Social Software, Community, and Organization: Where Practice Meets Process

Ross Mayfield of SocialText recently pointed to a longstanding issue involving the relationship of organizational practices and organizational processes. He offered a discussion of distributed collaboration and community, specifically on the question of which organizational stakeholder is the most effective leader of community (internal and external) initiatives. Ross suggests that even though we may see the emergence of a Chief Community Officer to align and coordinate internal and external communities, communities are more likely to arise around organizational processes as 360 degree process communities.

In my view, approaching distributed collaboration from the standpoint of community alone, especially communities internal to the enterprise, is overly restrictive. Collective understanding and collaborative understanding, as Thomas Vander Wahl makes clear, are different parts of what he refers to as the social sofware stack. Without getting overly picky, let me agree with Ross’ point that the development of internal communities in enterprises will most likely occur around the way process owners manage routine work and its exceptions. Nevertheless, the distinction Ross makes, following Mike Gotta, about the difference between processes (how work is supposed to get done) and practices (how work actually gets done) really indicates a need to keep in focus the range of connections and interactions that social software enables.

Ross observes that,

Process is “how work should be done.” And Practice is “how work is actually done.” When process fails (exceptions), people use practice to fix things. When process doesn’t exist, practice fills the void. While people don’t realize it when they engage in practice, they actually are tapping into community — an informal social network within or beyond the enterprise to discover expertise and get things done. The problem is that we haven’t had the tools to support good practice. The problem is that we haven’t developed the group memory around practice that creates institutional leverage. In fact, we still design organizations to prevent practice and cultures that hoard knowledge and communities.

Now, granted, Ross’ post resulted from a talk he offered on a panel at Office 2.0 discussing “who owns community?”. Therefore, his emphasis on community is understandable. However, it is important to keep front and center one of the points made in groundswell, as well as by Rachael Happe (with added subtleties here) that social networking and communities are two different ways of engaging, though they may reinforce one another. I would add, that goes for internal engagement with employee communities as well as external communities engaging customers or the public.

The distinctions involved are as old as the study of social interaction in organizations, especially the characteristics of routine work. However, we don’t need to go back to the 1950s when the distinction first emerged in the study of industrial organization to understand the significance of Ross’ point. Indeed, the early 1980s will do. Rob Kling discussed computing as social organization as early as 1982 in Marshall Yovits’ edited series on Advances In Computers. Drawing from the symbolic interactionist tradition, Rob distinguished between a line of work which, he contended, indicates what people actually do in computing work, compared to formal descriptions of that work, or what we might today refer to as business processes. Kling’s work was one precursor to the focus on computer supported collaborative work  (CSCW) in studies of group collaboration, most notably developed at Xerox PARC. 

The social roots of social computing are important for influentials to keep in mind as they discuss current developments in Web 2.0 technologies, especially their use in the enterprise. The point is not a simple academic exercise of giving credit to what came before. Rather, it is to take note that the distinctions made explicit by Ross regarding practice/process are as old as the modern, hierarchical organization and seem to survive regardless of the way communication technology is applied in it. Those who discuss tensions between social software and Enterprise 2.0, or learning management systems and eLearning 2.0, are pointing to persistent challenges in how organizations work. David Gurteen’s observation is indicative when he reports that in a recent talk on Enterprise 2.0 someone in the audience yelled out, “We will never have Enterprise 2.0 until we have Managers 2.0!”

Social software offers the prospect of diminishing, though by no means eliminating, the gulf between formal organizational processes and informal employee practices. The key fact is that social software is a way of cultivating shared experience rather than a mere means to an end, or goal, alone. Ross believes  “there is no such thing as collaboration without a goal.” Indeed, that principle appears to guide the design of Socialtext People. Take a look at the discussion around minute 8 to get a sense of the statement.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

However, the informal social networks that Ross believes provide the basic resource for community are not driven by goals alone. Neither is collaboration. To use an old CSCW metaphor that is now a cliché  in discussions of social software, employees don’t only gather around the water cooler or coffee pot to get a drink. They often use getting a drink of water, or a cup of coffee, as a pretext for taking a break, and information sharing happens incidentally as they interact in that informal process, sometimes playfully, with their peers and, in exceptional organizations, their managers. How many people believe those conversations would occur with the same quality of shared experience and information if employees knew the company records the interaction?

Mike Gotta puts the dilemma better than anyone I’ve read, though not in the same terms used here.

To be clear – yes – any social presence platform will need to be secure, integrate with existing infrastructure, and support some type of federation model for interoperability with the external world…Some people will feel very comfortable while others will become rather nervous as they are “followed” by people they may not know – even if they are other employees. Such a concern reinforces the need for controls that allow users to limit their visibility, to filter what they share or to even block someone from tracking them. But – other people and groups may find such capabilities quite valuable in terms of improving shared situational awareness and enabling people to self-synchronize with the conversations or activities of others. There’s no right or wrong – just the need for a social presence platform to include controls that each person can customize how much or how little they wish to expose.

Shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and community. Many, if not most, employees don’t only need to get to know one another through reputational systems, like who tags whom or rates them as possessing expertise. Comfort with one another is needed to develop a shared experience where trust lubricates the open sharing of information. Rachel Happe is right on target in her recent remarks on work and fun,

enterprise social media should allow individuals to express themselves – with all their quirky, interesting, creative…and sometimes weird…ideas. It lets us connect to each other, it lets us display all our talents…and hopefully it allows us to make work fun. Why not?

My bet is that more solutions to the workaround challenges of exceptions to process will emerge from those informal social networks, and gel into community knowledge, when employees not only get to know their colleagues and their level of expertise, but also develop comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people.

Once again, Mike Gotta puts the essential point in the right frame of reference.

We should drop the notion that there are not social aspects to business. Artificial labels are necessary at times (i.e., business presence, corporate or professional networking). However we should acknowledge that work is a social environment and we need to catalyze those social dynamics to support business strategies that help drive growth and innovation.

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9 Responses to Social Software, Community, and Organization: Where Practice Meets Process

  1. It’s an interesting conversation, especially since I have no real background in the sociology of the workplace and such, although I’ve been a rat in the experiment for a long time.

    Can I say “of course”? there are social aspects to business. With respect to Enterprise Social Networking its critical, because (in my opinion) although employees in a personal context will actively participate in Facebook-like applications they will not transfer that to ESN in the workplace without a lot of enterprise attention to the social aspects.

    I’ve just reviewed with the CEO of a 5,000 person engineering company my findings on this for his business. He has taken pride in running his divisions and business units extremely autonomously and in fact they’s prided themselves on not sharing. After 36 interviews and 51 pages of notes and visits to the shopfloor of 7 business units I was able to tell him that if he wishes to harness his employees capability to improve practice he has to be prepared to take on and champion a massive social challenge within his enterprise. I also suggested how.

    Considering that 50% of his current workforce will be retired within the next 10 years, and that it is highly unionised in parts and as a group (not as individuals) they are sceptical and in fact hostile to sharing their practice knowledge, the CEO has a serious strategic risk on his plate.

    These people are not going to sign up to share processes, practices, skills or tips by being told to do so by their supervisors.

    My solution separates the experts from the communities but with a common goal of collaboration. I’ve gone off the experts because they focus on getting processes right and remain constantly out of sync with practices. To my mind that’s a reflection of a technology lag just like knowledge management was built around technology which seemed to be centered on experts, head office, and process and not around skills, practices and people who are unconvinced and uncommitted until they see a Benefit, which rarely happened with KM and hence it became self-defeating.

    The KMers are on the bandwagon of “ESN and W2.0 is just another reinvention of what we’ve been saying for a long time and is really KM with different tools”. I think that they are fundamentally wrong and applying that paradigm will take them no further than in the past – whereas there is real BUSINESS progress to me made in ESN.

    There is a need for some disciplines behind successful social ESN, and that’s where the links into the current systems and document management skills and workflow and such comes into play. That’s important, the “traditional” IT things need to be working properly.

    I’ve seen many CEOs who like to draw their organisation charts upside down, to emphasize that their people are key. Now, when they have to turn their thinking upside down in order to truly engage those people, the rhetoric often runs dry, or even turns on its head.

    Walter Adamson
    Melbourne, Australia

  2. Larry Irons says:

    Nice points Walter, and I really agree with the point about KM. My overall point was that the Socialtext People application really reduces collaboration to a goal oriented activity while ignoring the overall context within which it occurs–which is mostly social and organizational. Microsoft, of all companies, has implicitly recognized the point with their new Sharepoint+Social Sites rollout. It remains unclear to me though whether an approach will work that simply introduces social networking into the enterprise, while retaining the walls separating it from wider social networks. Social networks don’t respect organizational walls.

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