From social capital to social fabric
Recently I’ve been reading about topics like social capital and knowledge from a network point of view. Networks (in organizations) are quite an interesting point of view, because it represents the ‘real’ flow of information, knowledge, advice, ideas, gossip, etc. Some networks form naturally, being intrinsic of nature, and some are being formed extrinsically. A little bit of both would be the best for an organization, because not all networks would be beneficial in such an environment. With the progress of online possibilities, both can be accomplished. How to ‘design’ online networks is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and how they develop is unique in every situation, but both can be guided to some extent. Both design and emergent processes determine the structure of the network.
An interesting article I’ve read recently was “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Electronic Networks of Practice” (Wasko and Faraj, 2005). What are motivations for people to exchange advice and ideas to others that they don’t know? It’s interesting, because it’s what we see all the time. I’ve learnt a great deal from people who left a comment on this blog, most of them (you) just leave a comment based on common interest, not afraid to share their expertise, no expectations for reciprocity or feeling obliged, but just eager to have a conversation on a subject that is a shared interest. So my thesis from experience is that sharing is a good thing, not only here but in organizations as well.
What happens on blogs like these is completely voluntary. Time is available in abundance. In organizations, the situation is a bit different. One of the reasons is time, which is a scarce resource at work, and must be justified to a great extent. It can take a long time for valuable networks to develop, therefore it makes sense to speed up this process a bit, and make it justifiable to spend the scarcely available time on. Typically, organizations are organized in a way that people who need to (or have been told to) work together, are located close by. Organizations are familiar with the concept of designing the organization, like an organization chart and locations of employees. For a great deal, this behavior is copied to an online environment. While this can have disadvantages (eg. showing off), it is an opportunity to speed up the process. It makes sense to walk on two tracks here, the designed, and the evolving. Or does it…… Am I getting a little bit of track here?
My point is that social capital in organizations should be fostered, so it can develop more quickly and become more sustainable. Social capital points to the collective capital of a constellation of people, also known as a (social) network. While people can leave the network, the social capital still remains. The better the network is formed (determining on the purpose), the better the organization is equipped for changes in the network. The advance of enterprise social networks is an enabler for this capital, but it won’t happen automatically. (I dislike the term ‘enterprise social network’ when it’s used for a product, because it has a false promise in it.) A network only becomes social when it has acquired social capital over time. It becomes sustainable. Its structure is solid. Its fabric becomes social.
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