Let them tweet: How social networking builds a better company

Last week in the Globe and Mail (“Time to adapt to social media – or face the consequences,” 13 October 2011). Carly Weeks told readers that many organizations continue blocking “employee access to social networking sites at the office.”

Although it is a technology trend that appears here to stay, managers are reticent about providing employees with open-access fearing they will waste company time “chatting” with friends. By doubting the need to allow employees to engage potential consumers via social networking, she argues managers cut themselves off from opportunities to extend awareness about their organization.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/up-next-in-technology/time-to-adapt-to-social-media-or-face-the-consequences/article2198999/

Her focus is the impact of social networking might have on marketing, but that’s fine — and she’s right. There is, however, another angle Weeks doesn’t mention: would employers be persuaded about the benefits of social networking if they could see how social networking conversations between employees could be used to build a stronger, more cohesive — better – organizational team?

That is a question Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak came close to answering in 2001 – well before the advent of Facebook and Twitter – with their book In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work (HBS Press).  I first referred to it in 2003 in my article “Building brands by telling stories”: wp.me/pqoXT-1f.webloc. Obviously this decade-old book doesn’t anticipate the social networking phenomenon (in fact, it states that “technology available today [by the standard of 2001] is generally not an effective social medium”).  Yet, now that we have Twitter and Facebook it is easy to read between the lines of their commentary and see how relevant it is to today’s technology standard.

In Good Company was written at a time when people thought the traditional concept of the employee would be replaced by “free agents” (remember Dan Pink’s bestselling Free Agent Nation?).  Cohen and Prusak took issue with that notion, claiming organizations were just “beginning to discover the centrality of social interaction.”  As they saw it, working in isolation is lonely and dispiriting and that strong organizations depend on gradually developed ties of trust and understanding with colleagues.  In short, they saw the “good company” as a series of trust-based connections/networks of people engaging in cooperative action.

They acknowledge the prevailing managerial belief that people who talk at work aren’t working.  Instead, they believe “we need to enlarge our definition of work…Building connections, trust, and a culture of collaboration is valuable work, and it does not happen without available space and time.”

Allowing people to talk – whether around the actual watercooler or the virtual one — builds community that bridges generational divides within organizations.  Why is that important? Over time, companies lose sign of original mission and values, and begin to wonder, “who are we? and what do we do?” Conversations produce stories that, say Cohen and Prusak, preserve and transmit “the basic belief and nuances of culture.” They are an important tool for communicating “know-how, the hard-to-capture assimilated understanding of how work gets done” and are essential in helping new and old employees to understand the history, norms, values, and aims of their organization.

By tying together individual identity and organizational identity, these conversations and stories do more than vision and mission statements to create the sense of membership and engagement any organization requires to succeed in a changing, highly competitive global economy.

As a advocate for content development and publishing, the aspect of the book that particularly caught my attention was their question about where to find the knowledge of a firm – something that tends to be local, and contextual, and difficult to codify. Because people are deeply social by nature they are more likely to approach friends or colleagues for information than to use a knowledge management database or other formal repository. It is these personal networks that enhance the flow and function of information, and reveal the expertise of the organization. Cohen and Prusak acknowledge “we can’t know everything, so belonging to networks that can coordinate and enhance our limited knowledge is essential.”

For more, have a look at this article from the Contrabrand archive:

“Building brand consensus…one conversation at a time”: wp.me/pqoXT-1h.webloc

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