This post is a response to two other articles published elsewhere.
The first is titled, ‘Why We Use Social Media in Our Personal Lives â€” But Not for Work‘, by Tammy Erickson, and was published in Harvard Business Review on February 16, 2012. The crux of this article is imply this – when we use social platforms outside the organizations, we seem to assume that it gives us choice and control, but internal networks (behind-the-firewall) seems limiting and is often forced as an add-on, by the employer. Result – less interest in participating in internal networks and considerably more interest in participating in larger, social networks.
My friend Gautam Ghosh posted a response to it SocialBusinessNews.com, which incidentally has my colleague Michael Brito, as editor. The crux of Gautam’s post (titled, ‘The Challenges Of Social Networking Adoption In The Enterprise‘) touches upon a few facts that further explain why participation in internal networks is low – only about 35% of employees within an organization are highly engaged/active online and if you layer the ‘1-9-90’ rule to it (1% create content, 9% comment and critique it and 90% consume it), it becomes a ridiculous number to contend with – 1% of 35%!
While Gautam closes his piece with a note to work on organization’s culture, I have a slightly different take that may seem futuristic, if not outright Bohemian.
As so many commenters have pointed out in the original HBR piece, the evolution may not be to keep internal networks silo’d within the organization but in opening them up. Organizational peers are defined by the organization (what else?), but I may consider other people like me, in other organizations, as my peers. To be considered one among them, I may need to go out of my organization’s internal networks and participate in other, outside networks, like LinkedIn or even Brave New Talent, where Gautam works!
From that point of view, the fundamental question is about whether it is worth creating closed communities within the organization anymore. Two facts that can be used to argue against this notion –
1. Increasing mix of work and personal lives (thanks to always-on devices)
2. I’m working ‘for an’ organization, but I’m also actively present ‘in a’ much larger peer group, beyond my organization
So, the culture that this piece alludes to may be much less to do with encouraging people within an organization to actively participate in the inside-networks (akin to a pinboard at the cafeteria) and more to do with the confidence and trust organizations place on its people to be working for them, but living (professionally) amidst a much larger set of similar people outside the organization.
This was a case with the CXO level employees only, at one point. They were the ones who had the power to openly meet and actively discuss anything with any other kind of employee from any other organization. Now, I believe that wall has broken. I interact with many other people like me (peers, juniors, seniors etc.) across many organizations and that too, from direct rival organizations too. And yes, mostly online and less offline – so, all the more chances of my leaving a visible track of all my interactions and have no qualms about it either.
Internal networks may never give me this level of exposure.
A simple example to prove this point – consider sending your best employee to an outside conference vs. sending him/her to a conference within the organization. Most organizations, at the HR level, would be worried doing the former, unless they are sure that he’s not unhappy with the current workplace (else he moves out when he networks – an absurd notion, in this connected age, I know). The latter may be easier to say yes to, but will be far less useful to that top employee. This would also explain Gautam’s referring to the ‘highly engaged 35%’ – the equivalent here for that number may be the people who speak well in front of an audience (like a conference).
What I’m alluding to, with all this, is I, as an employee, see myself as a professional, in a particular space (say marketing) – this is the horizontal axis I place myself in. On the vertical axis is my employer. The vertical axis has a strong boundary (not strong enough, but you get the point), but the horizontal axis does not have a boundary. I merely swim there and take my employer’s branding along with me wherever I swim. So, the point would be create functional networks within the horizontal axis and open them up to anyone who is interested and not call it intranet anymore. Intranet could be for those strictly operational tasks and information only.
Here’s a rudimentary illustration of what I’m explaining in the above paragraph.
The interesting thing here is that many organizations are already doing this, but they seem to be predominantly doing it for customers (Dell Idea Storm or myriad online forums by Microsoft, for example). Or, in networks not owned by them – like LinkedIn Groups. The latter may be to maintain neutrality, I presume. It’s time organizations try the customer-model with employees too, but that may require an attitude shift that they don’t own employees anymore. Much like the customer-model, organizations perhaps need to work constantly on employee loyalty (like how customer loyalty is earned and maintained through a consistent process) and not on employee ownership, so that the notion of loyalty is enough to let employees swim freely among other, similar employees from other organizations in the horizontal axis, visibly, online, carrying the employer branding as a prominent tag.
The truth is, internal networks operate on the principle of tethering – tethering is limiting the movement of content or opinions employees create (not the employee itself, if you’re trying to use the tether example literally). It’s perhaps time organizations untethered internal networks.