In this article I look at the impact that social media is having on how organisations work and how we work within them. Much is written about the internet and the digital revolution and how they are impacting so many parts of our lives. In the life of the internet so far we can trace three phases:
- 1980’s – one to one connections: e.g. e-mail
- 1990’s – one to many connections: e.g. websites available to all
- 2000’s – many to many connections: e.g. social media.
The third phase, social media, is only five years old. The digitised world is accelerating and social media sites have grown exponentially. The way we interact with one another has changed dramatically as a result. The most immediate impact is on our social lives – but how will it affect our work lives?
In September 2012 Facebook reached 1 billion users since its start up in 2004. It took 125 years for there to be 1 billion telephone users in the world. In 2011, YouTube had more than 1 trillion views or around 140 views for every person on earth!
The sheer volume of interactions is making social media a dominant channel of communication in people’s lives. It is through social media that we are now getting our information, ideas and opinions. We have the ability to exchange views and opinions without boundary and connect freely across geographies, businesses, governments and peoples. Much has been written about the revolutions in many Arab countries being enabled through social media. The rapid dispersal of ideas and information resulting in coherent assertive action. Similarly, the riots across the UK in August 2011 are viewed as having been fuelled by the ability to propagate information through social media. A sense of common cause and solidarity sweeps across folk that have never met or even previously known of each other’s existence.
As Ed Kessler, in his article in Perspectives says, we are witnessing a massive democratisation of information. Everyone is a publisher, everyone is a critic. Social media engages everyone that participates, it gives voice to those who may feel that they have had none. Information can spread rapidly and initiate change with similar rapidity but there are no editors anymore, so misinformation and negative comment can equally proliferate.
The internet has brought huge advances for businesses. Within organisations themselves it has revolutionised communication, accelerated decision-making, enabled collaboration across organisation and geographic borders and provided platforms for the adoption of innovation. But it is the impact that social media is having upon how organisations work that I want to focus on.
Organisations are deigned on a foundation of ideas that have evolved over millennia. Social media challenges many of these ideas. Ideas about information, truth, hierarchy, authority and dialogue. Let’s consider the impact each has on the way we organise and manage our businesses.
Social Media and Information
Organisations have hierarchies and within them are information hierarchies. The information that is at the disposal of the Chief Executive is very different from the work information available to the part-time cleaner. Some of this is driven by the nature of each person’s tasks, but other parts are shrouded in confidentiality – there are points and issues we don’t want to tell everyone. Can this survive the onslaught of social media?
Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to control the flow of information, can businesses be any different? Are we moving to a world where most, if not all, the information in a business is available to all within it? If so, what does this mean for the nature of jobs?
This information explosion makes it harder for people to make sense of it all. Jobs often have well-defined boundaries of what information is required to do that job and organisations have had the means to largely control that information but maybe, no more. How can we ensure that people at work use only the necessary information rather than the increasingly available information? Do we just end up leaving it to the job-holder to pick the data from whatever source and disregard the rest? In a way, managers are the data editors but the risk is of social media disrupting and directing the information flow within the organisation.
This leads to us having to face up to the idea that social media may dominate the actual information flow within the organisation. Informal ‘whistle-blowing’ is growing and the very media that links people so well for positive outcomes can also be engaged to drive dissent and alternative truths.
As people have access to more and more information and opinions what happens to the idea of truth? In a Delphi study participants give their opinion on a subject and are then asked to assess their personal level of expertise. There is no such assessment in social media. Opinions and indeed fact become based on popular sentiment – if enough people are saying it, it must be true!
In 2009, San Antonio based Pear Analytics conducted an analysis of 2000 Tweets and found that 40% of content was “pointless babble”, 38% conversational, 9% forwarding information, 6% self-promotion, 4% spam and 4% news. Not an encouraging distribution for the upholders of fact and truth.
Recent reports suggest that many people tell lies in social media, or at the very least, stretch reality to give the most positive projection of themselves. This leaves the organisation with the challenge of corroborating or endorsing ‘truth’ in a web of information that is largely uncontrolled. Managers are going to have to become even more skilled editors.
In “Social Media and the Movement of Ideas” Dr Ed Kessler looks at Christian priests who just a couple of generations ago were seen as the moral and spiritual authority. No more, Priests are now rarely approached as figures of authority as the media and social media have become the primary authorities for religious information. Similarly, medical practitioners are increasingly challenged by web savvy patients who look up symptoms prior to a consultation and form their own diagnosis.
Historically, managers have had the authority that comes from having superior information and wisdom. Like the Priest and GP, will this start to disappear as information travels at the speed of looking at your smartphone?
The manager will have to increasingly be the means by which information is corroborated and endorsed but this is a tall order when any lapse of openness and partiality will lead to him or her being rapidly corroborated. Social media puts us all much closer to the ‘experts’ or ‘authorities’ on any particular subject so our managers may be seen as weak substitutes. Managers’ authority may diminish as everyone can access the oracle.
So where will the manager’s authority come from in the future? I imagine he or she will continue to have a strong influence on whether I stay in my job or go, whether I get rewarded well or not, but they will have to work even harder to earn my trust and add real business value.
Identity and Anonymity
One of the alarming consequences of social media is that many of the inhibitions, reservations and social norms that influence our face-to-face interactions get lost. Just as when we are behind the wheel of our cars we can swear and shout at our neighbours in a way that we would not if we were face-to-face; on the internet, opinion, judgement and information becomes detached from the person, it becomes anonymous.
The word bites of Twitter can only ever give a stylised view of a situation. Social media seems to encourage binary views of life where it is either truly amazing, awesome or catastrophic, we loose the ability to see ourselves anywhere in between. In a not-for-profit organisation I know, everyone is so pleasant and supportive of one another to the extent that that they have lost the ability to give a nuanced or graded response. Everything has become either ‘fantastic’ or a ‘disaster’.
One of the things about traditional authorship was that you put your name on it. You stood by what you had written and opened yourself to discussion and challenge, in social media not so.
So will all this erode our sense of identity at work? Will we increasingly use social media to provide the social interaction that work hitherto has provided?
Headhunters no longer need your CV – access to your social media profile or LinkedIn page is now sufficient. We are becoming our internet profile. Our ability to present ourselves differently in social vs. work networks becomes less credible and from the employer’s perspective we now have access to your social as well as your work persona.
Hierarchy and Power
One of the greatest benefits of social media is our ability to rapidly network across suppliers, work colleagues and customers. The formality of these relationships is in the past – mediation between purchasing and customer departments is disappearing and we can now have instant feedback, make almost immediate changes and test new ideas. ‘Crowd-sourcing’ provides a network of contributors, customer groups provide the market research. Decision-making is rapid and stakeholders are engaged. Representative intermediaries will have an increasingly tough time as their role as communication channel disappears.
In the way we currently look at organisations, all of this strengthens the flatter and more informal organisation and maybe weakens the more formal. Social media has enabled massive change in politics; can we harness similar rapid change for good inside our organisations?
If we believe that one of the drivers of poor performance and strife in organisations is due to poor communication, then social media can be harnessed for good. However, if we also see that differences in view and not just differences in data drive division and discord then we need to uphold mechanisms of dialogue within the firm. Social media has an anonymous trend. Information and ideas become less personal, the opportunity to explore each others views and reasons may just get swamped out by 140 character tweets and judgements based on massive, unstated perhaps not conscious assumptions. Human beings are good at filling in the picture but we tend to use our own views of the world so to do. This is not a great recipe for dialogue.
The social media driven world is immediate and short on reflection. Our ability to hold anxiety in our minds before demanding answers or communicating it to others is declining. We want instant responses and social media is great at doing just that. However, the answers may be ill considered and not the result of some deep analysis and consideration of the options.
Good decision-making requires good dialogue and that comes from the exploration of different views and sometimes weak signals. We need to be careful not to substitute this for the often anonymous, quick judgements that social media seems to have driven us towards.
Social media is with us to stay, it will continue to grow and develop – precisely in what way I don’t know. Within the world of work, social media challenges many of our basic ideas that we see as components of organisational effectiveness:
- challenges fact, meaning, sense, context
- challenges “the truth”
- challenges hierarchy
- challenges authority
- challenges representative structures
- challenges our accepted ideas about organisation.
What I do know is that it will impact the way we work in ways we have not yet realised. It will change organisation behaviour. Social media is part of our lives with many positive advantages. It will change the way we configure and manage our organisations.
I’ve asked more questions than I have answered, so my colleagues pick up the baton. Gary Ashton looks at how the desire for digital growth is impacting business and organisational models, Susan finds changes in organisation culture and Martyn and Paolo explore the leadership challenges of transforming a legacy business into a more digital one.