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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

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.

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