As the economy gets more networked, open organizations are becoming a necessity. Businesses are increasingly dependent on complex social interactions. Products are becoming services, as we can see with web apps, software, and even books. Trading intangible goods and services today requires trusted relationships, and often across distances. Internally, work teams that need to share complex knowledge require tighter social bonds. These are developed through time, with experience, and most often informally. Trust is a human quality. But the major barrier to encouraging informal social relationships at work often comes down to a question of control.
An important factor in what we call ‘social businesses’ – those that are open, transparent and cooperative – is that they are more resilient because they rely on people, not processes. Social business, and social networks, allow us to incorporate ways of sharing implicit knowledge, which is the stuff that we cannot codify but is often the most important. This is why online collaboration tools were first developed by the open source software movement. The community of developers was decentralized with very little hierarchy. Contributors needed to collaborate with no friction. Blogs and wikis, and later tools like Twitter, were created to “scratch the itch” of new organizational models.
Most software developers today are learning in a way that makes the environment smarter as they share their knowledge. Whenever they have a problem, they first go online to see if anyone has had the same problem. In most cases, they will find that someone has posted about it. In addition, the community may have rated the quality of the answer, and even added to it. This is social. This is how any knowledge-intensive organization should work.
Much of our work today is in knowledge networks. These networks function well when they are 1) based on openness, which 2) enables transparency, and 3) in turn fosters diversity – all of which reinforce the basic principle of openness. Over time, trust emerges in groups of people working in this way.
Openness is inherent in most social network platforms, as they are non-hierarchical by design, in that most people can connect with each without asking the permission of a third party. This speeds connection-making and the development of those important informal relationships that are directly linked to business performance.
Getting connected is only the beginning. People still need to actively share knowledge, through practices such as working out loud. They have to make explicit what they are doing and describe any challenges they are facing. It’s like working in one room together where everyone can hear what others are doing. For instance, I cannot help you if I do not know what you are doing. Narration of work is the first step in integrating learning into the workflow, which is where it belongs in the network era. Openness through social connections, coupled with transparently sharing knowledge then helps organizations innovate because they have a greater diversity of ideas to work with. This should be the value proposition of enterprise social networks.
Research by the Altimeter Group in 2011 showed that the major benefits of using enterprise social networks were 1) capturing knowledge, 2) sharing it, and 3) enabling people to take action on that knowledge.
We know that actually “capturing knowledge” by its nature is impossible. But we can create representations of what we think. This is what I am doing here, by creating a representation of my understanding and explaining it to you. Furthermore, creating explicit content objects gives us something to share and talk about, in order to develop common understanding. This is extremely important in sharing complex knowledge.
In order to take action and make decisions, we need access to the best information we can get. A network that is constantly creating content to share, and having conversations around it, can make better decisions. This is the business value of social networks. But it is all based on trust, for without trust, there is no sharing. Realizing the business value of enterprise social networks takes not just time, but also active and effective knowledge sharing.
What is your organization doing to foster trusted relationships in the workplace?