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Social Networks as Old as Humans: Only the Tools Have Changed

A recent article in the Economist magazine started with this great insight:

“Hundreds of millions of people have joined social networks…Rather fewer may have realized that they work for one. Companies, in essence, are collections of people with ideas and expertise of different types.”

Social interaction and collaboration are as old as the first band of humans who came together to help each other survive. All the new social tools that have “revolutionized communication” are just new methods for us to stay connected. Evidence that the tools are not changing our core human behaviors is easy to find: Most of us create “bands or clans” within the networks, and communicate with the same people with whom we would have without the tools. This is why social networks within companies are only now starting to take off: Only as work goes virtual and the communal office space less prevalent, do social media tools take the place of the in-person interactions that have fueled collaboration and innovations in all past decades.

The new connectivity tools smooth and ease our ability to stay in touch and share ideas when not physically working together. The Economist article notes the challenge that this poses:

“The trick of business success lies in harnessing (the workplace’s diverse) human qualities.”

The theme of the article is how software companies are trying to make “virtual interaction” as productive as real in-person interaction. Indeed, one of our own clients, Salesforce.com, has committed to this trend with its Chatter service.

Based on our own client work, however, our takeaway from the article is different:

The specific software or procedures chosen will only work if you embed the mindset in every employee that they will make the effort to use the tools provided effectively. That takes training and development. If Human Resources and its development capabilities are not intimately involved in the creation of the collaboration tools and processes that a company chooses to install, the whole enterprise may suffer.

By this we do not mean HR has to drive the bus, but HR must own the creation and maintenance of the employee’s ability to use, and desire to use, the new system. Plus, the company should have standards of behavior for an internal network that are similar to those they may have developed for using Facebook and LinkedIn (and the like) at work.

“Even in a closed corporate network, people have to be careful about what they say about whom…Security and confidentiality matter all the more when network spread beyond the borders of a firm…to include suppliers and customers,” notes the Economist writer.

People are creatures of habit. New tools do not change those habits unless you make the case (and demonstrate) that the new interactive tools have big benefits for the people being asked to use them!

Involve HR in the project, and many of these risks and opportunities will be managed more productively.

Talk to us about how to create a curriculum to make 21st century communication methods more productive by instilling the desire to use the tools into employees along with the ability to use them.

Please let us know your thoughts on the potential for intra-organizational social networks in the comments section!


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