Social Network Sites (SNS) create multiple affordances employees leverage during their employment lifecycle. In this Masters Thesis, I examine how a SNS helps employees during transitional periods such as: joining the company, moving into a new position, and navigating through organizational disruption. Personal support networks are one type of SNS affordance employees can exploit when seeking information, mentoring, advice, problem-solving help, or opinions on the “folklore” of another group or business area. Output from this work will identify employee personal support practices, the influence media, management, and culture have on such practices, and benefits that accrue to employees and employers.
Proposal and Rationale
In this work, I propose to examine how employees can leverage the affordances enabled through an internal SNS for personal support reasons during professional life transitions such as: joining the company, moving into a new position, and adapting to new professional situations as a result of organizational disruption (e.g., a reduction in force, a re-organization, or combining groups of people together from different companies as part of a merger or acquisition). My belief is that personal support networks provide a direct benefit to employees and an indirect benefit to the organization and management.
Examples of the type of affordances that could be examined include:
Mentoring: the ability for an employee to use a SNS as part of a mentoring program with senior staff members.
Advice: the ability for an employee to pose questions to trusted individuals on professional dilemmas, career issues, or other work-related challenges.
“Folklore”: Employees share knowledge and rumors that help provide important context to situations workers find themselves in. Through these backchannels, employees tap into the “gossip” on how things really get done or etiquettes expected in groups a worker is joining.
Information: A SNS provides employees with a wealth of information on colleagues (via profiles), relationships (via a social graph), interactions (via wall posts, forums, and micro-blogging), and content (via uploaded files).
Literacy development: The relatively low barriers for participation creates affordances that enable employees to expand the ways they create and share information as well as connect and build community with peers. Proficiency in use of media, and recognition from peers regarding their contributions, builds confidence employees can apply elsewhere in their professional life.
Self-learning: Employees can create their own strategies to monitor and educate themselves about areas in the firm they may want to transition into, or follow senior staff to discover how career paths evolve over time.
Personal Brand: Employees can define themselves beyond their formal role by leveraging a SNS and its tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, communities) to display unknown talent. By performing in ways beyond their expected role, employees can enhance their career options by being recognized for their expertise or as a contributor in areas not associated with their position.
There are also benefits to the organization by allowing personal support networks to thrive. From a management perspective, employees that are both motivated and proficient in their role is often the objective of strategic human resource initiatives such as talent management, employee engagement, skill and competency goals, and staff retention metrics. For managers, employees committed to their job and to the organization are more productive, contribute towards a positive corporate culture, and reflect well on the firm when dealing with valuable customer relationships.
Employees today often have a richer media experience outside of work than they do using internal business applications. Smart phones, tablets, gaming, and consumer SNS’s are influencing concepts related to participation, sharing, and privacy. As organizations transition through generational shifts in their workforce, determining the proper work-related use of social media can create differing opinions within leadership teams. Managers with a positive influence on employee use of a SNS can leverage worker participate to facilitate a stronger sense of organizational identity. A negative influence can spread that context to staff, disenfranchising them and inhibiting their use of a SNS to develop personal support networks.
Rationale & Literature Review
Organizations today are faced with an extreme period of uncertainty due to economic, geo-political, societal, environmental, and technological shifts that have occurred over the past few years and continue today, with no foreseeable return of “normalcy” in sight. Management is often unable to communicate to its workforce the firm’s long-term business direction, how the firm plans to stay competitive in the short-run, what new markets should be entered, or the type of structural and cultural transformation is necessary to navigate through this period of uncertainty. As organizations struggle through this malaise, there are more reports in the media on how employees are becoming less committed to their job and employer. If firms are to avoid customer, financial, and competitive decline, any strategic long-term remedy needs to include an employee engagement component.
This situation represents the conceptual framing for my work. How organizations can actually encourage its employees to participate more actively and become more emotionally attached to the company and its mission has led strategists to look at consumer SNS providers and deploy similar technologies designed for use within the enterprise. However, what I see happening in my professional encounters with strategists are approaches to an enterprise SNS that focus on broad corporate goals, narrowly defined improvements to processes, or creation of knowledge-sharing “islands” disconnected from the everyday work of employees. While I am not judging the correctness of those approaches in this thesis, I do believe strategists are missing an employee-centric perspective and are not considering the individual and business value derived from personal support networks. Affordances associated with such networks help employees become more self-organized and in control of certain aspects of their professional life. For employees to become more motivated to perform better, to identify more with the goals of the company (and contribute accordingly), they need to see value in return for that higher level of engagement. That motivation is realized by giving workers more autonomy to self-direct aspects of their career progression. Greater personal control over their career progression can incent employees to gain a level of mastery in their chosen endeavors. This is especially true in times of transition. A SNS designed with certain personal support affordances helps employees creates the social infrastructure they need to better self-direct their career progression. Personal support networks can also provide workers with the emotional scaffolding (e.g., peer and community backing) to handle professional transitions that are contentious, ambiguous or complex. The need for these types of networks have become more important given the commitment gap between companies and its employees, and the implications to employees in terms of their employment.
Based on work previous published in my Literature Review, the thesis study divides existing theoretical research into three domains:
Publics, Media & Participatory Culture: This research area looks at the rise of public opinion as a unique part of social life and how communications media has helped facilitate new forms of participation and collective sharing at a mass scale. Relevant academic perspectives include those from: Baym and Jenkins.
Social Network Sites (SNS): This research area examines how people leverage a SNS for publically interacting with friends, cohorts, and site members to which a person has no association. Also examined is how the SNS model is applied internally within the firm and used by employees to foster personal support networks. Academic perspectives developed by boyd, Ellison, Pearson, McAfee, and Burt are applicable here.
Organizational Identity (OI): This research area looks at how workers deal with issues of identifying with the organization, the influence of managerial relationships and peer networks, and how OI affects workers and the firm. Scholarly perspectives put forth by Cole, Foote, Pratti, and Stirling underpins this area.
Research within each of the above domains either focuses on society in general, the consumer market, or business management and organizational development. There is a gap concerning how theoretical principals and findings interconnect across the various disciplines in ways that apply to employees in the firm. A key aspect of this thesis is to connect existing dots in a new inter-disciplinary way and support this study and its findings through the application of several research methods. Some examples of what we can learn from this work include:
The role of publics in a SNS and how its affordances help people construct identity is often discussed in consumer contexts (boyd, 2011; Ellison, 2011; Pearson 2009). However, in the firm, “identity” of an employee is something ascribed to them based on their job title, role, and business unit association. Will organizations really allow employees to create (and exploit) their own social identities based on interests, experiences, and expertise outside the boundaries of their formal persona? The ability to shape one’s own identity and the context in which that persona is represented is an important component to how personal support networks might evolve.
Participatory culture is often examined in the context of youth, media, and education (Jenkins, 2009). How does his work on participatory cultures apply within a business environment that is managed differently than an educational environment? The cultural dynamics of encouraging low barriers to expression (e.g., use of blogs, wikis, communities) and sense that co-workers value contributions from colleagues would appear to impact development and mobilization of personal support networks.
The influence of hierarchy and how it creates poor commitment levels if workers feel they are outside a particular social group has been examined as part of organizational theory (Cole, 2006). Can personal support networks provide a means for employees to feel that they have pathways across the organization regardless of where they are situated in the hierarchy? If so, such a dynamic should improve how employees identify with the firm.
Results of this study will help strategists understand the value of personal support networks as part of an employee engagement strategy, the role a SNS has in enabling the cultural and media affordances necessary for workers to create, maintain, and mobilize such networks, and benefits to employees and employers.
Part 2 is located here. Part 2 covers:
- Relevant Experience and Expertise
- Research/Production Plan