Introducing Facebook to the Boss

I am a loyal reader of Andrew McAfee's articles which he posts on his Harvard Business School blog, The Impact of IT on Business and their Leaders.  Andrew McAfee is an associate professor at Harvard and spends a great deal of time on his blog discussing and defining Enterprise 2.0.

While we all talk a lot about about Web 2.0, Collaboration 2.0, and Enterprise 2.0, there is actually not enough formal research on the subject as many in the business and academic world would like.  The lack of concrete research and facts on Enterprise 2.0 can cause managers to be a little concerned that they're binging toys and not business tools to their worker's computer desktops.  There is enough distraction in the workplace and managers question why they would want to bring Facebook to the office?

Although a CIO, CEO, or office manager may understand what a blog and wiki does, they are not always sure what the real benefits of such applications are to their organization.  If your boss asked you why a company should formally support Web 2.0 applications, how would you answer the question?

I have found that the most persuasive arguments for introducing information technology in the workplace are opinions based on research fact and not solely personal observation.  For example, you may argue that you or your colleagues need a second computer monitor on your desk, but what real benefit is there for your organization to add that expense to the budget?  Hopefully, you are quick to point out to research that has shown workers increase their productivity by at least 10%  when they attach a second monitor to their computer.  In much the same way, you need to have some of these comfort facts in your arsenal when discussing Enterprise 2.0 at your place of business.

In McAfee's article, The Ties that Find, he discusses the importance of Enterprise 2.0 and the new modes of collaboration it brings to the office.  From his experience when he talks about the role of social networking sites (SNS) not everyone is satisfied as to why something like Facebook is beneficial to an organization.  It's a hard sell to those that are skeptical that SNS is nothing more than a novelty in the workplace.   However, he has found that research dating back from 1973 can be used to persuade others that there is real business value in today's SNS.

We read a fair bit written by Mark Granovetter, a sociologist now at Stanford who must be one of the most frequently referenced of all organizational scholars. In 1973 Granovetter wrote "The Strength of Weak Ties" (SWT), a seminal article that’s been cited a jaw-dropping 5111 times according to Google Scholar.

Companies that rely heavily on innovation have always spent a great deal of time, money, and effort on ways to help knowledge workers interact better with their close colleagues. These companies obsess about office and lab layouts, trying to ensure that people flow past each other often and feel drawn to common work areas. They assemble cross-functional teams and try to make sure that these groups have enough of the right kinds of diversity (whatever that is). They hold brainstorming sessions and off-sites where coworkers can interact with the same set of colleagues, but differently.

Granovetters’ great insight in SWT and later work was that these activities help strengthen already strong ties, but that weak ties might actually be the more important ones for innovation and knowledge sharing. Strong ties and weak ties are exactly what they sound like. Strong ties between people arise from long-term, frequent, and sustained interactions; weak ties from infrequent and more casual ones. The ‘problem’ with strong ties is that if persons A and B have a strong tie, they’re also likely to be strongly tied to all members of each other’s networks. In other words, there’s likely to be a lot of overlap in their friendship circles.

Some of my most valuable resources of information in the workplace are not from the people I've worked closely with for 20 years.  Instead some of the people I go to for "the answer" are colleagues that I may only have met briefly at a conference or a training seminar.  Yet the realities of limited budgets and a decrease of money budgeted for travel have caused many organizations to spend less on sending their workers to other locations for training.  Organizations have instead supplemented the learning component of conferences and workshops with Web-based and computer-based learning  (learning management systems).

I think what many organizations are finding is that besides the learning component of a classroom or conference, there is also a social component that that must also be supplemented through information technology.

A tidy summary of SWT’s conclusion is that strong ties are unlikely to be bridges between networks, while weak ties are good bridges. Bridges help solve problems, gather information, and import unfamiliar ideas. They help get work done quicker and better. The ideal network for a knowledge worker probably consists of a core of strong ties and a large periphery of weak ones. Because weak ties by definition don’t require a lot of effort to maintain, there’s no reason not to form a lot of them (as long as they don’t come at the expense of strong ties).

So the next time you want to wish to discuss the introduction of instant messaging, wikis, or other collaborative/social management systems into the office spend less time promoting your own opinions.  In other words, don't spend the time alienating your boss that he or she just doesn't get the younger generation's mode of communication.  Instead discuss what the research says about the value of social networking sites in the workplace.

Instead of giving just your personal opinion, discuss Granovetters' work on SWT from 1973, recognize your bosses' own past efforts to improve the learning/social conditions for his workers and how it relates the research. Finally, sned those same bosses over to Andrew McAfee's website so they can consider the business values of SNS in the workplace on their own terms.  Even better yet, start it easy with your boss and place a hardcopy of one of McAffee's research papers on their desk that dealing with Enterprise 2.0 and collaboration.  In this way, your boss not only has to consider your opinions about Enterprise 2.0 but also what others are also saying on the subject.