In earlier posts ("Teams, Communities, And Social Networks"), I outlined some thoughts on how group structures are themselves social networks however the reverse is not always true:
"Teams and communities are social networks. In fact, you could basically say that all teams and communities are social networks but not all social networks are teams and communities. Treating social networks as something separate from teams and communities over-simplifies the discussion and can inadvertently mislead decision-makers and strategists."
Ties between members of groups provide those networks with cohesion that makes their structure more recognizable. There is also some type of event and state that exists over time (e.g., project) within the enterprise environment that causes these structures to form. The idea that team and community relations occur in a network context is important to note since we often treat them as "different" (that teams and communities are not social networks) when instead, networks underpin teams and communities. Extending this argument further (that networks underpin everything), we might consider how the enterprise, as a mediator, influences formation of a wide array of social structures well beyond teams and communities.
Whether we are examining reporting chains in a business unit that denote ties within a management structure or the formal workflow sequence that denote role-based ties within a process structure, we might consider these relations (ties) as enterprise mediated networks. The idea of the enterprise as a mediator that enables its employees to participate in formalized social structures might be interesting to juxtapose against the emergent social structures that employees informally participate in without the enterprise having any direct mediating role (although there may be varying levels of influence). Communities may form more voluntarily for instance. However even in the case of communities, what brings people together might be to share practices based on their participation and ties to activities that the enterprise in mediates.
If this line of thought is reasonable (re: everything in the enterprise occurs in a network context), then what we're really debating when it comes to E2.0 is the differences in the more explicit and mediated network structures that the enterprise influences vs. the emergent and self-organized network structures that employees influence on their own (and how employee behaviors differ within those network structures). This post is very much a "thinking out loud" post - somewhat academic - and thoughts here are definitely a work-in-progress.
Social networks are generally defined (e.g., Borgatti, Wasserman, Wellman and others) as a collection of actors (nodes) connected by relations (ties) that denote how the actors are linked. Research has also show (e.g., Simmel, Granovetter, Burt, and others) that leveraging relations are an essential means for people to locate information, solve problems, find jobs, etc. When it comes to understanding “ties”, research often examines the strength of the tie in order classifies them as either strong or weak. Factors that lead to a strong tie include time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and reciprocity (Granovetter). When studying social networks, both the structure of the relations as well as behavior of actors in those relations are often considered. This leads to discussions on such thing as “communication networks”, “collaboration networks”, “innovation networks”, “expertise networks” and so on. In other works, the context of the relation reveals the network structure, and visa-versa (the structure of the network reveals behaviors). This summary reflects my understanding of the research I’ve read in the field (feel free to point out where I might have misinterpreted things! I am still learning a.k.a.” the more you know, the less you know”).
So where am I going with this? My interest is in understanding social networking within the enterprise more thoroughly. And in this context, there are a couple of points worth thinking about.
- "Social" has always been in front of our eyes, in many ways, we're just understanding it at a deeper level than our historical techno-centric focus on tools for productivity, collaboration, etc. "Social" did not start with consumer sites like Facebook, the science beyond social networks dates back many decades.
- If you look at an enterprise as a single social network, don’t be surprised that it makes little sense. There are many networks. You need to decide what you want to examine in order to make sense of them. We need to look at the formation of those structures and behaviors within those structures to better understand the context of people's relations.
- Which means, the network you want to see is the network you will see. In other words, when you decide to look for a collaboration network, don’t be surprised that you’ll find it. A "collaboration network" is a social network where ties are in the context of joint work by its participants.
- Because we tend to label social networks to categorize the array of interconnected nodes we are examining, we need to remember that there are a myriad number of other social networks that we are not looking at.
- Even the networks we are looking at will change over time and space – causing the structure and behaviors within the graph to change as well. Networks are dynamic, they can become dormant or in motion based on whatever triggers relations to be active.
Getting back to the “type” of network we want to examine – we perhaps need to think more about the type of ties we want to learn from than the nodes themselves. This is not to say that nodes (people) are not important – we want to look at social networking for a variety of people-centric reasons: talent, learning, expertise, etc. However, understanding ties has some “meta value” when we try to understand the role of the enterprise in mediating these ties (or when those ties emerge without explicit mediation).
For instance, much has been made about the ability of social networking to flatten the organization. I used to think along those same lines (that social networks and organizational hierarchy were different). However, some time ago Vladis Krebs (@orgnet) tweeted that reporting chains were simply a type of tie that enables nodes to be arranged in a hierarchical order (paraphrasing his tweet). That made a lot of sense and changed the way I looked at the issue. It also caused me to consider the role of the enterprise in creating visible, explicit, networks structured in ways the support the mission of the organization – clearly, reporting chains as a social network fit this notion.
When you think about it in this light, the enterprise mediates a variety of network structures and conditions of expected behavior to serve its needs. Reporting chains are one example. Business activities (e.g., processes, projects) are other structures the enterprise leverages with participants performing in their defined roles. The enterprise might also classify employees into generalized audience segments based on other attributes (e.g., new hires). Perhaps as an over-simplification we can think of three types of structures and behaviors an enterprise mediates to define itself:
- institutional: often thought of in hierarchical terms
- process: often thought of in sequence and role-based terms
- class: often thought of in terms of formal attributes assigned by the enterprise to an audience of employees
Within these structures, ties emerge and we can visualize the resulting social graphs. The context of the tie when it becomes active is often related to events and states related to communication, information sharing, problem solving, etc that I mentioned earlier.
The flip side of this line-of-thought is that the enterprise does not mediate all social networks. There are emergent social structures and relations between employees that evolve which are self-organized by its participants. These networks might be driven by needs similar to those mediated by the enterprise (e.g., communication, information sharing, or collaboration), but historically they have not been visible, or might be disconnected from formal structures (e.g., communities). These are the networks we often think of, and want to tap into, when we talk about Enterprise 2.0, knowledge management, or social business. But there are also networks that are highly personal and likely are purposely kept private (e.g., mentoring, personal support, etc). While there is tremendous focus on the more emergent types of networks by champions of E2.0 and social business, I believe that you also need to understand how those networks are intermingled with enterprise mediated networks to best leverage possible synergies or the unique value on has over the other.
Connection strategies also come to mind. An enterprise may or may not have the same intent to connect its workforce than the employees do themselves (and does that matter, if it does, to what extent - and how does culture help influence and align those connection strategies...). While not the focus of this post, personal connections strategies, group connection strategies (e.g., how a community itself what's to have its group persona to be connected to the enterprise, etc.), and enterprise connection strategies are perhaps a topic for strategists to consider.
This is definitely a “thinking out loud” post - ideas here need to be refined or even discarded. The notion of enterprise mediated networks is a concept that I just wanted to share to illustrate some work-in-progress positions evolving in my head. I’m felt for some time that everything happens in a network context (even when we see hierarchy), that some social networks are mediated by the enterprise in a purposeful manner, however there are social networks that are emergent where the organization has little-to-no explicit role (although there is influence and cultural factors). We need to better understand how a more participatory culture can improve how people engage and contribute within network contexts. In some cases participation is conscripted via the enterprise-mediated network (e.g., by reporting tie, by role tie). However even when participation is directed, how can we influence people to volunteer beyond that which is conscripted (see "The Era Of Volunteerism?) - which leads us back full circle to those emergent networks that are the focus of E2.0 and social business.