Balancing Tradeoffs in Social Media

  • Gerald C. Kane
  • January 04, 2016

Being good at social media is as much about culture as it is about having the right tools.

This post is part 5 in a 5-part series focusing on the potential impact of social media within the enterprise. Part 1 dealt with a framework for understanding how social media supports relationships and content in ways that both enable and constrain employees. Part 2 addressed the multiple types of relationships that social media supports, compared to earlier generations of collaboration tools. Part 3 focused on the implications of presenting and protecting content on organizational collaboration. Part 4 focused on how the features of enterprise social media can allow employees to network in new ways that can influence their performance. This series is based on an article published in Vol 14, No 1 (2015) of MIS Quarterly Executive.

Successfully implementing social media tools in the enterprise is by no means a guarantee for successful business or productivity outcomes. I’ve studied companies that have significantly improved productivity and collaboration using social media for internal communication and collaboration — and others that have seen no effect or even a negative effect on performance.

Successful enterprise social media use has less to do with the tools themselves as it does with the climate that the company cultivates. Cultivating the right climate requires managers to balance a number of tradeoffs through carefully crafted social media policies, adapt characteristics of existing organizational culture, and model effective social media practices for their employees.

Am I suggesting that executives should be using social media themselves? Definitely. If your executives are currently using digital tools for communication (i.e., email), then they too should begin using social media as well. It is important for managers to understand first-hand the strengths and weaknesses of these tools if employees are going to use them. These executives may also find that their influence and effectiveness as a manager increases as a result the increased communication capabilities enabled by these tools.

It’s understandable, though, that managers may wonder what they’re getting themselves into. Few changes can be accomplished without accepting certain tradeoffs. Let’s have a look at what those tradeoffs might be.

Exploration vs. Exploitation

The first tradeoff is between what Stanford Professor James G. March called exploration and exploitation. Exploration involves the search for and discovery of new knowledge, while exploitation leverages existing knowledge for performance outcomes. Exploration typically results in lower short-term performance but better long-term performance. Searching for new knowledge is inherently inefficient, but often pay dividends down the road. In contrast, exploitation results in better short-term performance, but may produce worse performance over the long term. Leveraging what one knows maximizes performance now, but given that knowledge may not keep up with changing circumstances, this strategy may eventually trap you in increasingly inefficient ways of doing things.

Understanding this tradeoff between exploration and exploitation has a number of implications for managers seeking to implement social media tools or other digital technologies. One is that adopting a new technology in itself an exercise in exploration. Attempting to find a new, more efficient way of working always results in short-term performance losses as employees adapt to new ways of doing things. Managers must be aware of and prepare for this productivity dip associated with adopting new digital tools.

It also has implications for what types of content managers encourage employees to share on social media. While it may be tempting to limit enterprise social media use to workplace issues and uses alone, this approach might be a mistake. Allowing more social or recreational use of social media often serves an important exploratory function. For example, one company I studied implemented social media to encourage cross-boundary communication, only to find that employees mostly used the new tool to connect to people with whom they already interacted at work. The hobby or interest groups established on the platform, however, connected people who didn’t previously know each other. These new connections often were leveraged for important work-related purposes at later times. What looked like purely social usage actually served an important exploration function.

The Privacy Calculus

Another tradeoff managers must consider when implementing social media platforms is how open to make them. While we typically think of privacy in terms of personal lives, it can also apply to workplace communications as well. Privacy has a somewhat paradoxical relationship to the content people share on digital platforms.

While managers may be tempted to conclude that a more open platform will lead to greater knowledge sharing and information flows across the company, that may not actually be the case. People may be more reluctant to share information if it is made available to everyone in the company by default. In one company I studied, employees were fearful about contributing to the company’s social media platform because executives had previously disciplined employees for certain types of posts. In another, employees did most of their posting to private groups, because it was the most effective way to filter out the noise of other activity on the platform.

Somewhat paradoxically, providing greater privacy protections for employees on enterprise social media platforms may actually increase the amount of available knowledge, because employees will be more willing to contribute.

On the other hand, radical openness also has its advantages of allowing customers, potential employees, and other stakeholders to observe life inside the organization. This often humanizes the company and helps establish stronger relationships with these stakeholders. Clearly, both private and open spaces are necessary, and it’s important to figure out what types of interactions should occur in which settings.

Freedom vs. Control

The final, and perhaps most important, tradeoff is one of freedom vs. control, and it is the one with which managers will likely have the most difficulty.

Effective enterprise social media use actually entails managers surrendering a certain amount of control and trusting employees to organize themselves to address organizational goals. Herein lies the real power of social media: The ability to allow employees to work together without formal and rigid hierarchies. This loosening of control will likely be a frightening prospect to most managers, yet it creates the possibility of a much more agile and aware organization that less constrained by rigid bureaucracies of more traditional managerial control. Loosened control does not mean eliminating control all together, but it does free up employees to act more on their own initiative to accomplish work goals.

There is no single “right” solution for adopting social media in companies. Rather, success is about balancing these tradeoffs to create the right mix for your company, its culture, and the goals you have for the platform.

Wrapping up the Series

In summary, the central message of this series is that there is a clear and compelling reason to believe that social media will completely change the way communication and collaboration occur within the enterprise (Part 1). It gives employees a wider range of ways to connect with others when needed (Part 2), and provides new capabilities for leveraging these connections for business advantage (Part 4). It allows them to share and protect content (Part 3), but success ultimately requires balancing tradeoffs between the multiple ways these tools can be applies (Part 5).

What is not so clear, however, is whether existing large enterprises will be flexible enough to leverage these new tools to extend existing business advantages, or whether these large incumbents will be eclipsed by smaller and nimbler startups that will leverage these tools to work more effectively, attract better talent, and ultimately pose a real threat to their larger rivals. Only time will tell.