Simplifying the Enterprise Social Media Landscape

  • Gerald C. Kane
  • February 03, 2015

There are a lot of platforms your business could use. How do you pick which one fits you best?

Part 1 of a 5-part series examining how social media has and will affect how organizations functions. The series is derived from a full-length article found in MIS Quarterly Executive.

When executives talk about social media in business, they typically talk about it in terms of specific platforms. They ask: does our company need to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Snapchat? Should we adopt Yammer, Jive, Sharepoint, IBM Connects, or the upcoming Facebook at Work as an enterprise collaboration tool?

The problem with thinking about social media in terms of specific platforms is that it often leaves companies chasing the latest and greatest features, which are often changing faster than any of us can keep up with. This approach leaves executives constantly playing catch-up to whatever features social media platforms choose to add or remove, rather than getting ahead of these to think strategically about how to implement them in their business context.

Marketers may care more about who is using a particular platform, rather than about the platform’s specific features, so they may be left with no choice but to follow the trends. For other enterprise applications of social media, however — such as innovation, leadership, or operations — the specific features of the technology may matter a great deal.

In a forthcoming article in MIS Quarterly Executive1, I propose a simplified way of thinking about both the current state and the future possibilities of social media in the enterprise.

Key Social Media Capabilities

I argue that social media platforms provide two key capabilities in the enterprise context — managing networks and sharing digital content.

In terms of managing networks, social media platforms provide new capabilities for relating to others that have previously been unavailable to employees. For instance, although management research has long recognized that someone’s network is quite influential for employees, it has also found that people are generally pretty bad at understanding what their interpersonal networks actually look like. Social media, however, allows people to visualize and analyze their social networks. Facebook automatically identifies mutual friends. LinkedIn lets you know the shortest and best path to desired contacts. These and similar features have the potential to change how people relate to one another in organizations by making their networks transparent.

Social media platforms also support a wide range of ways to share digital content. Researchers have long recognized that richer content, like a YouTube video, often provides more information but can be quite difficult to scan. In contrast, thinner content, like a 140-character tweet in a Twitter feed, may contain less information — but it is also much easier to peruse a high volume of such content in a short period of time to identify information of interest.

Platforms also provide different ways of interacting with that content, from editing to commenting, to liking or rating. Which content a platforms supports — and how — may affect how people use that platform in organizational settings.

The Impact on Organizations

These two capabilities can have two different effects on the organization: influencing performance and constraining employee behavior.

The main reason for introducing social media platforms in an organization is presumably to improve employee performance. Knowing at what level the desired performance improvement is to occur — such as individual employees, work groups, or the whole enterprise — is important, because performance improvement at one level may or may not also happen at other levels. For instance, it may be possible to improve the performance of the organization or a team without improving the performance of any individual, simply by providing greater transparency into its interactions.

But, managers should also be wary of assuming social media’s influence on performance will necessarily be positive. For example, while social media allows people to connect with others across the organization, it may negatively affect their performance if it only connects someone with people who are like them, leading to more insular thinking and poorer decision-making. (See Irving Janis’s 1972 classic Groupthink for more on this topic).

The social media platform will also structure an environment for employee interactions that will affect how those employees relate to one another. For example, some platforms like Twitter allow one user to “follow” another user without obtaining the permission of that user (although the “followed” user can later block unwanted followers if necessary). Other platforms, like LinkedIn, require the user to confirm the connection before it is allowed. These decisions will influence how employees use the platform and the types of relationships they engage in.

The result of these capabilities and effects is a 2 × 2 matrix that provides a simple and productive way to think about social media in the enterprise.

In a series of future blog posts, I will discuss each of these cells in-depth and address some specific considerations they raise for using social media in the enterprise. In the meantime, it may be helpful to think about how social media in general may affect organizations, rather in terms of the currently available tools and features.

Or, for a more in-depth treatment, you should feel free to check out the article when it becomes available.