The true value of social networking at work

Last-century attempts at knowledge management failed dismally. Embracing internal social networks can change that

"Get back to work!" It's the battle cry of the hard-nosed, get-it-done, productivity-focused manager. It was also the battle cry of my colleague J. Peter Bruzzese in a recent post, "If you must have in-house social tools, go with SharePoint," where he questioned the wisdom of encouraging employees to electronically socially network, when really they should be focusing on the work at hand instead.

One question, and it's key: In 2011, what constitutes work?

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: Get Bob Lewis's continuing IT management wisdom in his Advice Line blog and newsletter. | Bob Lewis outlines the IT survival guide for uncertain times. ]

Practice over process

A while back, I introduced the notion of business practices. In case you missed it (or in case your memory of my brilliant insights isn't as detailed as my memory of my brilliant insights), a practice -- which might be team-based, hub-and-spoke-based, or single-actor-based -- is an alternative to process, the usual way of thinking about how to organize work.

It's analogous to the difference between old-style Cobol programming, where instructions are arranged in a procedural flow, and service-oriented programming, where a core orchestrator module invokes independent, encapsulated modules when and as needed.

In similar fashion, process designs tend to be factory-style assembly-line affairs, where work proceeds according to a more or less fixed flow. Practices are more flexible and fluid, with the actors invoking whatever business functions and capabilities the situation demands.

What does this have to do with in-house social media? Only everything.

End times for knowledge management

Businesses rely on practices far more than it might seem. All forms of analysis? Check. Application development? Yes. Insurance underwriting, loan processing, mortgage securitization (I didn't say practices always produce great results), supply chain management, strategic planning, sales, copywriting, layout and design, and broad-based basics like hiring and communication?

That's right. All of these are practices. And except for the rare instances of pure single-actor practices, where the actors need no external support to do their work, practitioners succeed by taking advantage of both formal business functions and an informal network of colleagues -- a community, to use a more old-fashioned term.

Communities form around shared interests and sustain themselves on trust. Their members need to interact as human beings, not as robotic repositories of skills, knowledge, and experience. Back in the last century, employees sustained their communities through water-cooler conversations about sports, hobbies, movies, television programs, and general-purpose gossip.

But although few companies have trimmed water coolers as a cost-cutting move (so far), an increasing number range from housing employees in multiple locations to being entirely virtual. Some community members might actually be able to meet and chat in real time. Far more can't because they're across town, in a different state, or standing upside down in a time zone 12 hours away, relying on gravity to keep them from falling off the earth (bet you weren't expecting a physics lesson, were you?).

All of which explains why most of the last-century attempts at implementing knowledge management systems failed dismally. It also explains why, if companies are to have any hope of leveraging the knowledge currently trapped in individual heads (including those that are habitually upside down), they need internal social networks.

Companies that tried to institute knowledge management generally viewed it as a process -- a series of steps employees were supposed to follow to make what they knew available to other employees through the use of the knowledge management system. Because companies defined it as a process -- whose purpose was to benefit the company -- they failed to pay attention to the radio station all employees listen to on their way to work in the morning. In case you don't know this old joke, it's WIIFM: what's in it for me.

In fact, it was worse than ignoring WIIFM, because many of these same companies jumped into the lean-and-mean movement (correct, award-winning translation: "famished and feeble") with both feet at more or less the same time.

All this left employees wondering how it was that a company that was busily cutting staff and adding to the workload of those who remained expected them to add more to their workload by spending time they no longer had sharing what they knew so as to make themselves more expendable than they obviously were already.

Knowledge management wasn't a bad idea. It was an excellent idea, trapped in impersonal implementations built around the unreasonable expectation of employee altruism.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of human beings routinely share their knowledge, experience, thoughts, biases, hopes, dreams, fears, and experiences -- in many cases so much so that it greatly exceeds our desire to know -- with a technologically connected community that includes many friends they've never met.

The network effect

Let's draw these threads together. Communities are built on trust. Trust depends on more than just work-oriented exchanges of information -- it depends on employees interacting as human beings. Those human beings often have no opportunity to interact face to face in real time. We know that in their personal time, many of them interact as human beings through social media.

SharePoint and competing products provide a rich social environment for encouraging community formation and informal collaboration. (Do I win ConsultantSpeak Bingo with that one?)

Your problem is unlikely to be abuse and overuse. The opposite is more likely, because we run our businesses with no expectation, let alone insistence, that we have a 21st-century workforce. In far too many cases, learning how to use the available tools in more than the most primitive ways is entirely optional. Worse, employees who become adept find it's a career-limiting move.

Yes, career-limiting: Managers, faced with one employee who is supposed to (for example) design a new workflow and document it in Visio and another who actually knows Visio, asks the latter to do the work of the former. The non-Visio-adept employee gets the credit, while the Visio-adept employee is pigeonholed as a technician.

One of the eight tasks of leadership is staffing, which includes ensuring employees acquire and practice the skills they need. If you manage practitioners -- employees who are responsible for or participate in team or hub-and-spoke practices -- part of your job is making it clear you expect them to master all the tools at their disposal that can make them more effective collaborators. Also, you must use them to actually collaborate.

If it turns out some of them also use those tools to help them manage their Fantasy Football league, be happy. It means you've succeeded.

This story, "The true value of social networking at work," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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