Networks and not-works

The statistics associated with social networking are colossal: there are 280 million 15-year old kids signed up to FaceBook, and 700 trillion videos on YouTube. And those figures are rubbish, but you probably believed them for about a second. The numbers are huge. But actually size is not only not everything, it’s not even in the same ball game. Because I suggest that what people use social networks to do is to set boundaries to their world. Take the research from the HP Social Computing Lab, which found that actually we return to only a small number of websites and genuinely follow or engage with only a small number of “friends”. Researcher Bernardo Huberman called this a return to the “dawn of the age of intimacy”.A bridge from Tyneside

Actually, of course, this is pretty obvious. Web 1.0 – once it moved outside the community of CERN-heads – became huge, amorphous, unfriendly. Information was an unstoppable torrent – remember when “Results 1 – 10 of about  191,000” was supposed to be a good thing? Even the chat rooms and other interactive features the web offered became too big, too unpredictable, too full of the disruptive and the exploitative. We built something that resembled the financial district of a very large city – on a Sunday. Windswept, slightly (or even very) unsafe, lacking in human scale and human amenities. So people started moving to safer ground and building communities – some of them gated, many of them quite welcoming to strangers, but all of them offering us ways of engaging only with those we choose, by some mechanism or criteria, to engage with.

Now, what about the enterprise? It doesn’t look as though things are much different there. A recent piece of research indicates that the silo is alive and well. Researchers Adam M. Kleinbaum, Toby E. Stuart, Michael L. Tushman sampled more than 100 million emails and 60 million calendar entries from around 30,000 employees of a large company (no, I didn’t make those figures up), and found that most interaction in the enterprise takes place within the immediate business unit. So having got a mega-mammoth email system which enables us instantly to consult and collaborate with colleagues across the entire world, we mostly use it to email the guy in the next desk but one to ask if he’s seen the key to the stationery cupboard. (By the way, Kleinbaum et. al’s research is fascinating – although a lot of it just confirms what you always thought – and I’ll probably return to it in the future).

Note the shift in values here. We think that people building and protecting communities in the wide world is A Good Thing. But in the workplace, we kind of want people to broaden their outlook. We think communication and collaboration between different parts of organisations is good. We think we’ll improve our business if everyone is talking to everyone else – or at least, is willing to do so. In other words, we expect people at work to behave in ways that we know perfectly well they don’t behave in the rest of their life. Well, there’s a surprise.

So, on the assumption that we can work better with the grain rather than against it, can we adapt the strengths of social networking in the not-work arena and pervert them for the purposes of work?

A modified version of this blog appeared elsewhere , but I’ve moved it here to encourage me to follow it up!

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