Cultural barriers as a KSF for social networking projects

In a recent post I noticed the shift of creating knowledge for companies by individuals, professional in their own time and space. Often it is not noticed how dependent business has become with this trend. A dependency that is partially migitated because of the JIP-approach we see nowaways more and more.

This post found from Collaborative Thinking by

Just a short excerpt from an upcoming document on the business and cultural aspects of enterprise social networking that came out of my field research project:

“When interviewees spoke of “culture”, their anecdotes revealed a spectrum of issues that influence the degree to which employees choose to participate in work-related activities. The role an employee has in a business activity compels him or her to perform a task and contribute certain information. However, the depth or richness of actions taken and information shared on a voluntary basis beyond what that role minimally demands can vary tremendously based on cultural influences.

A culture that causes employee’s to hold back what they know, or suppress their level of participation beyond the mechanics of their job, means workers are not engaged to their full capacity. Under such circumstances, workers may be reluctant to share their expertise with co-workers, or divulge what they know only within trusted social circles. Such a cultural atmosphere can thwart efforts to persuade people to connect, share, and build community in ways envisioned by social networking proponents. Social networking projects however are not the first organizational or IT strategy to identify overcoming unhealthy cultural barriers as a critical success factor. During its heyday, similar issues stymied knowledge management (KM) projects as well – and still do.

A common thread between social networking and KM that strategists should acknowledge is the principle that volunteered participation and resulting contributions are a daily decision employees make – and one that they essentially control.” (emphasis added).

I’ve tried to distinguish in several of my E2.0 blog postings on the difference between “directed” and “volunteered” participation. Often, when people discuss communication, information sharing and collaboration, we lose sight that in most enterprises – people converse, share information and work together to some degree whether they like it or not – especially now (it’s just nice to have a job). People’s roles, duties – and sometimes continued employment – “direct” then to interact – especially if those activities are part of business processes or other structured activities.

For instance, working together to put out an RFP, or respond to an RFP, can be a highly collaborative endeavor. If you are assigned to that activity – you will work together. But people don’t always do the best job they can, or should, in terms of collaborating with each other. People inside the team (or outside the team for that matter), may not fully contribute – even if they see, or are given, the opportunity. It might be for no other reason other than they simply chose not to fully engage and take action. Why? Do we just chalk it up to culture and give up because it cannot be changed? Note: I disagree with this viewpoint.

Ultimately, people still make choices on sharing what they know. How do we influence them (if possible) to make choices that directly help co-workers and indirectly help the organization overall when they are not compelled to do so by the structure of their role/task? How do you instill a sense of volunteerism (if that’s even the right phrase)? We find ourselves shifting from tooling into the realm of attitude and behavior change (some might include culture change) which are better understood through the lens of psychology, sociology, etc. I agree with Kate that changing culture is difficult but not impossible. Enabling an environment where people are more willing to volunteer above that which they feel is necessary has been one of the intractable challenges faced by industrial-age organizations.

That seems to be the area where E2.0 attempts to address. I don’t believe E2.0 applies to all types of communication, information sharing and collaboration. Some might disagree (which is fine) – but my understanding of E2.0 hinges on the term “emergent”. Although McAfee phrases it as “use of emergent social software”, I’ve always interpreted it (rightly or wrongly) as “emergent use of social software”. The notion of emergence, participation, and volunteerism come together when you consider O’Reilly’s thoughts on an “architecture of participation” and Snowden’s thoughts on rendering knowledge “Knowledge … cannot be conscripted”.

Why is ROI so difficult when it comes to social networking and Enterprise 2.0? One core factor might be the intangible nature of the beast. How do you predict the ROI of something that hinges on your ability to deliver practices and systems that influence attitude and behavior – which, in turn, may/may not create better business outcomes or achieve some other organizational goal? In many of the E2.0 case studies being quoted lately it seems that the ROI numbers are based on looking back on a deployment of some kind – not predictions beforehand that later proved to be true. ROI is a little easier when done in the rear view mirror – but that might be the best we can do right now (perhaps stories are the new ROI and the people in them the new metrics).

Unfortunately, many project teams don’t have that luxury and are confronted with predicting ROI (and the metrics use to gauge success) before they gain project approval or can expand out of a pilot stage and reach any type of critical mass that might generate the success stories. In any case, the main point of this post was to highlight the notion of volunteered participation. I veered off a bit into ROI but the two seem somewhat intertwined.

One thought on “Cultural barriers as a KSF for social networking projects

  1. To fredzimny,

    I stumbled upon this article because of the link put here from my work.

    I appreciate you liking my illustrations, but please, for future reference, I would prefer that you ask me for permission FIRST before using them alongside your articles.

    Granted you have supplied a link to my website for exposure, which is always great. However, some of my illustrations may have been under contract by a previous client with usage rights, and using them for other purposes would most assuredly land me in a spot of trouble with said previous client.


    Kim Herbst

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