Social media in the enterprise: formal v informal sociality

Social media will continue to penetrate the enterprise in 2010. And if past discussions are any indication, we should be able to look forward to a healthy discussion around similarities and differences between consumer-facing social media, and social media as deployed behind the firewall.

We can agree, I think, that in each case, it’s as much the users that makes social media work as it is the tools themselves. No social media application functions without its users. In fact, all social media require the tacit and implicit cooperation of their users — and are evolved and iterated on the basis of use.

Whether you believe that the tool/technology comes first, and initiates changes within a social field; or that social needs and interests develop for which tools are then created to address those needs, you will need interaction models that account for both tool features and uses as well as corresponding user and social practices. Implementing social media, whether for use in the consumer space or in the enterprise, works only to the extent that implementation leverages these social processes.

In other words, a good interaction model is as important, if not more, as your functionality spec. Developing that model is a matter of articulating not just what you want from social media use, but how it actually unfolds in practice. And the dynamics of the workplace social are entirely different from the dynamics of the open social: what creates order in the open social field can lead to disorder in the workplace.

But the consumer social “space” is organized and works differently than the enterprise space. Where in consumer-facing social media the challenge is to create and sustain self-reinforcing social practices (user adoption > commercial hit), the enterprise social space actually presents possible strategies of resistance.

Open and consumer social spaces take work to get organized, constant activity to sustain interest and involvement, and social differentiation so that users can easily individualize themselves and become invested therein.

By contrast, “closed” corporate social spaces, even if they are semi-transparent to the outside, are already functionally organized and differentiated. The social dynamics of water cooler conversation usually serve to infiltrate functional organization with normal and natural social interests.

Social relationships pre-exist social tools in the enterprise, and the kinds of workplace social relations that most companies seem interested in leveraging are those which have formed personally, not by role, position, or function. Social media tools are usually pitched as a means of extracting value from the informal, not the formal, social workplace relationships.

But because these relationships pre-exist the introduction of social media tools, they are as likely to subvert and resist employer social tools as they are to welcome them.

Where the task, simplified, in consumer social media applications is to seed self-perpetuating social dynamics, the task in the enterprise may be to span gaps in the organizational chart and to erode calcification in the ranks.

So there is an important distinction to be made then between formally structured and organized social relations, and informally structured relations.

  • In open social media spaces, sociality emerges around informal relations that may become increasingly formalized, as social differentiation and complexity develop over time. (Twitter lists are a direct example of this: it took three years for the soft and informal emergence of groups referenced by tweeting practices like #FF to become architecturally formalized as a list feature.)
  • In closed social spaces, the formal sociality organized by workplace relations and job functions stands to benefit from the know how (information, knowledge) and communicative practices of informal social practices.

It can seem that social media in the open port directly to social media behind the walls. That the social is what these two use cases have in common. But there is no such thing as a generic “social.” All forms of social organization exist only because relationships “exist” and are maintained by communication and interaction.

This is a pretty straightforward point — but one worth making. For tools in themselves are not capable either of organizing new relations nor of re-organizing existing relations.

[Just for fun, we can compare and contrast the social organization parodied in the workplace comedies The Office and 30 Rock. In The Office, a farcical and incompetent leader struggles to contain and shepherd his baffled employees, who bandage their disbelief by organizing in spite of, through, around, and without their comedic leader — hence the use of one-on-one on-camera confessional interviews with employees, used to disclose plots, wranglings, conflicts etc.

In 30 Rock, a comedy unfolds amidst an organization’s effort to stage a successful comedy, the joke being that reality itself is more funny than the show made for television. Actual employee shenanigans trump the scripted humor, and work is itself more funny than the comedy the work is supposed to produce. Informal comedy, in other words, is better than the comedy attempted by means of formal comedy writing.

Employees are always smarter than the organization — and today, more brazen.)

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