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By Pankaj Taneja

Business social networks may appeal to the tech-romantics amongst us (doesn’t take much to make us shout “paradigm shift!”) but they evoke divergent emotions in actual users.

Some say “Pfffft!”. “The productivity panacea” others say (read HBR’s six business attitudes leaders take towards social media). Now if you follow experts and the tech-media, you would think the latter are forward thinking visionaries, while the former are change-resistant and reality denying (and stuffy). But is that more than a subconscious bias in the tech expert world?

Business social networks, or some of the design principles (activity walls, profiles, social messaging), are definitely here to stay. At a very practical level, they are simply vastly more efficient than email for managing internal interactions — less clutter (no spammers, scammers, sales pitches, solicitations), more open (emails can be seen only by the participants), and more efficient (a single conversation thread as opposed to multiple emails for every discussion). For that simple reason, corporate social networks will find their way into most organizations at some level, as is already in evidence; 67% of companies adopted business social networks in 2012 according to the IDC.

No One Size Fits All for Collaboration

However, the claims are a lot grander than just that — enterprise social tools will invert the decision making processes, spur innovation, make for flatter and more democratic companies, finally solve the problem of knowledge management and make for more satisfied employees.

Does it necessarily hold true for organizations of all sizes and types? The “contingency theory” of management, based on 100 years of organizational experience tells us that there is no “one right way.” In my work I see that there are as many views of “collaboration” as there are companies — some companies are simply content with email, some approach collaboration as a project management problem, others want an online repository of documents, and still others want to display information in context using intranet pages. Some actively seek enterprise social networks and see the value, but others will hear none of it.

Those who are not convinced would give the following argument:

Workers perform the best when you create context in terms of clear ideas of what is expected of them, who they are answerable to, how they are expected to complete their tasks — clearly defined objectives, responsibilities, and processes. Undirected social conversations just end up in meaningless chatter.”

Sounds reasonable doesn’t it? The key underlying question is: if employees are brought together without any clear guidelines about what is expected of them, will they spontaneously and proactively do things that are beneficial for the organization?

The answer to that is, yes. Some organizations operate exactly like that. Much of what employees in these companies do is nearly impossible to capture in a structure. Imagine an advertising firm which needs to be relentlessly creative. What process can capture that moment of inspiration? But we should also not lose sight of the fact that not every organization operates like that.
A Question of Organizational DNA

We can see that the question of collaboration style is more than just a technology question. It is a question of organizational DNA — industry, market forces, size, management style, leadership, culture. The context is all important while deciding to implement a technology. And it underlines the importance of creating the right contextual setting if you are committed to implementing an enterprise social network (as leading enterprise 2.0 thinkers like Dion Hinchcliffe have realized).

One clue of where corporate social networks would work the best may be found in the theory of mechanistic vs. organic companies. Organic companies are characterized by decentralized decision making, low formalization, team specialization, as opposed to individual specialization and complex interrelationships. Mechanistic companies are characterized by centralized decision making, high formalization, individual specialization and simple hierarchical interrelationships. It may be again noted that repeated studies have found that there is no one “correct approach” to organizational design — it all depends.

Social networks will be strategic and deliver deep changes in companies with an organic structure. These companies want employees to come together in an informal setting, and enterprise social networks will break barriers like never before.

However, in mechanistic companies, enterprise social networks will be a mere tool, and the results will fall substantially short. These companies would be better served by “collaboration technologies” which reflect structure (workspaces, intranets, groups).

There is already evidence that supporting this thesis — some industries consider social software more important than others. Tapscott & Williams (2006) in a study found that “corporations known for having an innovative, collaborative culture are more likely to embrace social networking platforms, and many have done so already.” These are early findings in this area, but the subject definitely needs to be studied more.

In the long run, research seems to suggest that various forces are pushing organizations towards more democratic structures (Rajan and Wulf — The Flattening Firm: Evidence from Panel Data on the Changing Nature of Corporate Hierarchies) which may spur a greater movement towards enterprise social networks.

So which category do you think your organization falls in?

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