridiculous.

For those of you unfamiliar with Foursquare, the basic idea is that people with smartphones can log into the Foursquare website to “check in” for points when physically going to location in their city. For example, when you go to your favorite bar, you “check in” at the bar via GPS location services or text messaging, which adds to your point total for appearing at the bar.  Whenever you have the most points in a particular location, you become “mayor” of that location.  This creates a natural system for people to compete to get the most points to remain the mayor of their favorite locations, which mimics a basic mechanic in many video games.  Users can also post status updates, which allows them to broadcast to the world not only where they are but also what they’re doing there.

I’ll go through each of their points in turn.

  1. Orientation
    Lauby argues that because universities like Harvard and UNC Charlotte have successfully used Foursquare as part of their orientation process (by checking in at various campus buildings and services), organizations are a logical next step.  But they’re not.  Lauby rightly mentions employee privacy concerns (summarized well here), but additionally, you must consider the realities of organizations.  The fun of Foursquare is that you are competing against other people.  Most organizations simply aren’t large enough for this to feasible.  And of those that are, do you really want your employees checking in at the break room as many times per day as they can?  And if you add Foursquare check-in points absolutely everywhere (in each office, in the break room, in the copy room, at the receptionist’s desk, at the time clock), just how much total time is being wasted across your organization?
  2. Making Work Easier
    This argument is that by using Foursquare, you can attract more customers, which will make your employees’ jobs easier.  This just doesn’t make any sense.  What it’s really saying is that Foursquare can be used as a effective marketing tool, which I certainly agree with.  But that has relatively little to do with the experience of your employees.
  3. Recognition
    Here, Lauby argues that employees will want the recognition associated with being mayor of a location.  Here is the example given:

    Tiedje mentioned he’s currently the mayor at the Sun Sentinel. “I’ve been trading back and forth with one of our page designers. I lost it after going on vacation. Actually not sure how I got it back!”

    The vital piece of information you need here is that Tiedja is the social media coordinator for the Sun Sentinel.  If you just did a double-take, you had the correct reaction.  He’s mentioning with some enthusiasm that he is mayor of his own workplace.  What does that mean?  He goes to work more often than anyone else does?  He leaves the office and comes back more often than anyone else?   Why is it such a good thing to go to work more often than other people?  Isn’t that just the job, and if you don’t do that, don’t you get fired? It also creates a culture where you are ultimately rewarding the person that’s worked at your organization the longest and also happens to remember to check in every time.  What is really the value in that?

  4. Morale
    Apparently using Foursquare can create a positive organizational culture.  Let me explain something – if you think you need a technological gimmick to establish a positive organizational culture, you’ve got bigger problems than Foursquare can solve.

I am big supporter of social media in workplace, but this Mashable article just represents another in a long string of opinions that throwing technology into an organization can magically solve its problems.  It is never, never, never that simple.  Don’t start with a technology and think of a way to shoehorn it into your organization, or it will create no value.  Instead, start with the problem you’re trying to solve, determine which technologies are available that could solve your problem, and move strategically from there.

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  1. June 17, 2010

    I agree wholeheartedly with the following quote from the article above:

    “Don’t start with a technology and think of a way to shoehorn it into your organization, or it will create no value. Instead, start with the problem you’re trying to solve, determine which technologies are available that could solve your problem, and move strategically from there.”

    And I would add that don’t assume that you need a new technology to solve your problem. If people are unmotivated at work it may be an issue of the compensation system or how they are treated by middle-management. I don’t think there is any technology that will replace the need to build and maintain a good organizational culture.

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