Talent Practices: Making the Business Case for Social Networking

Early this year we launched a research project on social networking . . . in what ways can organizations leverage the power of collaboration across the talent processes.  As a part of the project we wanted to create a catalogue of talent practices in the social networking space.   The results were interesting from a variety of perspecives.  For many of us, the concept of social networking resonates very deeply and we intuitively know it has value for a vareity of reasons — after all, it’s not a new concept.  But sometimes, the business case for purusing the issue inside the organization, particularly in the context of talent processes using new technologies, is not clear.   While for others, there are too many opportunities, so creating organizational focus for the efforts is the challenge. 

As I think about the why of social networking, I found this quote from Clay Shirky helpful in making sense out of what we are observing with social networking applications like. . . facebook, wikipedia, as well as other social media.  He says, “groups of people are complex, in ways that make those groups hard to form and hard to sustain; much of the shape of traditional institutions is a response to those difficulties.”  Here he is talking about both structure and process.  Shirky’s point is that new social tools, enabled by technology, relieve some of the organizing burdens from traditional organizations . . . allowing a new types of group formations.  For me, what’s important about social networking is that it allows groups to accomplish tasks or create new business offerings in ways that we could not have anticipated or even attempted in traditional organizations.  And technology enabled social networking, accelerates the process and extends reach.  When we change the way we communicate, we change the very nature of the organization.  Using social networking as a organizing principle allows us to think very differently about our fundamental people processes (see The NGE: The Agile Organization)   

From an HR perspective then, the business question for social networking becomes . . .in what ways do we want to change the fundamental way people organize and relate to each other in the context of the organization.  What does it help us do  . . . that we could not have done before.  Again, I found Shirky’s model helpful in framing thinking my thinking.  When organizations take on tasks or sets of tasks, the problem of coordinating people’s work needs to be addressed.  That coordination can happen at various levels of intensity . . .almost a ‘ladder of coordination’ that is enabled or improved by technology tools. 

Sharing:  The lowest level of coordination is simple ‘sharing.’  It is, of course, the easiest of social networking behaviours, creating the least amount of demands on the individual.  Externally, Flickr, is one of the best examples of social networking for the simple purpose of sharing.  As one Flickr member said, ” on Flickr, there’s a real community.  I don’t  know any other site where you can start a whole conversation based on just one photo.” 

Making information and its owners transparent to the organization can lead to important new collaborative opportunities.  Internally, many of us use knowledge repositories like ‘sharepoint’ which serve a similar purpose.  In an more dynamic manner, the Design Group at P & G use a networking application as a way to visually connect people . . . and make their knowledge and experience transparent to the larger design community.  This enables them to leverage the community differently to drive innovation.  Making knowledge transparent through sharing, can be an important precursor to innovation. 

Cooperation: As you move up the coordination ladder, you find a number of familiar social networking applications . . . like e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and so on.  Cooperation is more complex than sharing because it requires changing behavior to synchronize with people who are changing their behavior to synchronize with you.  Cooperating creates a shared group idenity . . . meaning, you know who you are cooperating with and why.  The simplest form of cooperating is, of course, conversation. 

There are wonderful organizatonal examples in this space . . . like Hyatt who uses an internal facebook like application to create a sense of community for their Gen Y’s . . . or Best Buy’s “Blue Shirt Nation”, a grass roots driven social networking application that was designed to create a sales community.  And we are seeing more organizations taking on IM type applications, Textron and HP for example, displacing the snail e-mail with more immediate ways to communicate.

Collaboration: This is a more involved form of cooperation . . . where as a result of our work together we are creating new knowledge or products and services.  In this form, there is more than simple sharing . . . there is some back and forth sharing, building, negotiating, and editing of community intellectual property.  There is, of course, some natural tension between the individual and the group objectives.  At it’s best, no one individual takes credit for the work . . . it is shared community collaboration to create new knowledge.  Wikipedia is a wonderful example of an external open source collaborative community work.  Internally, Intellepedia is an example of collaborative work bewteen the US intelligence community.  A shared level of trust is essential for effective collaboration. 

Collective Action: This is the most difficult type of group effort as it requires individuals to commit themselves to undertaking a particular effort together, and to do so binds individuals to the collective decisions of the group.   Shirky suggests that we have not yet seen examples of collective action.  I would suggest that we are seeing seeds of that behavior already.  We are already seeing social networks form and function as brokers of talent for specific purposes . . . example, Your Encore.  The purpose of the external talent network is to drive project based innovation.  Or Mozilla’s Firefox, a commercially viable product generated and serviced by an open source community.  Or the Chinese Motocycle Community which is a loose network of organizations that are bound together to create a product — the motorcycle (see Wikinomics).

As you think about in what ways you might leverage the power of collaboration in your talent processes, let me leave you with these questions . . .

  • As your organization takes its own journey, where does social networking fit in?
  • Where is the business model experiencing the most pressure?  And in what ways could social networking facilitate the transformation?
  • How can your organization harness the power of the “community” and for what purpose . . . are there natural pockets of “peering” . . . how can the organization walk up the “coordination ladder” and what tools?
  • Where and how can HR and/or IT facilitate the process? 
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