Getting to Social

You are engaging with social media for marketing and customer support. You have also put in place a social intranet, with activity streams for sharing information, collaboration tools for work teams and document management systems that include social tags and easy sharing. Now the hard work begins. However, this usually occurs just after the software vendors have provided the initial training and you are now on your own as an organization. You’re ready to be a social business; everyone is connected but few know what to do.

Social Media are New Languages

Social media can have a strong influence on the individual, very much in a McLuhanesque tetrad of media effects way. Those who come to social media for the first time are like adults learning a new language. They cannot start with the same advanced mental models and metaphors they may have in a primary language. Furthermore, once they get to an advanced level in this new language, its idioms, metaphors and culture may have changed how they think in that language. This is the real change process enabled by social business; people will start thinking differently.

Social media change the way we communicate. Write a blog for a year or more and your writing will change. Use Twitter for some time and get a sense of being connected to many people and understanding them on a different level. Patterns emerge over time. Even the ubiquitous Facebook changes how we react to being apart from friends. Social media change the way we think.

Each time we adopt a new social medium we start at the bottom, or at the single node level. We have to make connections with what will become our network, either by connecting to existing relationships or doing something that helps to create new relationships, like creating content for sharing. Starting over, in each medium, can be daunting, especially for someone in a position of authority who is concerned about image or influence.

But we need to actually use social media to understand what it’s like to be a node in a social network. There is little in the industrial workplace or public school system to prepare us for this. Therefore we won’t even know what we’re talking about until we learn the new language of social media and online networks, and the only way to learn a new language is through practice.

The Transparent Workplace


While people may say it’s not about the technology, that’s where a large share of the budget goes in any major change initiative. The bigger change to manage is getting people to work transparently. Transparency is a necessity for cooperation and collaboration in networks. A major benefit of using social media is increasing speed of access to knowledge. However, if the information is not shared by people, it will not be found.

In this newly transparent workplace, there is no place to hide, or as Mark Britz wrote, “Social Media spreads your culture quickly … for better or worse.” This change alone can be enough to cause massive organizational upheaval. It must be addressed by modelling good network era behaviours. Working smarter is not just about using technologies but changing our routines and procedures. With greater transparency, information now flows horizontally as well as vertically. New patterns and dynamics emerge from interconnected people and interlinked information flows, and these will bypass established structures and services.

With the democratization of information, user-generated content is ubiquitous. Search engines give each worker more information and knowledge than any CEO had 10 years ago. Pervasive connectivity changes organizational power structures, though the full effects of this take time to be visible. From this transparent environment new leaders and experts will emerge.  It will take different leadership, or leadership for networks, to support collaboration and social learning in the workplace.

Agile organizations need people who can work in concert on solving problems. People need to change how they work and all the knowledge and courses won’t help. Management must ask – “How can we help you work in this new transparent environment?” – and take action, not once, but continuously.

Setting the Example

In social networks we often learn from each other; modelling behaviours, telling stories, and sharing what we know. While not highly efficient, this can be very effective learning. There is a need to model the new behaviours of being transparent and narrating one’s work. There is also a need to share power, for how long will workers collaborate and share if they cannot take action with this new knowledge? Modelling the new behaviours will take time and trust.

Since all these social technologies cannot model the new work behaviours themselves, who will? The organization will, by fostering communities of practice. These can be bridges between work teams and open social networks, with narration of work an enabler of knowledge-sharing. One determinant of effective professional communities is whether they actually change practices. Only then will we know if the social business initiative has been successful.

Organizations adopting social business need to find people who can model the behaviours, not just talk about them. They should identify people who already narrate their work, share transparently and create user-generated content. Organizations should get advice from people who share power and do most of their work in networks. If there is nobody to model network era behaviours in the organization, how will people learn? From Facebook?

Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel


8 Responses to “Getting to Social”

  1. The IT Skeptic

    A fine model and a fine aspiration. How long will such behavioural change take? How long will it take the community to assimilate this new model of interaction? years? Decades? Generations?

    I think you are right and as a result i think you prove that social technologies will change nothing in any useful timeframe.

    • Harold Jarche

      My experience is that change can happen when you get a core group to model the new behaviours. Researchers show it only takes 10% to tip the scales. How long it takes to get to that 10% is another question, but I’ve seen some significant changes in periods of 6 to 12 months.

  2. Tony Reeves

    Thank you Harold for a perceptive exploration of some of the complexities social media. Having studied French and progressing to work as a Learning Technologist I would agree with your statement that using social media is akin to learning a language. Even though I considered myself to be ‘digitally literate’ it was still necessary for me to start at the beginning in order to understand both the value and conventions of networked learning and communication.

  3. Luke Winter


    “Fostering communities of practice” is definitely key here. Interesting to hear your response to the commonly-posed question to social business that the ‘IT Skeptic’ raised – “sounds great, but how do we get there?”. Would you be able to elaborate further on the significant changes you’ve seen in the business community over the past twelve months? As someone invested in developing end-to-end product lifecycle management software based on a very collaborative model of business, I’d be very interested to hear your experiences and success stories.

    Luke Winter
    Community Manager


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