Sunday, December 12, 2010

Making the Social Web Space Work Smarter, Not Harder

By: Derek Howard

Gone are the days when companies could pretend that this social web and media phenomenon was just a passing fad. Unfortunately, some are still trying to do just that. This has caused many to play catch-up, which creates new problems. Adopting drastic changes can cause unforeseen issues. So how does a company create effective changes to their social web space with as little disruption as possible? According to Rhonda Lowry, vice president of social media technologies for Turner Broadcasting, the answer is to become a bricoleur. More on that in a bit.

At a recent Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) Enterprise 2.0 Society event, Lowry shared her views and advice on solving these issues. In her opinion, it boils down to the human factor being ignored. Many companies have forgotten to treat their people as an individual rather than a label or title. We have to go beyond the hard data. As she observed, it’s not enough to know how many people are on sites such as Facebook, we have to know why. If a company loses track of this information, it loses track of a valuable, existing resource: its people. And it’s not just a social issue; these real-time networks open new markets, and new markets mean profit.

The new social currency

Lowry believes that these new markets run on a new currency (social currency). The information we share or trade is like a gift that helps create and nurture these relationships. And with that gift comes an implied sense of reciprocity. This can create a perpetual cycle of information exchange. However, these new relationships are a bit different. Lowry points out that these days (due to social media), they tend to be defined as friends, fans or followers. So a company must decide what kind of relationship they have. One example she gives is the difference between a symmetrical and asymmetrical model. For instance, Facebook is a symmetrical model (a “who you know”) while Twitter is asymmetrical (a “what you know”).

Four meters to track

Behind all of this change in the social landscape is technology. And though human behavior is the bigger issue, the tech factor cannot be ignored. The problem, as Lowry said, is that the gap between what is technologically possible and socially possible is often miles wide. Because of this, she recommends that companies keep track of the following four meters.

The first meter is social: companies must ask whether or not they are social organizations. Do relationships matter? How much and to what end?

Second is the techno-human factor. Lowry says that there are two types of capabilities: tech-centric and human-centric. A company needs to know where its people are on these knowledge scales. Society tends to be slower than technology and a narrow focus can ultimately create a narrow skill set.

Third, and fourth are organizational and cultural (these two go hand-in-hand). Social software can have unforeseen and often negative effects depending on the structure and the culture of the company. For example, if a company has a rigid hierarchy, social software could allow people to talk that a company doesn’t want talking (i.e. ignoring the chain-of-command).

Two questions companies should ask

Along with the meters, Lowry suggests that companies seriously ask themselves two questions:
1. Can you get out of your own way? And
2. Can you evolve?

The first has to do with recognizing that, with social web space, control can be difficult. Companies must be willing to let go a bit to reap the benefits. The evolution part has to do with content and technology keeping up with one another. As she put it, content without technology is a distinction without merit. Both are needed to be successful, and companies must be both willing and able to grow.

Lowry also advocates what she calls intellectual nudists; basically, people who are willing to share all their work and ideas. Transparency is needed from at least a few of these types. Though these people probably won’t outnumber the non-nudists in most companies, she is confident that the two can coexist. Because of this, companies should always look for win/win strategies of keeping both happy.

Finally, Lowry warns to pay attention to rewards and bonuses. Most of these systems are designed for what she referred to as a “turn-the-crank” work environment, not a knowledge –based work one that many work in today. According to studies, people in knowledge-based environments actually perform worse when given paid incentives. Companies must find intrinsic motivations for their employees or risk the chance that they will just game the system.

In conclusion

So what does it all mean? Back to that word bricoleur. A bricoleur is defined as someone who practices bricolage: invention by using resources from already available material. Lowry believes that companies must learn to practice what she calls techno-socio-cultural bricolage, using the resources they already have. By taking inventory and assessing these resources, and how they all interact, companies can avoid disruption, and ultimately have happier employees and bigger profits. Win/win.

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