Connect the Dots29 Dec 2008
One of the biggest things in the Academy is communication. Just like any other organisation there’s a whole heap of discussion about the right ways to communicate and about who receives what information, and about what constitutes too little and information versus information overload. There will never be a perfect fit for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth exploring the options we have available and trying things out from time to time.
Social networking is something that is often mooted amongst the technical communities as a possible option for improved communication in the organisation and is something that I have considered pursuing on several occasions. The reality is however that there are some additional factors with creating a social network in the corporate environment (CESN) that need careful consideration before implementing any potential solution.
Anything that is put in place to enhance how people work be it faster, smarter, or cheaper is looking at the productivity of the organisation. Whilst the whole point of social networking is to provide a medium through which to improve communication and knowledge sharing, productivity can be thought of very much like any sort of investment. “It may go up as well as down”.
The diagram below I’ve dubbed the social networks productivity spectrum.
At one end people can spend their time idly checking the network believing that they are being productive whereas in fact they are not focussed on the work they need to do. In such an instance the social network is no longer a tool but more of a source of procrastination - otherwise known as “The Facebook Effect“. At the opposite end of the spectrum a person can spend their time providing valuable input, but finds themselves involved in too large a proportion of the network to the extent that not only does their own work suffer but perhaps even that of the others involved who may find the constant need to validate their decision with or respond to queries from the individual. In the middle of the spectrum is the ideal balance of contribution that allows everyone to work effectively.
In implementing a CESN it is impossible to ensure that all users will fall into the middle of the spectrum, but the guidance given for the purpose and use of the network should include information about the organisation’s expectations on such purpose and usage. Rather than deciding what is the right way to use it I think just some general guidance on what is appropriate usage is all that’s required but even so there may be several people in an organisation that might have input into what reasonable usage is.
Speed of Thought
Communication is the name of the game with social networking and like any real world grapevine it is always surprising how fast communications can occur. Whilst this can be invaluable in corporate terms, it can also be a danger. Corporate communications are often filtered and throttled to ensure that information gets to the right people at the right time. Mis-information put out into a social network can quickly cause problems that are probably less manageable than through any other communication medium due to the openness and far reaching communication. In many systems some sort of moderation (e.g. flag posts for publishing) would ensure that this situation cannot arise, but the nature of social networking is such that it cannot be constrained by this sort of control system - it simply wouldn’t work.
On balance this one is very tricky to weigh up- there could always be a risk that misinformation can generate poor decision making or even create mistrust. The only solution is really to fully trust all users of the social network. Again here there is nothing beyond guidance and training that can be used to manage this risk.
Whilst any social networking solution should probably be (certainly initially) limited to Academy employees only, there is still as ever a legal consideration. There have been cases where social networks have been used to harass and victimise employees and in order to protect an organisation there does need to be due consideration to appropriate policies and possibly even training in order to ensure that users are aware of what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate use.
An investment in time to write an appropriate policy or to enhance an existing computer systems usage policy would have to be included in implementing any social networking solution and there could even be a need to incorporate ‘external’ usage agreements should the social networking system be hosted by a third party.
A CESN is just one element of collaborative working and it would be useful to consider how it could integrate with the Gateway work towards a collaborative Intranet/Extranet. Close integration may be possible but could add considerable expense to the work. Establishing something entirely separate may mean that a highly valuable resource cannot be fully utilised an (for want of a better term) leveraged.
Looking at social networking options that provide integration with the sorts of technologies being considered for the Gateway is obviously a wise consideration, but until various decisions are validated and ratified then choices are simply educated guesses and there is always an associated risk of poor choice.
Whenever a new system is implemented there should always be consideration given to the administrative overheads required to maintain it. Who will add and remove user accounts, create / remove /archive sub-networks, check backups add additional storage capacity, etc.? Resources, be they financial or human, are always finite. Any undertaking should be supportable and allocated to a trustworthy and sustainable source.
Budgets are always stretched and staff are always asked to fit more work into their hectic schedules but irrespective of this there is always a need to invest in order to advance - the question is simply where should the investment be from?
Even if a CESN is put in place there is always the chance that it will not be successful because people do not use it or do not understand how to use it. Whilst people can be conscripted into using a social network, the uptake will always be better through invitation but the question then becomes who to invite.
Most people are familiar with social networks so it may not seem difficult at first. However how many people are familiar with how best to make use of a social networking tool in a closed environment? The nature of the Academy is that there are a combination of academic and non-academic staff. Academic staff may be experienced in using social networks across disciplines and perhaps between institutions and departments. Non-academic staff are probably more familiar with using social networking purely in a social environment. Neither quite maps to what would be required of a CESN for the Academy … but both have something to offer.
Considerations for ranges of experience (of using social networks and working with communications), work areas (including administrators, projects staff, advisers and managers) and opportunity (i.e. ideas for areas of work people could use the CESN for) are necessary to prime the use of the social network. However it would seem from much of the available case studies on CESNs that invitation and natural evolution will provide the strongest basis for embedding into the organisational culture … once the right opportunities to make best use of it are established.
Which finally brings me to easily the most important consideration…
A social network is in essence a way to communicate and share when a face to face meeting or collaboration is not possible. As well as supporting the networking of people in different geographic locations social networks also allow people to communicate in a way that allows them to respond and contribute when it is convenient to them (just like e-mail) in a single point of contact.
However if people are presented with a CESN what would, could and should they do with it?
No matter how much research I have carried out I haven’t quite managed to identify what gap this might fill for the Academy. I can see many uses within the wider academic and corporate spheres where social networks can be used but I personally still struggle to establish what specific issues and requirements the implementation of a CESN for the Academy will address.
Whilst I feel that the Academy’s technical community could provide ideas for how to use a CESN I wonder if it would then become a technical community social network (which I think would have merit over the existing mailing list)? Could it be that the best way to find an answer to this question is to provide a social network in which people could discuss potential uses?