Putting the ‘social’ in enterprise social networking

NetworkWith our Digital Development Forum on ‘Enterprise Social Networking: What’s in it for me?’ coming up tomorrow, I thought I would pick up where I left off in my last blog post about our Yammer experiment here at Reading – ‘Enterprise social networking: Caring, climbing, campaigning’.

‘Caring’, ‘climbing’ and ‘campaigning’ were the labels used by a team of researchers studying user behaviours on IBM’s company network Beehive – sharing on a personal level (caring), career advancement (climbing), and convincing others to support ideas and projects (campaigning). These categories were linked to certain types of site content such as photos, personal profiles and status updates. I found this intriguing stuff – once you start to look out for such behavioural patterns, you notice them everywhere.

Perhaps I should say at this point that I’m not talking about ‘personality types’ here. My feeling is that we all do a little bit of all of these at one point or another. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with caring, climbing, or campaigning, and no-one wants to be labelled.

Caring, climbing, and campaigning were found to be the primary motivations for people to join enterprise social networking sites. What I’m interested in are the implications of these motivations for the way people interact with their colleagues on enterprise social networking sites, and how a community might grow and develop as a result – online and in real life too.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, our Reading Yammer community strikes me as rather more ‘enterprise’ than ‘social’ – more climbing and campaigning than caring, to put it in those terms. I haven’t come across any instances of truly shameless self-promotion, but there are some clear attempts at professional profile-raising. I won’t name and shame – you know who you are, and good for you!

What we are seeing a lot of is campaigning – colleagues gathering support for their projects, soliciting opinion, fostering brainstorming and discussions. For example, the recent announcement that Reading is going MOOCs and has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Futurelearn has caused a bit of a stir, and our Yammer network is aflutter with questions, ideas, concerns, and a good deal of speculation.

There is a growing number of discussion or ‘community of practice’ style groups  – but for the most part, our groups correspond to academic or service departments and existing teams. A single group, ‘UoR Gamers’, is based purely on personal interest. Well, so far.

The Beehive study found a similar tendency to connect with close colleagues first, but suggested that long-term use of enterprise social networking sites is about maintaining loose ties with colleagues we don’t work closely with – so-called ‘weak ties’.

The study found that members of enterprise social networking sites decrease their contact with close co-workers as they increase communication with their weak ties – typically colleagues they don’t know well or ones they have worked with previously but don’t communicate with on a regular basis now.

Members of such sites engage in ‘social browsing’ – discovering and connecting with weak ties, and to ‘reach out across divisions to connect with people around similar interests’.

In the study, contributions by weak ties were particularly memorable to the participants, especially learning new things about people’s non-work lives. People enjoy connecting socially at work – a tangible benefit of enterprise social networking on a very human level.

As online communities grow, connecting to new ties as well as weak ties becomes more frequent. In the Beehive study, it was not uncommon for Beehive members to know ‘a large proportion of [their connections], up to 75 %, exclusively through the site’. Some members adopted a ‘friends-of-friends’ method to discover new, relevant connections by browsing their contacts’ contact lists.

Users considered some of their online connections to be ‘close colleagues’, some even reported becoming ‘good friends’ with other users, with connections fostered on the company network extending to other forms of communication such as email and instant messaging before moving to face-to-face meetings.

The Beehive study found that ‘employees are open to meeting each other for both personal and professional reasons’. You’ve guessed where I’m going with this: I think it’s a shame we’re not seeing more of the informal communities that clearly exist at Reading reflected on our Yammer network. We’re being encouraged to join enterprise social networking sites to improve communication and collaboration. But communities are made up of people, and work isn’t just about work. Connecting to colleagues on a personal level can strengthen the working relationship too. It’s time to put the ‘social’ in enterprise social networking.

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