Working Socially

Why should I, as an OD/HR/L&D professional, concerned with the human aspects of organizations, have to understand social media and enterprise social networks?

Saying we don’t need to understand social media is like saying we didn’t need to understand speaking, reading or writing to do our jobs before. With ubiquitous connectivity, more of our work is at a distance, either in space or time. Distributed work is becoming the norm. If we are going to support people doing this kind of work, we need to understand it. However, working in online social networks takes practice to be proficient. It is difficult to understand theoretically. For example, even though I had worked online for over a decade, I did not really understand Twitter until I started using it regularly in 2008.

One fundamental difference about social media is they have a strong influence on the user, very much in a McLuhanesque medium/message/massage 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 that they have in their primary language. The image below shows the effects of enterprise social networks, from a McLuhan tetradic perspective.

tetrad ESNSocial media change the way we communicate and social media can change the way we think. We need to use the tools in order to understand what it’s like to be a node in a social network. There is almost nothing like it in the industrial workplace or school system to prepare us for this. Therefore we won’t know what we’re talking about until we learn the new language of online networks. The only way to learn a new language is through practice.

How do you start the discussion about social networks with senior managers who think of technology as just different products and platforms?

Work today has few time or geographical boundaries. As our water coolers become virtual, social relations online will be the glue that connects us in our increasingly distributed work. Every little tweet, blog post, comment or “like” online shares our individuality and humanity. These actions help us be known to others in the digital surround. They help us build trust to get things done, be productive and innovate. However, we cannot benefit from professional social networks unless we engage in them. This requires more than merely mastering the technology. It means being social in our work. Not using social media to connect, contribute and collaborate is like sitting in a closed office all day.

To stay engaged with interconnected markets, business has to get more social. Social learning, a major activity on social media, is how we get things done in networks.  Most organizational value is created by teams and networks, not individuals working alone. Organizational learning spreads through social networks. Therefore, social networks are the conduit for effective organizational performance.

Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organization. Senior managers need to understand social media in order to support learning in social networks which will enable practitioners to produce results.

Does being social at work mean being highly connected?

Does social mean highly connective? It’s much more than that. Social means human. It is an understanding that relationships and networks are complex. Our industrial management models are based on a belief that our structures are merely complicated, but more of our work is dealing with complex problems, for which there is no standardized approach.

Social bonds keep us together. Much of it is about trust. If I trust you, I might ask you for advice, so trust is essential for collaboration. We lose it if we try to micro-manage knowledge work. The argument that ‘business is business and social is social’ makes little sense today. Business is social because it involves people. Business must be more social the more complex the work and the greater the need for collaboration and cooperation. We foster innovation through social interactions. The idea that a lone person working in a lab can come up with a brilliant idea is largely unfounded. Connections between people drive innovation.

“Connecting ideas is the core of innovation, but without connecting ideas to people, there is no innovation at all. – Tim Kastelle

What kind of changes are needed in the way we organize work?

We need to understand complex adaptive systems and develop work structures that let us focus our efforts on learning as we work in order to continuously develop next practices. The role of leadership becomes supportive rather than directive in this new knowledge-intensive and creative workplace. Artificial boundaries that limit collaboration and communication only serve to drag companies down and create opportunities for more agile competitors.

Most managers would agree that an increasing amount of work and effort is in exception-handling. Social networks are an excellent framework to deal with these, as they enable people to crowd-source problem solving and speed the flow of knowledge.

What does exception handling mean for companies and employees? A practical definition is the time that employees – both management and front line workers – spend managing the non-routine tasks that must be addressed even though they occur outside the realm of standard daily business operations. It’s the things that just come up and disrupt someone’s workflow, requiring special time and attention. – Tim Young: Socialcast blog

To understand social networks, it is best to be able to see them. Visualization, like value network analysis, enables people to see the workplace with new eyes. This in turn can lead to diverse ideas and innovative approaches. Visualizing network relationships can give the initial leverage of getting complex new ideas accepted into general management thinking. Visualization is the fulcrum to widespread understanding of social connections in business.

Finally, it’s rather obvious that many HR policies imply that people cannot be trusted. Almost all IT policies say that. But it’s an interconnected world. Everything is transparent, whether we want it to be or not. Once management realizes that their company is a glass house, they will have to start working differently.

Note: This post is a synthesis and update of several conversations I posted as Organizational Development Talk, in 2011.

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