In October of 2009 I spoke to an audience of HR professionals at the Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) Strategy Conference in Phoenix, AZ on the topic of developing a social computing strategy for their businesses (look here to see what I told them). I recently received my evaluations from that session and among the comments submitted by the audience was this one:
Interesting talk. But I’d like to hear more about how social computing applies in regular businesses.
What does “regular businesses” mean? I didn’t have the opportunity to ask the person who’d written that, so I’m left to draw my own conclusions. I assume he/she meant businesses that are not technology companies. Assuming that’s what the person meant, they might be interested in this article over at Read Write Web: Facebook In the Factory: Manufacturers Want Social Software Too. Manufacturers, the article points out, are becoming the “surprise adopters” of social computing. For example, wikis for recording best practices and capturing knowledge of departing engineers are big with these companies. Manufacturing is a pretty “regular” business, right?
But that question — how does social computing apply to regular businesses — is still nagging at me. The implication of the question is that social computing is a tool the benefits of which are only applicable to some organizations. When I couple that question with the findings of theblueballroom’s study of social computing use in internal communication efforts which found that email, newsletters and posters still rule the corporate communications roost I’m left asking a fundamental question of my own:
Are the benefits that social computing can deliver benefits that the majority of organizations have yet to realize are benefits they need?
Here’s the list of the top four uses of social computing from theblueballroom’s study:
1. Sharing knowledge
2. Building community
3. Collaborating during projects across departments + offices
4. Communicating quickly across the business
The benefit of social computing is that all of these things become, if not easier, than certainly more active, more robust and faster in organizations that employ social computing. I therefore see these as benefits, as well as uses.
Sharing knowledge has always happened in business: people talk in the lunch room, office mates turn in their chairs to help each other solve problems. But do companies realize that knowledge sharing needs to evolve from a point-by-point happenstance to the level of corporate strategy?
Community building has always happened in businesses: colleagues become friends, social interaction in addition to work defines people’s experience with their company. But consciously creating, cultivating and nurturing communities with the company? Is that something that businesses, on the whole, understand is important to their success today? It still seems to me that a lot of businesses feel like community is OK as long as it doesn’t detract from production, but they don’t yet see community as a strategic goal they want to dedicate a lot of time and resource to, nor do they see community’s contribution to better, more efficient and higher quality production. And for that reason, selling the idea of social computing as a way of jump-starting the formation of community within your organization remains a hard sell.
You’re selling an outcome that isn’t in demand.
Same with the idea of collaborating across departments and communicating across the company. Both seem to still exist in the realm of mistaken perceptions:
1. The perception that the increased information sharing and increased transparency that accompanies both activities weakens rather than strengthens the organization.
2. The perception, when it comes to communication across the company, that as long as management’s message is regularly pushed out to the employees then the communication hurdle has been cleared, regardless of the fact that management isn’t listening to understand the reaction by employees to the messages communicated
3. The perception, with regard to collaboration, that contained, team-centered collaboration is the zenith of possibility for collaboration within the company or that to cultivate a different, wider, more asymmetrical collaboration model is somehow dangerous and an economically suspect pursuit.
To deny the need for the kinds of benefits that social computing can bring to an organization is to rest on your laurels within an environment in which you increasingly do not know what your organization knows.
And what are the consequences of that blindness? Morton Hansen has a very interesting analysis of that question in the context of the latest intelligence failures around the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253.
Whenever I encounter business leaders who scoff at the idea of social computing as a necessary part of their employee engagement strategy (which I’ve written about here), or as part of their internal communications strategy or as just a part of their business operations in general, I wonder if they retain any perception of how they, themselves, have gotten to where they are. No one advances in life by closing themselves off from community — quite the contrary, we succeed based on the number and the value of the connections we make. And if we, as part of a group, can forge connections that bring new ideas, new opportunities, new energy into the group, then the group’s success is improved. Why, then, do business leaders feel it’s wise to deny their employees opportunities to forge more (and richer, more valuable) connections with each other?
When they deny those opportunities, it’s a resource embargo — they’re starving the group, but the group is their own company.
Will we look back at the skeptics of this era and find that many of them, if they did not change, went extinct?