· 2 min read · Features

Uncommon sense: Irrational resistance to innovation

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If you want to do business you cannot afford to ignore social networking sites like Twitter.

Why is it that employers will spend thousands of pounds on their intranet sites and internal communications, yet when a new internet service arrives, free of charge, companies begin to run for cover?

'What's the catch?' they ask, or, even worse, particularly when the boss is the last to find out, they scream: 'Ban it.'

Social networking sites have been banned or curtailed by thousands of employers in knee-jerk reactions to what tended to enter companies as a bottom-up technology. By this I mean that many employees were finding out about these sites before they came to the attention of senior management.

Some people are turning against social networking for reasons I can only describe as irrational. "I don't do that kind of thing," replied the head of a charity I invited to join a new service. I'm reminded of a remark made about the telephone in its early days by a former US president, Rutherford B Hayes: "An amazing invention - but who would ever want to use one?"

You might not like the telephone, you might believe that the world is buzzing too much with communications just now, but if you want to do business you cannot afford such sentiments.

I'm finding the same issues with Twitter.com. If you have yet to come across Twitter let me explain how it works: you sign up to the site, ask others you know to sign up also, then you begin entering short messages, no more than 140 characters long. You are not writing these messages for anyone in particular - you are simply publishing a comment or thought to a group of people who may be interested in what you are doing.

But why should you do this, you may ask? Twitter, like many such sites, is described as a social network. In fact they are networks, full stop, as relevant to workplace communications as they are to chatting among friends. Some companies understand this.

Take Zappos.com, for example, a US-based online shoe retailer. Like all online retailing businesses, Zappos must organise its customer relations on the internet. People don't enjoy receiving automatically generated emails from online shops. Sure, the emails might tell us exactly where our package is in the delivery chain, but we're not hearing from real people like the shop assistant who lets us try on the shoes we like.

At Zappos all 429 of its employees, including the CEO, have Twitter accounts. So do some of its customers. This means that when customers speak to Zappos staff, someone in the company is able to respond personally, engaging in a conversation.

Drop in to the Zappos Twitter account and look at the conversations among staff. 'What?' you're saying. 'It's public?" Yes, that's right, Zappos is so confident of its product, services and staff, it doesn't worry about rivals tapping in.

Of course, this kind of communication only works if those with whom you wish to communicate are signed up to the same account. And some people simply won't play.

The reasons behind such obduracy are explained in a new book called Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour, by Ori and Rom Brafman. The authors blame what they call value judgment for some of the strongest resistance to innovation. In effect we decide that if something is free or discounted it can't be worth much. The Washington Post tested this theory last year when it asked leading violinist Joshua Bell to dress in jeans and a baseball cap and play his $3.5 million Stradivarius in a subway station. Here is a man who regularly plays to packed concert halls, yet people walked straight past and ignored him.

Resisting communications innovations on the internet makes no more sense. I don't think we have begun to scratch the surface in finding uses for social networking technology. But that's no case for shunning it.

- See also Strictly Legal, p10

Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times, richard.donkin@haymarket.com.