Lessons for Social Software and Shaping Organizational Culture

May 2, 2007 at 12:15 pm | Posted in collaboration, knowledge management, social software, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment

Set the way-back machine for 1999, long before “Web 2.0” became a buzzword. I think it’s useful to take what Kanter says as a sociologist studying corporate interaction and apply it to the social software trends we are seeing in 2007. I think she deeply understands the value of networks and innovation, but she asserts the need for actively organized networks. I would be interested to hear her opinions on self-organizing networks which are much more visible today (I hesitate to say “prevalent” since actual statistics are hard to find) then they were 8 years ago.

This is an excerpt, but I recommend reading the whole article: An Interview with Rosabeth Moss Kanter

S&B: A lot of what you’re describing seems to do with the inability of many companies to transfer knowledge. Even when the hierarchies within companies are knocked down, it sounds like islands are created in their place. And the islands aren’t linked; each has its own path forward. Whoever is developing the food product, for instance, is not talking to the people who are actually consuming it. Is it true that this is something you have to attack, and if so, how do you do that?

ROSABETH MOSS KANTER: It’s very tough to attack when you’re huge and the problem cuts across big distances, even though information technology now theoretically makes it possible to go those distances. The companies that I talk to – many of whom now have “officers for knowledge management” or “chief learning officers” – still say that the human tendency not to share information is getting in the way, even as there is more and more information to share and the need to share it is increasing. The problems here, though, are not really ones of technology. They’re problems of how people communicate and collaborate, and they are also a factor of the amount of work people have; today’s workload itself inhibits sharing something with somebody in another country in another unit in another function.

And so the companies that have been successful at using networks to share knowledge have developed some rules of thumb. For one, they’ve found that knowledge-sharing works best when there’s a regular face-to-face encounter, every quarter or so. In between, people can communicate electronically or by telephone, but the face-to-face component is crucial.

The networks that work better are also actively managed; they’re not just spontaneously self-organizing. Somebody must feel responsible for whether communication is occurring on these issues across the divide. They also work better when people get something out of it that directly benefits the work they do; no one has time for altruism.

Du Pont has made a kind of art of networking because it had somebody who wanted to be the champion of networks. At one point, the company estimated that it had about 400 knowledge networks out of central R&D alone. Some were groups of people who formed a kind of resource network on a particular technical topic, like abrasion or adhesion. Some involved best-practice sharing, where participants identified a project they could do together. Some were task-oriented networks that were given a particular assignment to improve or fix something and would draw more people into accomplishing that task. The plant-maintenance network, for example, had the task of taking out a lot of costs. Eventually, more than 600 people got involved in pieces of that network, and they ended up taking out several hundred million dollars a year.

But one other comment about that. Networks based on things like best-practice sharing tend to fall apart quickly because there’s no real continuing path. It’s basically just getting together to pass along the practice. So these things come and go too.

S&B: So how do you keep a network going?

ROSABETH MOSS KANTER: Well, first of all, not all need to be kept going. Some have their purpose and then die. But even for them you need to create roles in your organizations for people to serve as a kind of ambassador or diplomat whose job is to work with certain customers or for a certain product line and travel from place to place sprinkling seeds of knowledge. “Oh, yes, I was just in Chicago. And here’s what they’ve come up with that you can take to Hong Kong.” Here the technology infrastructure by itself isn’t enough; you need the human infrastructure.

On this point, I was really struck by a recent change at British Telecom. One of the people interested in knowledge management there declared that I.T., information technology, should now be called I.F., information flow. This person is much less interested in technology than in making sure that actual communication occurs between people.

This is one reason the face-to-face factor is so important. One of my globally connected models is an emerging company that’s been growing quickly by acquisition and that has worked hard on this factor. It has a weekly management call that involves people from every office for an hour. The phone call is scheduled at a reasonable time for Tokyo and London and New York, and in each place it’s held in a big conference room with a big screen. The call is backed up by data transmission, so everybody can immediately see the same numbers being presented. Everybody involved knows that they have to make time for this call because it is an occasion to get knowledge quickly from one place to another. This has become part of the way of life at this company. It pulls people together and it keeps them moving.


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