During the tremendous growth of social media in recent years, most of the commentary has focused on the potential benefits and positive impact of the new technology – whether it be enhancing connections with customers, acting as a new & enhanced marketing channel or facilitating real-time networking. In recent weeks, however, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations and client engagements that raised a provocative question: does all this emphasis on social collaboration, crowd-sourcing and broad engagement  – supported by increasingly cheap and slick technology – actually hamper efficiency? More specifically, have we gone too far on the side of consultation and consensus, with the result of slowing down decision-making and execution? (This is different than the popular criticism of social media as a colossal waste of time with no clear business benefits.)

My friend Jeff Hunt of PulsePoint Group, for example, recently argued in this post that too much emphasis on collaboration – without clear rules of engagement – can stifle innovation. In a similar vein, a recent client worried that introducing new internal networking platforms would encourage staff to indulge in aimless discussion and prevent objective, quick decisions. The question of efficiency almost seems contradictory, given the immediacy and ubiquity of social media platforms…where developments are measured in minutes rather than days.

From my perspective, the answer to this rhetorical question is…yes: Collaboration and conversation can slow decision-making and hamper execution if you don’t support your social media efforts with streamlined processes and clear guidelines. If you want to introduce new crowd-sourcing tools – either with customers or employees – introduce a streamlined process to evaluate entries and decide which ideas get implemented. If you want major decisions to be reached through dialogue and consensus, set clear time and participation limits and confirm who makes the final call. If you have something to communicate that doesn’t require widespread participation and rumination, try meeting in small groups or – gasp – make a phone call. Collaboration and conversation will by its nature be somewhat messy and unpredictable, but it can and should be directed and managed by simple, clear rules.

Most importantly, perhaps, leaders should recognize that not all decisions should be left to group-think or need to be curated by teams. Getting input on a new shoe design or naming an intranet are not in the same category as planning a time-sensitive product launch or making organization changes that require surgical, timely decisions. In other words, pick your spots. Know when to listen, to invite comment, to encourage ideas, to foster debate…and when to just act.

This discussion is yet another illustration that social media is neither a panacea for business salvation nor a productivity-destroying albatross. New technology provides incredible capabilities to foster virtual, multi-media conversation and collaboration with a global audience. But it doesn’t replace the need for focused, deliberate management and robust planning to ensure things get done right and on time.