Social Networking, Work and ICT4D

Robert Davison, Dept of Information Systems, City University of Hong Kong

isrobert @

Although not so recent in provenance (historical forebears, like DEC’s $PHONE utility ran on VAX/VMS mainframe systems in the 1980s), social networking applications like blogs, wikis and instant messengers have become increasingly popular communication devices. While traditionally associated with social networking, these tools are also finding application in organisational work places and paces (see e.g., Cameron & Webster, 2005; Nardi et al., 2000; Halverson et al., 2003; Halverson, 2004; Isaacs et al. 2002). For instance, in my own recent research in China, I have seen widespread evidence of these tools being used at work and for work purposes, notably in collaboration and communication settings (e.g. Davison et al., 2008, 2009, 2010; Martinsons et al., 2009; Ou et al., 2010a, 2010b). However, very little research appears to have been undertaken to investigate the impact of these tools in the work context - which I see as a major opportunity in the ICT4D domain.

The tools themselves are interesting not least because of their ubiquity. They are arguably more popular than the slightly more formal email, especially in the younger generation. The development of microblogging applications like twitter and yammer will further this trend. Since the underlying purpose of all of these tools is to encourage connectivity, quite considerable social impacts (positive and negative) may be expected, across a wide range of contexts: socially, politically and organisationally. Associated with this development and application will be government attempts to censor content that is deemed subversive, blasphemous or otherwise sensitive. Such censorship is already practiced in some developing countries for a variety of Internet, including Web 2.0, content (see e.g., McKinnon, 2008).

Given the richness of the context and phenomenon, a huge variety of research questions can be legitimately asked and addressed with a correspondingly wide range of research designs, not to mention research methods and epistemologies. Social networking tools tap into a natural desire for increased, yet informal, communication between individuals. Furthermore, given the minimal infrastructural and training costs associated with social networking tools, they may present the opportunity for organisations, otherwise unable to afford expensive IT investments, to leapfrog (Davison et al., 2000) more formal applications to informal ones that, if carefully applied, will provide useful levels of functionality and so help enhance competitiveness and productivity – critical issues for firms that are keen to launch themselves in the global market. Of course, that’s only my prediction – the challenge is for this to be demonstrated, so the research beckons.

Naturally, researchers in this domain may also have to tread warily, lest they too be accused of fomenting precisely the consequences of which central authorities are most concerned. In less controlled societies, the environmental context may vary, yet I suspect that there will be no shortage of interesting social, political and organisational phenomena to investigate. The impact of social networking tools in these contexts may be considerable and have the potential to change the status quo – with all the Machiavellian consequences that we have come to associate with technology-focused change.


Cameron, A. and Webster, J. (2005) Unintended Consequences of Emerging Communication Technologies: Instant Messaging in the Workplace, Computers in Human Behavior, 21, 85-103.

Davison, R.M., Vogel, D.R., Harris, R.W. and Jones, N. (2000) Technology Leapfrogging in Developing Countries: An Inevitable Luxury? Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 1, 5, 1-10.

Davison, R.M., Martinsons, M.G. and Ou, C.X.J. (2010) Knowledge Sharing in Professional Services Firms in China, in: Lacity, M.C., Willcocks, L.P. and Zheng, Y.Q. (Eds.) China's Emerging Outsourcing Capabilities: The Services Challenge, Palgrave-Macmillan, London & New York, Chapter 7, 165-183.

Davison, R.M., Ou, C.X.J., Li, Y. and Björkstén, J. (2009) Eastwei: A Knowledge-Based Value Shop, 13th Pacific Asia Conference on Information Systems, Hyderabad, July 10-12.

Davison, R.M., Ou, C.X.J., Li, Y., Martinsons, M.G. and Björkstén, J. (2008) The Multimethodological Investigation of Knowledge Sharing Practices in Eastwei, 29th International Conference on Information Systems, Paris, December 14-17.

Halverson, C.A. (2004) The Value of Persistence: A Study of the Creation, Ordering and Use of Conversation Archives by a Knowledge Worker, Proceedings of the 37th HICSS.

Halverson, C.A., Erickson, T. and Sussman, J. (2003) What Counts as Success? Punctuated Patterns of Use in a Persistent Chat Environment, Proceedings of the ACM SIGGROUP ’03 Conference, Florida, 180-189.

Isaacs, E., Walendowski, A., Whittaker, S., Schiano, D. and Kamm, C. (2002) The Character, Functions, and Styles of Instant Messaging in the Workplace, CSCW’02 Proceedings, New Orleans, LA, 11-20.

Martinsons, M.G., Davison, R.M. and Huang, Q.V. (2009) Knowledge Management Challenges in Small Professional Services Firms: Action Research in China, 69th Academy of Management Conference, Chicago, August 6-11.

McKinnon, R. (2008) The Chinese Censorship Foreigners Don’t See, Wall Street Journal:

Nardi, B.A., Whittaker, S. and Bradner, E. (2000). Interaction and Outeraction: Instant Messaging in Action, Proceedings of CSCW’00, 79-88.

Ou, C.X.J., Davison, R.M., Li, Y. and Zhong, X.P. (2010) The Significance of Instant Messaging at Work, 5th International Conference on Internet and Web Applications and Services, Barcelona, May 9-15.

Ou, C.X.J., Davison, R.M., Zhong, X.P. and Li, Y. (2010) Can Instant Messaging Empower Teams at Work?, 4th International Conference on Research Challenges in Information Science, Nice, May 19-21.