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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