By Steve Kelman

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Is Facebook ruining the military?

Girls at the Rijksmuseum, ignoring The Night Watch - posted to Facebook by Alvaro Garnero and shared by Steve Kelman

Last April, I wrote a blog post prompted by a photo of a group of six teenage girls at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam near the famous Rembrandt painting The Night Watchman, where the girls were all immersed in their smartphones and not talking with or otherwise interacting with each other. (See photo at right.) At the time, I pondered on the implications of this photo, and the phenomenon it represented, for our culture and society: Did the low cost of impersonal communication mean we were in danger of losing a balance between person-to-person, closer-knit verbal communication and the more impersonal type often occurring in social media?

Six months later, we are seeing an interesting and troubling suggestion that, at least in some circumstances, social media can negatively affect organizational performance. On Friday, The New York Times published an op-ed by John Spencer, an Army major currently teaching at West Point, called -- in a play on "a band of brothers" -- A Band of Tweeters. The article looks at the implications of social media for an important organization, namely combat units in the U.S. military.

Spencer recounts an incident as a company commander in Iraq in 2008, interacting with soldiers who had returned from a patrol: "When I went back to talk to the soldiers who had been on the patrol, I was surprised to find them not grouped in conversations about what had happened, as I'd come to expect during my career in the military. Instead, they were sitting silently in front of computer screens, posting about their day on MySpace and Facebook."

Research going back to classic studies during World War II by the sociologists Morris Janowitz and Edward Shils has found that soldiers fight for their buddies, with whom they have developed close ties due to extended interpersonal interactions off the battlefield that prepare them for being on the battlefield. For success in battle, there must be a high level of trust and unit cohesion. Spencer notes that when in Iraq in 2003, before the Internet came to the front, "I saw the group bonds that had been formed between the soldiers appear in battle. The communication between members was personal, their teamwork under stress admirable."

In 2008, the soldiers behaved differently. "I saw the soldiers' individuality in battle. I saw them arguing about what decisions to make. I often observed much more transactional communications where there would have been friendly banter in the past. Groups seemed unable to learn from their daily challenges or direct any intergroup policing of individual actions."

One question to ask is whether these troubling findings are likely to apply to any organizations outside the military, which mixes unusual demands for commitment, cohesion and teamwork with a work environment where those organizational features can be so nurtured by informal face-to-face communication. Clearly, there are lots of ordinary workplaces, inside and outside government, where trust and cohesion are important, and where informal ties generated in office interactions or around the water cooler, build such cohesion and improve performance.

There are far fewer occasions in an ordinary office, however, where communicating on a Facebook page is likely to be an alternative to such in-person interactions. In the field, soldier "free time" may significantly be spent physically near other soldiers, so they have the easy alternative of interacting with each other or interacting with a computer screen. In most office jobs, by contrast, workers scatter when the workday concludes. (The kinds of workplaces that are similar to being in the field for a soldier are probably few, such as police or fire stations and remote National Park Service outposts, though thoughts about other workplaces fitting this bill are welcome.) Ordinary offices do, however, present opportunities for choosing social media over informal personal interactions occur during authorized break times, and especially over lunch.

To deal with the Facebook problem for those in combat situations, Spencer recommends requiring post-patrol debriefings separate from mission reviews. He also suggests moving soldiers into larger living groups, four to six instead of two to four. In an office context (at least in workplaces with their own cafeterias), one could set up Internet-free tables or even cutting off wireless in the cafeteria (which is done in some campus classrooms to reduce smartphone multitasking).

Spencer's findings may well apply much more dramatically to a combat setting than to other workplaces. Yet even if that is true, combat is important enough to warrant worrying about a development that can reduce combat effectiveness. More broadly, however, this research has implications for a wide range of workplaces. Top organizational executives and frontline managers need to think about how the spread of social media in the workplace might have a negative impact on bonds among employees. Just raising the issue of, say, Internet access in an organization's lunchroom might prompt useful discussion about whether we need to reflect on and reconsider our behavior, given the effects social media in the workplace may be having on informal ties among employees.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 09, 2015 at 5:55 AM


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