Sunday, 17 February 2008

Can social networks work within institutional walls?

I had an interesting comment from Mark on my article on Applying Social Networking in the Workplace. This statement got me thinking:

I think social networks within an organisation will become tremendously useful - think of the opportunities for knowledge sharing through the creation of pools of expertise across the organisation consisting of people who would otherwise be locked into some isolated project team. I think social networking behind the firewall has great potential that will hopefully be realised sooner rather than later.

Well, I agree that social software appears to have lots of natural applications within corporates, but a key challenge to their success is that users of social tools like these may not recognise the normal corporate boundaries as much as the current generation of managers. Indeed much of the value from these tools comes from offering direct contact with people who may have valuable information/collaborative input from your customer base, supplier base, completely different industry sectors, or even your own competitor base as well as your peers inside and outside your own organisation. In which case, networking tools that are limited within the corporate firewall may not get the long term grass roots support we might expect. Perhaps this is where initiatives such as OpenSocial come in to their own. But being open creates a bit of a paradox for many organisations who are highly protective of their internal processes and intellectual capital.

This is not to say that there are not examples of this already working within some corporates. This BBC business podcast - All Join In - cites some examples of social networking being used by the likes of T-Mobile and Ernst & Young (the representative here makes a great point about ensuring that the postings and discussion remain uncensored and "true" even if at first they appear negative to his own organisation).

I know Jay Cross has strong views on this, which are neatly summarised in his CLO article. Here's one key observation that supports my own thoughts:

Today’s executives grew up in a business world managed by industrial-age rules. Deeply ingrained beliefs are difficult, if not impossible to unlearn. Many managers pay unquestioned allegiance to the vestiges of the industrial paradigm. They believe in hierarchical organizational structures, top-down control, information hoarding, rigidity, formality, competition and undervaluing intangibles.

In the opposite corner, most network-age businesspeople support flat organizations, shared responsibility, information sharing, extreme collaboration, flexibility, informality, cooperation and the importance of social capital and reputation.

Few people have a foot in both camps. The industrial-agers see the network folk as undisciplined techno-optimists. The network-agers think of the industry people as clueless reactionaries. The conflict between the two groups is building.

The maxim "Networks subvert hierarchy" goes neatly with my reflection:

That old maxim "Knowledge is Power" appears to be waning. Maybe the new mantra should be "Your Network is Power".

1 comment:

Marc Tirel said...

Fully agree with your point and your "Power is in your Network".
The key question is how long will last the transition ?

There are risks associated with adopting any new technology, and Enterprise 2.0 is no different. Enterprise 2.0 holds the promise of dramatically increasing business productivity, stimulating greater innovation, and creating tighter connections between employees, as well as with partners, suppliers and customers. While these technologies and other social networking softwares are facilitating knowledge sharing, accelerating team communications, fostering increased collaboration and online communities creation, many executives are recognising their value but worry about losing control of information, compromising sensitive data, opening their networks to security breaches or even exposing employees to time-killing “network noise