How Online Social Networks Benefit Organizations

By Lisa Kimball and Howard Rheingold


Editors Comment: This is a remarkable essay, about 12 printed pages, written in 2000, by Howard Rheingold and Lisa Kimball. 2000, after listserv's and Yahoo Groups, after Geo-Cities, but before LinkedIn, Ecademy, and Ryze. Even so on page after page the authors understand the potential of communication for businesses.

Article Summary Page Only

Online social networks are webs of relationships that grow from computer-mediated discussions. The webs grow from conversations among people who share a common affinity (e.g., they work for the same company, department, or in the same discipline) and who differ in other ways (e.g., they are in different locations, keep different hours, specialize in different disciplines, work for different companies). When the people are distributed across time and space, then these conversations need to take place online, over an intranet or private internet forum.

Within a company, a well-tuned online social network can enhance the company's collective knowledge and sharpen its ability to act on what people know in time to be effective. We have long recognized that this kind of network is critical to an organization.

Social networks grow from the personal interactions of human beings over time, as well as from from the technological infrastructure that connects those humans. This means that growing a successful online social network requires social know-how as well as technical expertise. Interactions include those that take place face-to-face, via telephone, online, and even via things we send each other in the postal mail.

Thoughtfully planned and knowledgeably implemented online social networks can enable an organization to:

    1. Create an early warning system.
    2. Make sure knowledge gets to people who can act on it in time.
    3. Connect people and build relationships across boundaries of geography or discipline.
    4. Provide an ongoing context for knowledge exchange that can be far more effective than memoranda.
    5. Attune everyone in the organization to each other's needs and more people will know who knows who knows what, and will know it faster.
    6. Multiply intellectual capital by the power of social capital, reducing social friction and encouraging social cohesion.
    7. Create an ongoing, shared social space for people who are geographically dispersed.
    8. Amplify innovation and when groups get turned on by what they can do online, they go beyond problem-solving and start inventing together.
    9. Create a community memory for group deliberation and brainstorming that stimulates the capture of ideas and facilitates finding information when it is needed.
    10. Improve the way individuals think collectively and moving from knowledge-sharing to collective knowing.
    11. Turn training into a continuous process, not divorced from normal business processes.
    12. Attract and retain the best employees by providing access to social capital that is only available within the organization.

Online Social Networks As Early Warning Systems

The explosive multiplication of an individual's ability to find answers to questions is one of the most powerful benefits of an online social network. Search engines find facts. People provide solutions to problems. Networks of people can solve problems for each other. Online networks accelerate and globalize the process.

An online social network and knowledge community can strengthen an organization's ability to understand the ways in which different parts of the system interact, so that somebody doesn't, for example, make an engineering decision without being aware of the financial impact or marketing doesn't know that it will take longer for a product to move through the pipeline than originally planned. Online social networks alert people to the things that collide when someone's got a good idea but doesn't know what's going on elsewhere, or how their idea affects other's plans or resources.

The danger for distributed organizations is that a weak communications strategy results in missed signals where something new happening in one place could be a bell weather for something that will sooner or later have an effect on other parts of the system. An organization that doesn't share this kind of intelligence is less than the sum of its parts.

You don't confine exchange of useful knowledge to a meeting or a chance encounter in the hallway. You create a place where, when you see something in the world that's useful because it relates to a conversation you know is taking place in your online social network, you don't have to wait until the meeting on Tuesday, or you didn't miss it because the meeting was last Friday, there's a well-known place to put that information. You multiply the amount of useful knowledge that's exchanged by not confining it to a synchronous meeting.

More importantly, the opportunity to meet others working on similar issues creates relationships that can shortcut the important process of figuring out where to go in the organization when you need help on a particular problem. According to one participant, " We need to share knowledge between divisions within our group, and across [company] divisions on how our processes and products relate. As the Reengineering Leader, I am someone who needs to figure out how we can effectively deploy Knowledge Management methodologies, processes, and supporting tools to our group in this context -- this seems to fit right in to tying us all together."

People who should be talking to each other because their interests intersect often don't communicate because they are in different parts of the world, different floors, or different departments. Online discourse structures discussion according to interests and affinities. Engineers around the world can share lore, or people from engineering, marketing, and design can try to get their arms around a project they are all approaching from different directions.

Asynchronous conversations cross communication boundaries of other kinds. The quiet people who might never have something to contribute in a face to face meeting, given time to compose their thoughts, with nobody watching them while they do it, can influence discussions they might not have joined before.

Provide an Ongoing Context for Knowledge Exchange

Effectiveness of knowledge is multiplied if it's in the form of a conversation where people can educate each other.

If you think that everybody's got a leg of the elephant, you're never going to collectively construct the elephant by sending each other memos about the part you have. You need to have an interactive discussion that helps you adjust how you describe your point of view to another person, based on what you learn about their point of view by communicating with them formally and informally over time. Just putting it in a memo misses the opportunity for the kind of misunderstandings and readjustments that take place in conversations.

Attune everyone in the organization to each other's needs

People who engage in this kind of knowledge exchange are also more finely attuned to what other people in the organization need to know. You don't share ideas with an organization; you share them with other people. Most people find that it's easier to be open and share ideas with people after informal conversations; exchanges about beer-brewing, or their dogs, or collecting Mexican folk art over in the café.

But it's not just the informal quality of these conversations that create the connection between people, it's that the experience is interactive. The more we go back-and-forth in a conversation, the more we know about each other and can tune our questions and comments to be more aligned with each others interests and needs.

Multiply intellectual capital by the power of social capital

Everyone talks about how knowledge is the important asset. But it has to be applied to be useful. It gets applied via the processes associated with social capital.

In order to realize the benefits of working as an aligned, interdependent, system everyone needs to have conversations that are diverse, complex, and deal with everything from key routines to major strategies. Collaboration can be thought of as a network of different conversations.

Organizations must create time and space for groups to have multiple, rich conversations between meetings - which means that you need to find ways to use a range of communications technologies to support these conversations.

Amplify innovation

Groups of people can use online social networks to think together in new ways. When the affinity or common goal shared by the group is strong enough, mastery of group communication media leads people to invent things together in new ways.

Create a Community Memory

Organizations run on conversations, but conversations are rarely structured and almost never recorded. Those strategically important conversations that are recorded in the form of minutes are not indexed to ongoing operations, so they could be used as a store of knowledge. Asynchronous, web-based conversations in the form of multimedia webconferences can structure and organize conversations and the support materials, including graphics, tables, links so that conversations automatically become valuable searchable knowledge basis. As experts on packet switching or organizational development share lore in an online discussion, the record of the discussion is indexed by category, keyword, and other means.

But a key thing to remember about these repositories is that they get VALUE by being used as referants for new conversations, not by just being an archive of information. So what we need is a living system that taps into the knowledge base but that is continuously talking about new information.

Turn training into a continuous process

The old model of training was that people went away from their job site to a program that was held in a special place at a special time. Often, the people most knowledgeable about the subject in the organization had "core dumped" their knowledge to the training staff so that it could be packaged for later consumption. The new model of training is more "just-in-time" where training is made available when the trainee actually needs to apply the new information or skill. Instead of being an "event," learning is something that can happen all the time. Instead of the experts providing a sub-set of their knowledge to others, training can involve THE right expert directly. Communication is an environment you live in, not something that happens to you through formal classes.

Attract and retain the best people with social capital

We are at the beginning of an era where good employees are an increasingly scarce resource. The ability to attract and retain good people is much more important than it's ever been before. A strong community is an attraction to outsiders; strong face to face communities that have an appropriate online component constitute social capital that is only accessible to those inside the company.

Strong social networks can be a factor in retaining people at a time when competition for good employees is fierce. Allegiance to a key network within an organization could be a barrier to jumping across the parking lot to the company across the street.

Online Social Networks Are A Key Strategic Resource

Strategy requires communication about more than project milestones and logistics. To support strategy, the communication across the network must be rich, conversational, continuous, and involve everyone in the organization.

The danger for distributed organizations is that their communication about strategy becomes disjointed because members lack the environment to support substantive, ongoing (between face-to-face meetings) discussions. Many people believe erroneously that f-t-f meetings are the only time you can have this type of exchange. New skills are required to engage with each other effectively at different times from different places.

This is where the organization can get the biggest payoff for investing in communications resources (time, energy, supporting technology). An organization that does this well can create strategies, processes, and new approaches it needs to thrive.

Conversations are the lifeblood of modern organizations. Until recently, the knowledge and understandings conveyed in meetings and memos and water cooler bull sessions just leaked into the air. The great advantage of new media is not how much information they can put at disposal of individuals and organizations; but the kind of conversations they make possible. The technology for sharing knowledge and cementing powerful social networks is no longer rarely accessible or expensive. The knowledge of how to use the technology, not the software or the physical means of transporting it, will be the strategic advantage of those who possess it and diffuse it.

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