A recent post on the Wikinomics blog raises the question of how much time the use of Facebook and other social networking wastes at work. A recent study suggests 233 million working hours are lost each month due to Facebook. Rather than using shock statistics to impose a knee-jerk ban, companies should recognise the potential benefits of social networking to deliver superior service.

There are a number of ways that Facebook or other sites can help companies improve their service. For example the communities are now large enough that they can - via polls or blogs - provide a sample of opinion (at very low cost) that could be valid input to any product or service design.

Companies who care about the service they offer their customers will typically encourage their employees to listen to their friends and families’ views of their performance or that of their competitors. Social networking sites potentially increase the ‘bandwidth’ of those conversations, helping decision makers identify trends.

Of course, the use of the web to raise (negative) customer opinions has been around for a number of years via the type of <insert-company-name>sucks.com sites that have sprung up. Social networking sites allow this kind of community to be created very quickly so it’s important for companies to keep in contact with any rapidly emerging trend.

In one example that goes with this flow BT has developed an approach to helping customers with technical issues that leverages their expertise as much as that of help desk staff. The Hubbub forum has been put in place to support a range of Voice-over-IP telephony services and allows customers to have their questions answered by other customers in a discussion forum as well as by help desk staff. The advantage of this approach is that it allows a high level of product and service feedback to be gathered very quickly and is particularly helpful for new products which are more likely to be picked up by tech-savvy early adopters who can provide detailed feedback.

I believe we will see more companies adopting this type of approach whether via Facebook, MySpace or bespoke networking tools and so the best strategy to adopt is to encourage their use - in support of company goals - not to ban it.