Social Networking is the Means to Achieve Workplace Collaboration

Yesterday I live-blogged a bit from the terrific Government 2.0 event produced by at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I wrote a post about how collaboration was not the means, but rather an end made possible by the means of social networking tools. You can read my original writing and some initial comments here. Below, I expand a bit on these ideas.

My post was initially inspired by one speaker’s (WFED’s Chris Dorobek) notion, shared by some others (Justin Houk commented that, “Taxpayers don’t want to think about those in government sitting around on Twitter all day even thought that might be an effective way to collaborate.”), that social networking tools come across as too social or “fun” and that being social is not what people are truly doing (in the government) when they use them – they’re collaborating. Thus, when marketing Government 2.0 to wider audiences, he feels that a term like “collaboration tools” is more appropriate.

In my opinion, while this might sound better to a more traditionalist, untrained ear, I think it is factually wrong to say that things like Facebook or Intellipedia are collaboration tools. True, collaboration often happens with these tools. And perhaps one could argue that collaboration is mainly what people hope to accomplish with them in the workplace. Fair enough. But I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.

In other words, social networks are a means by which to accomplish something. This something might very well be collaboration. It might also be putting together an office softball team, or a study group of employees all learning Arabic. Is arranging players on a softball team “collaboration”? I don’t think so. Is it an important part of a coherent, productive workplace? Perhaps. There are many important things that happen in workplaces based around social networks that are not strictly collaboration on work projects.

One big thing I’ve been thinking about lately is “leveraging social networks to accomplish important stuff” and no one can deny that personal relationships can influence collaboration. How well you know someone, how much you identify with them, how much you trust them, their level of reliability or transparency – all of these are values derived from social networking that then, when leveraged, can influence collaboration. Collaboration is not an end in itself, of course – it is a means to accomplish some end (finishing a draft report, etc.). So, social networking is a means to collaboration, which is a means to achieving some work or personal goal.

I also reject the notion that there is something wrong with having some fun at work. The idea that having fun with social software shouldn’t be allowed in serious workplaces is ridiculous. And of course, anyone who’s ever passed around a joke-of-the-week email, celebrated a colleague’s birthday with a cake in the break room, or ended work at 4pm for an informal happy hour with the office (i.e., effectively every government and corporate employee) would surely agree with me on this. Work can be fun and be productive, too. The director of the Office of Personnel Management recently visited Google for a reason.

So, briefly, I think social networking tools are not necessarily collaboration tools. They are social software that allows social networks to be leveraged to accomplish things you find important. That might be collaboration on a National Intelligence Estimate (protecting America, earning your paycheck), or arranging a carpool with people in your agency (getting to work on time, being more green), or finding a racquetball partner (staying healthy, living well, bonding) – all of which postitively influence the workplace, in government and in the private sector as well.

As Fred Wellman commented on my original post, “I can’t help but wonder if Chris [Dorobek] is seeking a more politically correct or business sounding name of the same tools with the goal of breaking down barriers to implementation and usage as opposed to a lack of understanding of the power of social networking applications in the business of government.” I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But I also think that, as an academic, this is actually not what we are doing.

This may sound a bit esoteric, but from an academic standpoint I think pointing out that using social networks – online and off – is at the very core of what we are doing is an important thing to point out. When we are “collaborating,” we are leveraging social networks to accomplish important stuff.

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  • TH

    Is there any difference between social networks comprised of volunteers (engaged in common interests) and the groups brought together by having a common employer? In the extreme, if I just round up individuals at random and coerce them into various cliques or hierarchies, is that a social network? Just curious.

  • People always ask me, “So how do you like being in the social media business?” To which I respond, “I’m not in the social media business. I’m in the people business and I just happen to use social media.”

  • disagree, slightly. Collaboration is a means, not an end. Hey Mark – want to collaborate? Why you’d ask me, on what, and to what end?

    It can be a means to productivity, innovation, bootstrapping, knowledge management. but its a means.

    When I have an explicit team of people working toward an explicit goal, I can collaborate well or poorly. SM tools help me do it well. If I’m trying to socialize ideas around the company, get broadbased feedback, social media tools enable that in a way that was nearly impossible prior to that.

    But yes, important stuff is being accomplished – its not a toy.

  • Deb: I specifically wrote, “Collaboration is not an end in itself, of course – it is a means to accomplish some end (finishing a draft report, etc.).”

  • Some of the resistance to any software or technology with a “social” component is there BECAUSE Facebook has made “social” synonymous with “time wasting”. And throwing sheep.

    I think Facebook’s influence on people’s perceptions of what’s possible here is probably a net negative.

    I agree Facebook CAN be used as a means to achieve workplace collaboration and other work functions. But it just isn’t designed for that. And most people don’t know it for that.

    We need to redefine the word “social” in skeptics’ minds – in order for them to realise the benefits of social media in general.

  • Interesting comments, Carl. So basically your opinion is that people are too dumb to get past the fact that because sometimes people use social networking for “fun” that it can therefore never be used for work? And that simply changing the word will solve that?

  • People sometimes have a resistance to change or useful technology for many reasons.

    You gave one when you quoted Justin Houk, perception from outside: “Taxpayers don’t want to think about those in government sitting around on Twitter all day even thought that might be an effective way to collaborate.”

    “Social media” and “social networking” have become the de facto terms for these things. I’m not proposing to change any words. Keep the accepted words, just expand people’s expectations of what’s possible!

    I singled out Facebook because for many people it is still their only experience of social media. For certain managers their only experience of “social media” is seeing what their children do or their own limited personal experience. So anyone who advises managers should probably be aware of that.

    I’m in the UK so the situation might be slightly different to that of the USA. But I have visited the offices of public sector organizations who do not permit use of Facebook and Twitter on their intranets. Both sites are blocked and give a page saying “this site is blocked – category: social networking”. That is resistance to social networking. It is related to limited perception and experience of these technologies.

    Arguably it could be a result of poor time management on the part of certain individual members of staff, leading to a blanket ban. There have always been ways to avoid being productive at work. Any good tool can be misused. But the solution is good use not disuse. The question is whether blocking these sites solves the problems of disengagement and productivity which certain individual members of staff may have. It doesn’t. (I’ve strayed on to a different issue here but hopefully it’s relevant to your discussion!)

    Most people are not dumb. But often they resist things based on their limited experience.

  • Mark, I definitely agree that social networking and “collaboration” aren’t necessarily the same thing. One of the things we did when we added more social networking tools into PBworks collaboration software was to identify how people would use this kind of functionality to get their work done.

    On the other hand, I do think that things like Facebook are used for a good deal of collaboration–it just happens that most of those “projects” take place outside the world of work.

  • Quite simply, social networking tools are a means for getting enterprise folks to connect with one another more easily. We live in a highly mobile world where people’s ability to communicate changes from minute to minute. Letting one another know if you are available (using Presence) and where you are/what you are doing (using status) helps close that communication gap and is the first step toward further collaboration:

  • Mark Drapeau

    What do people think about the term “connection technologies”? That’s what the State Department is starting to use a bit, I hear.

  • Mark Drapeau

    Andrew McAfee has carried this over to his blog: Shh…”social” is the S WORD!

  • Planetwebfoot

    Great article and insights here. I really like what you say in the article about social networking and the use of it at work. My company makes use of corporate social networking software and we have found it to be highly beneficial. Everyone can easily communicate with eachother, from new hires to retirees. We have a bulletin board where we post important work related notes to fun social events, plus I have found it to be a great place to communicate with employees who have been around for many years and really learn from them whereas if we didn’t have the technology I would never come in contact with them.