Social networking in the workplace

This evening I attended a panel discussion about “Social Networking” as it is used inside businesses. Obviously there is a wildfire like phenomenon where “Social Networking” and “Social Media” is growing very popular. Why should it stay out in the public only used for sharing with friends and family? It can and is being used within organizations for internal communication within the organization. Any organization is about getting people to collaborate together in delivering the organization’s purpose. It seems that “social networking” software has a core essence of enabling collaboration between people. It then follows that an organization whose purpose is creating social good would get value from social networking tools. But it’s not a simple thing to just wave a magic wand and spread social networking pixie dust over the organization and get value.

Does opening up a twitter account automatically make you popular? No. Supposedly twitter is a great place to ask questions because the audience will answer them, but every time I’ve tried asking questions there are approximately zero answers. Obviously I haven’t found the right twitter usage pattern to have an audience who wants to answer my questions. But obviously twitter has a specific kind of use it is best for. Each of the other social networking tools has their own best use.

For example a blog is a time oriented presentation of essays. It’s a diary, in other words. While it’s a great format it doesn’t work if what you want to present needs to be organized a different way. Each type of social media has its own geometry or structure, and its own best use.

One of the panel speakers talked about collaboration using geometrical terms. He said something about “circles”, that “social networking connections expand in circles of collaboration”. I assume what he meant is that organizations tend to have clusters of people who work on different aspects of the organizations purpose. People within an organization are continually relating with one another about tasks related to the organizations purpose. The traditional way those relationships are conducted is by telephone, memo, walking down the hall, report, team meetings, etc.

Social networking software exists to facilitate communication between people. The capabilities in this area are constantly growing. Each time a new social networking service launches it arrives with a new paradigm about facilitating human-human communication. Given that organizations (businesses, governments, churches, political activist groups, etc) are about humans communicating with each other to accomplish shared goals, well, I’m sure where this is going is obvious. In theory organizations could very well function more efficiently by using social networking paradigms in their internal processes.

What does this mean? Does it mean establishing a corporate version of facebook? No. Each social networking paradigm has its own best use, remember. I can’t imagine how facebook’s paradigm would be useful inside a corporation. Obviously facebook as a website is a popular place for businesses to reach out to their audience. But remember this blog post is about internal use of social networking.

An example I’ve seen is the bug tracking systems at the various software companies where I’ve worked. Bug tracking systems are generally very dull and boring places. The content is all the ways that the software does not work, and the conversation goes like “Hey! This doesn’t work”, “Can you be more specific”, “Oh, I wonder how that could have happened”, “I have a possible fix”, “No that fix won’t work, try this one instead”, “Darn that didn’t work either, how about this”, “yeah that’s it”, etc. It’s usual presentation is plain text with hardly any graphical groovyness anywhere in sight. It is obviously a place where people are collaborating with each other. At the company where I currently work the bug tracking system has user profiles, and each bug and comment comes along with a little avatar at the side. This adds an interesting extra dimension to it. Where in other bug tracking systems there’s zero personalization and personality, the avatar and user profile adds something you can’t directly put a finger on that makes it look like a real conversation among live human beings.

In other words I don’t think we are automatons, even when we don our work clothes and go to the office. We are people first and foremost even when the corporate paradigm is to leave your emotions at the door when you enter the office building. As people working in an organization we are relating with other people. We have to develop enough trust to work with each other so that the organization can achieve its greater goal.

In other words the internal systems a company uses can (and should) include features that carry along little trails of who the people are. Corporations can seem like soul-less places. It seems often that corporations make decisions that no human being would make. What came to mind is the industrial accident at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal India, but there is a huge history of corporate decisions causing untold huge amounts of human pain and suffering. These “corporate decisions” were indeed made by humans because essentially every corporate decision has one or more humans who is directly responsible for actually making that decision.

Maybe oh maybe corporations would be less soul-less if the corporate systems had social networking features. It would remind everybody in the corporation that, oh, the software they’re using to communicate back and forth … that there is a real live human being on the other end of the communication.