The Elephant in the Social Software Room

January 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Posted in business case, Enterprise 2.0, social software, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

As we found in our social networking field study that Mike Gotta ran, organizations often fret about potential negative impacts of breaking down organizational and, to some extent, social barriers.  Some stakeholders wonder whether execs really want borderless discussions among their staffs, whether engineers really want sales people to be able to contact them directly, whether employees will spread poor practices without gatekeepers, etc. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an elephant in the middle of the social software room.  The unspoken question that is in the minds of execs is “Does our institutional structure and its information flows and bureaucracy serve a real purpose? ” Because if the answer is “yes” to any extent, that forces one to examine what the useful purposes are and how technology (and the culture embedded within it) may thwart those purposes. Social software acts as a blunt instrument for short circuiting institutional structure and bureaucracy since it cannot be selectively applied to its parts that are not beneficial while sparing those that are serve a purpose.

One way to think about this in a more concrete way is to determine what proportion of the lines connecting boxes on the org chart are meaningful.  Do they serve a useful purpose to the organization?  If you were starting from scratch, would you redraw the same line?  Certainly there are many lines that only exist because of outdated needs, useless political infighting, or patterns that emerged over time for reasons that don’t apply anymore.  I’m just as certain there are lines that make sense. The probability that any line on an org chart or to a gatekeeper on a process flow diagram is meaningful is certainly not a perfect 100%, but it’s not a Dilbertian 0% either.

Too bad, because if the answer were indeed that 100% of the lines were useful or 0% of them were useful, then the correct decision on whether to adopt social technology that can circumvent the organizational structure or chains of command for information/process flows would be easy.  The problem is that in practically all cases, it lies somewhere inbetween.  That is when a blunt instrument introduces risk since it doesn’t know the meaningful lines from the meaningless ones.

If there are ways in which the current hurdles to fully open social communication positively act as a reward system, influence trust, or affect information quality, how will the social software know and respect those boundaries?

Organizations have not had to question the value of their structure, information flows, and bureaucracy very often in the past because there were few ways to circumvent it.  But social software provides the most effective way to date for employees to get around the barriers and pathways that have been established formally and through practice. It’s time for those concerned about potential negative impacts of social software to step back and examine the real question: what is the real value of the organization and bureaucracy as it stands today?  Getting the answer to that question on the table is essential before jumping into technology.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

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