The argument is simple--corporate communications systems like email are outdated and should be replaced with software that functions more like the social networks people now use in their everyday lives. Enterprise social networks help us to collaborate, socialise, and share expertise more effectively than before, and in doing so help companies to unlock the inherent knowledge embedded in their culture.
However, before jumping on the bandwagon and potentially disrupting your company's culture in the process, you would be wise to analyse what social networks are fundamentally about, and the likely consequences of installing them.
In order to do this, it's useful to draw back the curtain and consider social networking from the bottom up, starting right at the beginning with the most fundamental of social questions: What makes people tick?
1. We're Collaborative By Nature
All of us are driven in life by a set of universal impulses that have emerged over the course of human evolution. Around the core Darwinian instincts of survival and procreation we developed layers of increasingly abstract behaviours. We started to form into social groups, we began to work collaboratively towards shared goals, and we pursued ever more sophisticated technology as our brains ballooned and our success as a species soared.
Many experts agree that our killer evolutionary advantage was our ability to collaborate towards shared goals, as Michael Tomasello points out in his book "Why We Cooperate": "All of humans' most impressive cognitive achievements--from complex technologies to linguistic and mathematical symbols to intricate social institutions--are the products not of individuals acting alone, but of individuals interacting."
We are social animals, and we love working together to accomplish things. We also love to belong to cultures, social groups, and institutions. We evolved in social groups for mutual advantage, and are all driven to reach out and connect to other people.
2. We Are Subconscious Conformists
Our culture is to our society what our personality is to our mind; it defines the methodology we follow in order to pursue the behaviours and instincts we all share as human beings.
Modern neuroscience is beginning to illustrate that a great deal of our behaviour is managed or at least instigated by our subconscious rather than our conscious mind. We are automatic conformists who adapt our behaviours, gestures, and use of language to correspond to the social norms of the groups we are a part of and the cultures we're thrust into.
[ Enterprise social networking is attracting a lot of attention -- from vendors. Read Microsoft: We're Investing In Enterprise Social. ]
The same is true of a company's culture; people will work within the methodology it promotes (even if they complain about it) and their perceptions will begin to align as everyone is pulled toward a cultural centre of gravity.
3. We're Hard Wired To Network
Evolving an effective methodology is not the only purpose of a culture. As I briefly discussed in my previous article, culture is also a knowledge repository; the information shared by our culture is far greater than that which any one individual can possess. We navigate through life by constantly logging in to the cultural networks around us and taking advantage of each other's achievements and expertise. Networking is hard wired into our psychology; we've been doing it throughout the course of human evolution.
4. We Operate Through Culture And Technology
If culture provides the methodology and expertise for pursuing our evolved instincts, then technology gives us the tools. Technology does not succeed by altering our behaviour; it succeeds by allowing us to pursue our behaviours more efficiently and more effectively than before.
Every so often a new piece of technology comes along which dramatically enhances our behaviour pursuing capability. The printing press, the telephone, and the automobile all changed the world because they allowed us to do more of the things we love to do more effectively than ever before.
Culture sits like an interface between technology and human behaviour; it defines methodologies and expertise for using the former to pursue the latter. When a revolutionary technology does arrive culture adapts quickly and radically to accommodate.
What This All Means For Enterprise Social Networks
The staggering success of Facebook and Twitter and their impact on the world represents the smoking gun of cultural metamorphosis in progress, and there's no reason to suspect the world of business will be immune.
Enterprise social networking is a methodology for increasing the bandwidth of your company's culture by significantly reducing time, space, and socio-psychological resistance. It also allows expertise to be embedded, shared, and transmitted across your company culture more effectively than before, so individuals can access expertise more readily and more serendipitously.
However the transition may be turbulent if it requires a significant realigning of your company's cultural centre of gravity. People will need to adjust to new social norms and conventions, and the rationality of the change in methodology may be overshadowed by the bias of the cultural group towards established routines in the short term.
Evolution in culture is natural and healthy, but revolution can be painful and bloody. It might be inevitable that enterprise social networks will change the way we do business, and you'd be wise to at least prepare for the transition. However, before you dive in, make sure you understand the potential consequences for your company's culture, because it's the most valuable asset your business has got.
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