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Organizations Jun 3, 2013

The Cowork­er Network

How com­pa­nies can use social net­works to learn who knows what

Based on the research of

Paul Leonardi

Meet­ings around the water­cool­er or over lunch are as tra­di­tion­al as the work­place suit and tie. But today, com­pa­nies are look­ing for more inno­v­a­tive ways to bring employ­ees togeth­er. Con­nect­ing peo­ple with dif­fer­ent kinds of knowl­edge fos­ters new ser­vices and ideas, says Paul Leonar­di, a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty with an appoint­ment at the Kel­logg School.

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Leonar­di saw that com­pa­nies, big and small, were start­ing to imple­ment enter­prise social media”— inter­nal tools sim­i­lar in func­tion­al­i­ty to Face­book and Twit­ter that make com­mu­ni­ca­tions between employ­ees more trans­par­ent. Unless you were copied on an email between two employ­ees, says Leonar­di, you nev­er knew that they were send­ing mes­sages to each oth­er. It wasn’t that that infor­ma­tion didn’t exist, but it was invis­i­ble to most peo­ple in the organization.”

A Pas­sive Men­tal Direc­to­ry

Leonar­di learned that a major cred­it card com­pa­ny was about to imple­ment an enter­prise social net­work­ing tool called A-Life. The com­pa­ny want­ed their 15,000 employ­ees to have a bet­ter sense of who their col­leagues were, and what they were doing, in order to reduce inef­fi­cien­cies. After all, if an employ­ee cre­ates a report, only to dis­cov­er that some­one else has already done so, or gains a new skill set that already exists in anoth­er part of the com­pa­ny, this is not the best use of resources.

So Leonar­di per­suad­ed the com­pa­ny to allow him to per­form a qua­si-nat­ur­al field exper­i­ment to test the effec­tive­ness of the social net­work­ing tool. Leonar­di decid­ed to com­pare two demo­graph­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar groups with­in the com­pa­ny: a group in mar­ket­ing and a group in oper­a­tions. Before the tool’s imple­men­ta­tion, the groups were asked ques­tions about both whom and what their col­leagues knew. The ratio­nale for ask­ing those two kinds of ques­tions is that know­ing who knows what is real­ly impor­tant, but in many cas­es, even if we know who knows what, we can’t get to that per­son direct­ly,” says Leonar­di. This is why know­ing who can pass the right infor­ma­tion along to the right peo­ple is also crucial.

Then one of the groups — the mar­ket­ing group — was giv­en access to the soft­ware. For six months, this group con­duct­ed a good deal of its rou­tine com­mu­ni­ca­tion through the site instead of through email or in-per­son inter­ac­tions. Leonar­di won­dered: Would the mar­ket­ing group — with their abil­i­ty to see all of these com­mu­ni­ca­tions occur­ring between their cowork­ers — build a pas­sive men­tal direc­to­ry of who knew what and whom?

A Major Pay­off

Indeed, as pre­dict­ed, after six months those who had used the enter­prise social net­work­ing site had improved their abil­i­ty to find infor­ma­tion by 31% — and to find peo­ple who knew the per­son with infor­ma­tion by 71%. This improve­ment occurred despite the fact that employ­ees sent, on aver­age, just one mes­sage on the site per week. The size of the improve­ment came as a sur­prise to Leonar­di, but he points out that the base­line was woe­ful­ly low. That 71% real­ly… means that peo­ple are just get­ting up to speed,” he says.

A social net­work­ing tool takes these for­tu­itous encoun­ters and makes them both wide reach­ing and routine.

Inter­est­ing­ly, Leonar­di did not find that use of the social net­work­ing tool dif­fered based on someone’s role in the orga­ni­za­tion. Instead, he found that use dif­fered by age: younger employ­ees across the com­pa­ny were gen­er­al­ly more skep­ti­cal of the tool. So many young peo­ple use social media tools” — like Face­book and Twit­ter — in their lives dai­ly,” and those tools are real­ly for social, non-work-relat­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion, says Leonar­di. This, he believes, made it hard­er for younger employ­ees to embrace social tech­nol­o­gy in the work­place. They would say, Oh, I don’t want to be post­ing things my boss would see.’ … On the oth­er hand, the senior employ­ees didn’t have that same con­cern. For them, the tech­nol­o­gy was anoth­er mode for com­mu­ni­cat­ing about work-relat­ed matters.”

Tools that con­nect peo­ple and knowl­edge in the work­place are not, of course, rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Any inter­ac­tion between two employ­ees can poten­tial­ly be seen or over­heard by oth­ers, says Leonar­di. But we can only sit across from, or direct­ly report to, a lim­it­ed num­ber of peo­ple. A social net­work­ing tool takes these for­tu­itous encoun­ters and makes them both wide reach­ing and routine.

Featured Faculty

Paul Leonardi

Faculty member in the Department of Management & Organizations until 2014

About the Writer

Katharine Gammon is an independent writer based in Santa Monica, CA who concentrates on science, technology and innovation subjects.

About the Research

Leonardi, Paul “Ambient Awareness as an Antecedent to Knowledge Transfer: Using Social Media to Improve Organizational Meta-Knowledge.” 2012. Unpublished manuscript.

Treem, Jeffrey W., and Leonardi, Paul M. (2012). “Social Media Use in Organizations: Exploring the Affordances of Visibility, Editability, Persistence, and Association.” Communication Yearbook. 36: 143–189.

Read the original

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