Enterprise social networking: Caring, climbing, campaigning

Social network

Here at Reading we have been trialling enterprise social networking service Yammer since the start of the new year. Head of Web and New Media Helen Setchell who is a member of the Digitally Ready Steering Group, is leading the experiment to find out ‘whether an Enterprise Social Network has potential to improve communication and collaboration’ and, if so, if Yammer is the right tool.

I was one of the first to set up a personal account on Reading’s Yammer network but I am not by any stretch of the imagination what you would call an ‘early adopter’. Mostly I lurk. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my experience with Facebook, which started to feel a little stale about 12 months ago and which, for me, has become similarly ‘read-only’. I can’t be bothered to do social networking socially, so the idea of social networking at work holds little appeal.

It’s ironic then that I am possibly the only member of staff at Reading to have not one but two accounts on Yammer. You’ve guessed it: I am ‘Digitally Ready Team’. I suspect it’s the blurring of personal and professional spheres inherent in enterprise social networking that I am uncomfortable with. Although I originally set up my alter ego account as a workaround to an entirely different issue, I find the separation suits me. ‘Digitally Ready’ is far more actively engaged than plain old me, blogging, tweeting and now yammering quite happily.

You might say I’m missing the point by insisting on this separation but it seems I’m not the only one who’s joined Yammer mainly to do a job – so far. Over 300 members have joined the reading.ac.uk community, which currently numbers 37 groups. These groups mostly correspond to academic or service departments and existing teams, or relate to professional interests. I noticed that it didn’t take long for the ‘UoR Gamers’ to set up shop, their group description a defiant ‘Well, why not?’. But with only 5 members and 4 messages between them, they are truly a Yammer minority, and the only group based purely on personal interest.

I find it interesting that people connect primarily to their close colleagues. Surely they are already in touch outside of Yammer? I also wonder where this bias towards the professional has come from. And what about all those staff members who haven’t signed up – what’s stopping them?

Browsing online for research papers on enterprise social networking (as you do), I came across a study into ‘Motivations for Social Networking at Work’ by a team of researchers investigating user behaviours on IBM’s company network Beehive. They concluded that ‘professionals use internal social networking to build stronger bonds with their weak ties and to reach out to employees they do not know.’ The study did show that initial connections centred around existing teams – just like our groups – but suggests that long-term use will be about maintaining loose ties to colleagues we don’t work closely with.

Furthermore, they found that ‘[t]heir motivations in doing this include connecting on a personal level with coworkers, advancing their career with the company, and campaigning for their projects’. The researchers labelled these motivations caring (sharing on a personal level), climbing (career advancement), and campaigning (convincing others to support ideas and projects).

Site content such as photos, personal profiles and status updates can be very revealing: holiday photos, mention of hobbies and outside interests, and ‘state of mind’-type statuses are typical of carers. Self-presentation – a headshot avatar, emphasis on current work, professional background and experience – could signal a climber interested in career development. Thoughts on professional topics, opinion-oriented updates and offering advice show a campaigning attitude.

There is much more to the study, and I highly recommend you read it – absolutely fascinating stuff, which I plan to say more about in another blog post. But first and foremost, it strikes me as a real study in human nature. Once you’ve considered what value people think they will derive from social networking at work and what the implications are, the signs are everywhere and not all of it is pretty.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong of course with either caring, climbing or campaigning. But I feel it’s a question that hasn’t even really been asked at Reading: why are you here? It seems to me that there is an underlying assumption that we’re more ‘enterprise’ than ‘social’. Discussions about enterprise social networking have tended to focus on quirks and foibles, features and settings specific to Yammer – and our particular version of it at that. Therein lies part of the problem: I’m sure that enterprise social networking and Reading Yammer are already synonymous in many people’s minds.

If we’re not asking ourselves what we’re hoping to gain and what tools we need to do this, if we don’t look beyond the trial network we’ve got now, there is a real danger that the question of whether enterprise social networking can help us improve collaboration and communication becomes a simplistic ‘Yammer: yes or no?’.

I would like us to take a step back to consider our motivations for joining an enterprise social network – institutionally and individually – and to look at how these might change over time, with growing numbers and growing potential. Only then can we decide which tools, features and settings are needed to adequately support all members of our community, whether they are sharing personal or professional matters – carers, campaigners and climbers all.

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