Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Social Internetworking

How the Internet Can Help Organizations Benefit From Social Networking

When Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty followed the trend of employers banning Facebook at work and banned it for Ontario civil servants, he asserted “I just don't really see how it adds value to the work you do in the workplace” (Flavelle, 2007). This was a provocative challenge to social networking sites (SNS) to justify their usefulness within the workplace. While niche SNS such as LinkedIn, Xing, and Plaxo do cater only to professional networking, overall there has not been much research on the value SNS and related technologies offer workplaces. It is my position that rather than being only a distraction to employees, Internet-enabled social networking offers considerable value to professionals and organizations.

I will first discuss the value of social networking within organizations, particularly the importance of SNS and related online technologies to establishing and maintaining useful connections with a diverse array of individuals with whom one is distantly connected (“weak ties”) and will then analyze how SNS permits employees to find, maintain, and connect to valuable weak ties on a greater scale than was previously possible.

Value of Online Social Networking
The field of social network analysis has demonstrated the value of discovering existing network structures within organizations so as to optimize networks to improve communications, resource flow, and foster innovation (Liebowitz, 2007). With the advent of affordable SNS and related online technologies, organizations are now more readily able to utilize the power of social networks, as prior spatial, temporal, and racial or social position constraints are lessened (Wellman, 1997).

In addition, these technologies enable “connections between people where none existed, and… builds new weak tie networks” (Haythornthwaite, 2005, p. 139). Weak ties, a term coined by Granovetter to denote those with whom we are not closely tied, such as friends of friends, casual acquaintances, and former co-workers or classmates, offer advantages over strong ties in that weak ties expose one to a greater breadth and more novel experience, opinion, and thoughts (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, & Ganesh, 2004). Research has found that when employees posed questions electronically to all staff, obtaining the correct answer was not related to contacting a greater number of people but rather contacting a greater diversity of people (Constant, Sproull & Keisler, 1996). In addition, Cross and Parker claim research shows that “more diversified networks are associated with early promotion, career mobility, and managerial effectiveness” (2004, p. 11). Thus there are numerous possible advantages to organizations actively encouraging the use of online social networking in the workplace.

Find Useful Contacts
In a large or geographically-dispersed organization, employees may not know their fellow co-workers. Even smaller companies may have departmental silos or gatekeepers preventing access to needed information or resources. The ability to seek information or collaborate with coworkers is hampered when employees are not even aware of or are unable to connect with applicable coworkers (Cross & Parker, 2004). Companies such as Accenture have built electronic systems to allow employees to find relevant expertise. Liebowitz found such expertise locators, or “online yellow pages of expertise,” enables people to connect via shared interests, find necessary resources, and get answers to questions (2007, p. 17). Design firm Organism achieved similar results by tying the company directory to its corporate wiki, in which every employee maintains their own profile page listing their skills, experience, and projects (Li & Bernoff, 2008). Organism also built its own social networking features so that employees can list their friends (in social networking parlance any added contact is deemed a “friend”) for referrals and recommendations for project assignments. Many SNS by default display one’s contacts to one’s friends (although this can usually be restricted if desired), so that organizations can achieve similar results without building their own platform.

In addition, some SNS offer automatic linking based on interests or experience; alternatively, one can search the site using company names, locations, or keywords to find applicable friends (often called first degree contacts) friends of friends (second degree contacts) and friends of friends of friends (third degree contacts). Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe found in a study of Facebook users that the features of SNS did make it easier for people to convert a latent tie into a weak tie (2007).

Maintain Weak Ties
Although strong ties tend to be supported by offline efforts (Wellman, 1997), Internet technologies can support weak ties effectively. As strong ties by their nature need more effort to maintain, maintaining weak ties can consist simply of keeping in touch with one another and possessing updated contact information. This can be easily achieved via SNS as one can quickly and easily add contacts (some with or without confirmation) and then receive access to their profiles and ongoing updates. Ellison et al. found that these SNS features and the low social cost of connecting online did allow users to “crystallize relationships that might otherwise remain ephemeral” (2007, p. 1143).

In addition to enabling people to easily make a record and keep track of a large number of contacts, Ellison et al. also found that socially-inhibited people were more able to network online as it “lower[s] the barriers to participation so that students who might otherwise shy away from initiating communication with or responding to others are encouraged to do” (2007, p. 1162). Offline one is limited by time and spatial barriers such that maintaining many ties is problematic and thus one will loose contact with some weak ties. Various researchers have hypothesized that Internet-based technology allows one to maintain significantly more ties than could be achieved exclusively through offline efforts (Donath & Boyd, 2004; Ellison et al., 2007).

Connecting and Sharing Information Online
While finding and maintaining weak ties is important, when the need arises to call upon the assistance of a weak tie, how can one be assured that the person will respond? Interestingly, one factor that limits sharing of information is greatly lessened online, as for those who have not previously meet in real life, the lack of visual cues online has been found to lessen discrimination based on race, gender, social status, and social similarity (Constant et al., 1996; Sproull, Conley, & Moon, 2005; Wellman, 1997). This has been found to be a liberating experience for some who are now able to connect at a different level than they were previously able to offline.

Researchers have found that “an electronic tie combined with an organizational tie is sufficient to allow the flow of information between people who may never have met face-to-face” (Garton, Haythornthwaite, & Wellman, 1997, Ties, ¶3). Online prosocial behaviour has been observed in various studies (Constant et al., 1996, and Sproull et al., 2005) in which people were found to offer aid to help achieve organizational goals, for altruistic reasons, as well as for self-esteem and recognition. Such was the case for Best Buy when they implemented open-source software to connect all employees. In fact, for Best Buy only achieving a small portion, ten percent, of employees using the software proved to be sufficient to enable employees to help each other (Li & Bernoff, 2008).

For targeted information requests, particularly to high level executives or difficult-to-reach people, more aid may be needed. This is where referrals and recommendations offered by some SNS provide a means for one to know that the information request comes from “someone [who] is connected to people one already knows and trusts [as this] is one of the most basic ways of establishing trust with a new relationship” (Donath & Boyd, 2004, p.72). LinkedIn is an exemplar in this regard as not only does it enable contacts to write online testimonials about ties, but they also facilitate brokered second degree and third degree contact introductions. Online social networking has been shown to offer effective communication whether a request comes directly from a weak tie, indirectly from a second or third degree contact, or from a stranger.

While online social networks do offer organizations the potential for employees to be better able to find, maintain, connect, and share information with valuable contacts, there are some important caveats. In both the Best Buy and Organism cases, their success was related to having an easy to use interface and achieving a critical mass of users (Li & Bernoff, 2008).

Another caveat is that with some SNS, such as Facebook, their original focus was on personal social networking. With the increasing adoption of Facebook in workplaces, it has introduced new challenges, such as one’s boss and workplace colleagues receiving access to previously off-limits, and possibly inappropriate, personal details and photographs (Dunfield, 2008). One possible solution, other than opting for more professional-oriented SNS like LinkedIn, would be to segments one’s SNS into groups and restrict various types of information based on these groups, as Facebook allows.

A further consideration for organizations is whether to make their online service public, to be better able to tap into important external contacts, such as possible suppliers or partners, or keep it private, so as to prevent employees being poached by recruiters. Finally, the crucial factor determining the success of online social networking in workplaces as found by researchers (Haythornthwaite, 2005; Constant et al., 1996; Li & Bernoff, 2008) is in creating the organizational culture that will support and foster participation.

Cheney, G., Christensen, L. T., Zorn, T. E., & Ganesh, S. (2004). Organizational communication in an age of globalization: Issues, reflections, practices (pp. 156-163). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Constant, D., Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1996). Kindness of strangers: The usefulness of electronic weak ties for technical advice [Electronic version]. Organization Science, 7(2), 119-135.
Cross, R. L., & Parker, A. (2004). Hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Press.
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Dunfield, A. (2008, July 9). Buddying up to the boss on Facebook [Electronic version]. Globe and Mail. Retrieved September 06, 2008, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080709.wcafacebook09/BNStory/Technology/home/?pageRequested=all
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Sproull, L., Conley, C., & Moon, J. (2005). Prosocial behaviour on the net. In Y. Amichai-Hamburger, The Social Net: Understanding Human Behavior in Cyberspace. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Wellman, B. (1997). An electronic group is virtually a social network. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet (pp. 179-205). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Considering that there are now so many social networks catering to such a wide range of niches, my biggest problem is finding ones relevant to me and related to my specific interests or product niches. Google seems to be inefficient and returns alot of irrelevant results. A good resource that I use to find them is this search engine for social networks called FindASocialNetwork.com

Glen Farrelly said...

Thanks for the comment. I hadn't heard of the social network search engine. There are so many SNS and new ones popping up every day that it has gotten impossible to keep up. Ning seems to have a social network for everything.

And then there are sites that rely on having your friends there too, to be of any value.

The problem with all of these is they do not have a critical mass. There is no point in using a SNS if only a handful of your contacts are using it. You can try to meet new people, but research has shown that mostly people connect with people they already know on these sites, so I don't think that people are amenable to stranger networking there.

My advice is to find a way to make Facebook and/or LinkeIn (or conceivably MySpace, Xing, Yahoo 360, or Plaxo) work for you. Start a group, petition an existing network to join or move, develop a fan page, etc. Critical mass is probably more important than any other factor or feature.