Friendly business

The business of accounting is business. Nobody said that, but it’s true nonetheless. Accounting is a profession that is definitely not about counting beans and wearing cardigans these days. CPA Australia members are core parts of every aspect of Australian business life, and so it is unsurprising that they are often among the first to identify new business issues as they arise. For example, an issue noted recently is the potential impact that online social networking has upon business. These websites allow friends to chat, share photographs, videos, and to discuss their work, lives, loves, wins and losses. At last count, there were more than six million Australians with profiles on Facebook and MySpace.

It is hardly a business issue that Australians have friends. Mateship is an Australian tradition, whether on the Kokoda track or on Facebook. The issue is that, as our world becomes more connected, it is increasingly difficult to separate personal lives from the world of ‘work’. Private actions now take place in very public places, with search engines voyeuristically distributing these activities for the entire world to see. Consider the recent YouTube ‘star’ who made negative comments about his employer. Once, those excruciating videos would have tormented only his unfortunate immediate family. YouTube provides the conduit to a whole new audience. Questionable tastes in humour cross organisational hierarchies though. There may be regrets for the partner of a consulting firm whose photo was posted online by a member of his staff, complete with Hitler moustache, swastika, and a Nazi salute. Not perhaps the look his professional profile is looking for.

Business owners must cross the generational and digital divide to become digital citizens so as not to be caught unawares, like the new owner of a motor dealership who was unaware of a web comment telling prospective customers to ‘avoid [the dealership] like the plague’. Three years on, that advice is still there and is prominently displayed when new customers Google the dealership. Twitter, a relatively new social networking service, allows users to post ‘microblogs’ from their mobile phone. Comments damaging a business’s online reputation are regularly made there – at one store, while still in the store, a customer ‘tweeted’ to her 789 ‘followers’ about the bad service received.

It is not all negative. Delight the digital citizens and your business will benefit. Robert Scoble, a particularly notorious blogger, mentioned a new book he was reading in a single tweet. With over 34,000 followers, it seems people took note, and the book quickly scaled the heights of the Amazon best seller list.

A generation has matured with the internet at their fingertips. This is a different world than the old world of football, kangaroos, meat pies and Holden cars. Your customers use the internet to inform their opinions. A business can take some steps to present itself in the best light possible, but actively manipulating information is unwise. The punishment for chicanery and ‘bad behaviour’ online is unpleasant, caustic and swift. Transparency and honesty are necessary in the digital world. The actions of an over-zealous employee can quickly ensure that a business is condemned to the scrapheap of irrelevance – consider the very public example of the software developer 2Clix who brought legal action against Whirlpool to have negative comments taken down from its forums.

Increasingly, ‘personal’ and ‘work’ lives collide. People need to be a little more circumspect when posting material online. Activities are often publicly available and can be seen by anyone – an audience perhaps not originally considered. Recruiters increasingly Google a candidate’s name to see what can be discovered. Personal information can be used for identity theft, and likewise corporate information on personal profiles can be used for ‘social engineering’ scams to defraud the business.

Is this an accounting issue? Probably not. Is it a business issue? Definitely, and accountants fundamentally are about business. CPA Congress in Melbourne this year includes a workshop to help people understand how they can use online social networking tools without causing great grief and how a business can respond to the business challenge of online social networking in a positive way. For those few people that are natural digital denizens, the workshop will discuss tactics they already know. For others, there will be hints and tips that will save them time, money and a poor online reputation.

The social networking phenomenon is here to stay and will continue to grow. Businesses must understand the impact of social networking upon the business, and monitor their ‘internet footprint’. Individuals must understand acceptable behaviour when living out their digital life. Simply ‘banning’ or ‘ignoring’ online social networking is rarely helpful. A sensible and informed approach is important, with an awareness of the potential risks and problems.

Social networking: sometimes, it’s about business.

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