The Post-Email Organization

How social media can help employees perform better.

This post is part 4 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. In this fourth installment, I focus 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.

People are inherently social creatures. Social, a recent book by UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman, suggests that human brains are actually hard-wired that way. Not only are we hard-wired to be social, but we have certain inherent tendencies to interact in certain ways.

Consumer-facing social media platforms largely reinforce these natural social tendencies. The reason is for doing so simple: The more these platforms cater to our natural social tendencies, the more likely (and frequently) we will use them. It’s no accident that Facebook has amassed a global user base of over 1.5 billion monthly active users. The platform taps into, facilitates, and reinforces something that is at the very core of who we are as human beings.

In organizational settings, however, our natural networking tendencies don’t necessarily lead to desirable outcomes. For instance, people typically want to interact with other people who are most like them (a characteristic known as homophily) and who share common social relationships (a characteristic known as balance). Connecting with like-minded people is enjoyable — but it often reinforces existing biases and degrades effective decision-making.

When someone connects with people who share similar perspectives and relationships to their own, those new connections typically don’t offer new insights or alternative viewpoints that person couldn’t have accessed before. The natural tendency to be drawn to people similar to yourself can create an “echo chamber,” which can lead to network structures that are detrimental to individual and organizational performance.

Enterprise social networking platforms may be better able to offer features that counteract or overcome of our typical social tendencies. Social networking platforms can provide features that allow users to overcome these inherent limitations in our natural networking tendencies, allowing people to develop and maintain networks more beneficial to an organization’s purpose and to their own performance.

Transparency. People certainly are pretty good about knowing how they feel about and interact with others, but they are much worse at knowing how those other people feel about them, and they are virtually clueless about the social relationships of those others. However, a person’s position in an organizational social network has been tied to a number of performance benefits. For example, people who are in a more central position in the organizational network typically perform better, are more influential, and have more advantageous access to valuable knowledge.

These benefits notwithstanding, most people have a limited understanding the structure of that network; interpersonal interactions and relationships are amorphous and sometimes hidden. As a result, although employees may know that certain types of networks may be more beneficial to their careers, they often don’t know whether their own network exhibits those characteristics — or how to go about improving it.

Social media platforms, however, can offer transparency that real-world networks do not. They allow users to visualize the social relationships of others. Users can potentially see how many connections they and potential contacts have at a glance. They can also note specifically who others are connected to and chart the shortest path to make desired connections. By being aware of the characteristics of the larger social network, they can make better decisions about how to improve their place within it and, in turn, gain access to the performance benefits associated with those positions.

Visualization. Transparency can be extended to provide a visual overview of the entire enterprise social network, showing which employees are interacting with one another, without necessarily violating the privacy of any single employee. Such a perspective can provide managers invaluable insight into how the organization is functioning.

For instance, in one organization I worked with, the enterprise social network clearly and concisely showed that two groups that should have been communicating were not. In another, it quickly highlighted that most of the employee turnover was among married employees who were excluded from the activities of a very strong cadre of unmarried employees who socialized after work. In a third, it showed how low performers were slowly ostracized from the organization’s social network, further harming the performance of those employees and creating a downward performance spiral.

An old theory suggested that leaders should manage by “walking around” and getting a sense of the organization. Network visualization tools can allow managers to “walk around” without ever leaving their desks. It can provide a very powerful lens into how the organization functions, how it changes over time, and whether interventions to improve that network structure are effective.

Recommendation Engines. Much like Facebook or LinkedIn recommends “people you might know,” enterprise social networking platforms may be able to suggest people with whom it might be advantageous to connect or people with whom the user has not interacted in a while. Unlike the consumer-facing social media platforms, however, these recommendations will not reinforce existing tendencies of balance and homophily, but they will nudge users to cultivate the type of networks that are most beneficial to them and the organization.

Even though enterprise social networking platforms offer these features, people may not know how to use them to cultivate the types of networks that improve performance. People are unlikely to follow recommendations that go against their natural network tendencies unless they trust the algorithms at work that are making these recommendations. One way to accomplish this is to provide a good explanation for why the platform is making these recommendations. The platform may note that the potential connection has knowledge the employee might need or suggest strengthening connections with employees in a different part of the organization.

Can we move beyond email?

I confess that I have been somewhat surprised at how slowly organizations have adopted social media for internal communication, given my personal experience of social media tools helping groups communicate vastly more efficiently and effectively. For example, communicating with my students using Twitter instead of email provides briefer communication, allows me to broadcast responses to the entire group instead of fielding multiple similar emails, and allows others to provide answers to questions if I am not available. As a result, my email load has trickled to nearly zero in these contexts. I also have a better sense of my student’s activities and interests by being able to “overhear” their exchanges with other students.

I suspect that email is a “good enough” communication tool that most organizations can’t overcome the inertia and switch to more effective platforms. Successful enterprise implementation of social media platforms involves much more than just technology, but culture and processes as well. On the other hand, I still firmly believe that enterprise social media presents a tantalizing opportunity for a post-email organization that better supports the types of relationships employees actually engage in to get work done and improve their performance. Our research shows that employees want to work for those type of organizations.