Sunday, January 24, 2010

Social Networking at Work

According to the ReadWrite Enterprise, social networks are changing how manufacturers view their operations and manufacturers 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. (Facebook In the Factory: Manufacturers Want Social Software Too, via Ethan Yarbrough)

Why social? Because business is a social system for creating value. (This is one of the key principles of my Foundations of Business lecture series.) Collaboration is a social activity.

Some people think that "social" means spare-time activity. Thus in the work environment, "social" is what you do when you aren't actually performing your primary task. However, the word "socialize" doesn't just mean making friends with your colleagues, or time-wasting at work, but getting your colleagues to make friends with your ideas. Among other things, that means telling interesting stories (and not just dry bullet points and irrelevant clipart) - informal as well as formal communications. Good social activity also promotes trust. There are fewer and fewer jobs that don't require this kind of activity.

It's difficult to see how anyone could survive as a manager without understanding this, although some advocates of social networking and social computing feel the need to spell out the benefits of "social". See for example, Ethan Yarbrough's post In Defense of Social: Enterprise 2.0 Social Technologies Are Critical, Not Casual. But just because a manager understands the benefits of social doesn't mean she is going to encourage all her staff to spend a proportion of their working time on Facebook. One possible objection to Facebook is not that it is social, but that it isn't social enough. (Similar arguments have been put against the use of Facebook by teenagers, although some of these arguments involve some extremely dodgy science as documented by Dr Ben Goldacre, Bad Science Feb 2009.) There is an important question about the contribution of so-called social networking tools to the sociality (if that is the right word) of the organization, but this question would surely have to be investigated by sociologists, rather than by technologists or neuroscientists.

If we don't want to get sidetracked into sociology, perhaps we should sidestep the "social" label. In his post What do we call social media tools, Ethan suggests that we could call them "knowledge media" tools instead. But I am not sure this helps. I'd prefer to call them collaboration tools.

Meanwhile, there are people looking at how social media could transform public services, including the NHS. In November 2009, a UK group called Patient Opinion organized a conference on myPublicServices. See BBC News, 27 November 2009. Patient Opinion captures stories about what happens to people when they get medical treatment, and routes their criticism or praise to people in a local health authority who need to know and can, if need be, use that information to improve services.

Some people might regard the story-telling as an intrinsic part of the service. However, I guess most people would regard the story-telling as part of a collaborative effort to improve the services, which transcends the boundaries of those organizations traditionally tasked with managing these services. So there is still a way to go to integrate social media into the services themselves.

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