Online social networks may have become part of the everyday life of more than a billion individuals globally, yet their impact on how we work and do business has arguably been rather limited.
Businesses may have social media strategies, internal social collaboration tools and employees who tweet, but I cannot see any evidence of social networks having any deep impact on the business culture, business models or business processes of existing corporations. Start-ups are a different story.
Which is bad, because the first generation to grow up on Facebook will soon be looking for their first job, and if the workplace they find is not social, they will take their social capital somewhere else.
Think about it. By the time their resume lands on your desk, the members of the so-called Millennials generation will have spent more than a decade carefully tending their own social network, watching its value grow with time, while in parallel the value of skills acquired through traditional education is increasingly being questioned.
In a world that is far less predictable than what their parents or grandparents experienced, their social network represents an asset far more valuable than an employment contract or training certificate. This form of Social Capital has permanence, stability, low volatility and a proven return on investment, which is more than most investment products can say those days.
And then comes the Corporation. The corporation model as we know it aims at granting a group of individuals acting in common the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by single individuals. In particular, corporations can own things and sign contracts; hence the need for well-defined perimeter fences.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with corporations per se, but what is becoming increasingly clear is that the fences erected around corporations not only cut across a large proportion of the links in a social network, but also hinder information exchange along the very kind of links that are most valuable to individuals: weak links.
More than 30 years before the inception of Facebook, Mark Granovetter first explained how weak ties contain most of the value in social networks. It is the people who are most different and distant from us who can provide us with the best opportunities, precisely because they have access to information and people unknown to us, and can come up with ideas we would never come up with ourselves.
Put another way, the most valuable persons in our social network are not our immediate work colleagues, nor employees of our company in a different department or location. But maybe that college buddy of yours who majored in Sociology, works in marketing for a major food brand and lives at the other end of the country. The one you lost sight of after graduation and found again last year on Facebook. The one who keeps posting those weird links.
Of course corporations very rarely prohibit employees from joining social networks altogether. But the use of social networks remains superficial, and is often only limited to persons and departments in a company who, either by role or inclination, are active on social networks. Social networks touch the corporation at the periphery rather than being core to it.
Frustration and employee disengagement may follow. Employees want to leverage their social network at work for finding information, solving problems and identifying business opportunities. Why would corporations stand in the way of employees doing their job using the best tool at hand? Does preservation of company Intellectual Property really outweigh the cost of loosing talent and missing business opportunities?
So what would a more social enterprise look like? Can corporations connect, share and like on social networks in the same way as individuals? And what would enterprise software look like if it were designed with social networks at the core instead of the general ledger? We will look at all these questions in further installments of this blog series on the Future of Work.