Do we lack the tools to steer ESN adoption?

It’s been a long time since I last used Facebook. I’d like to say it’s totally out of a philosophical belief that we aren’t meant to be the product – don’t get me wrong, it’s partly because of that-, but it’s got more to do with my dwindling motivation. I like to assess my use of any app through the Return On my Time Investment. And because of its recent (or not so recent) algorithmic updates, my FB newsfeed has lost its edge when compared to my Twitter timeline.

But this is just FB. Leaving it might disconnect you from the latest updates in your friends’ social lives, but it won’t hinder you professionally (unless you’re a web marketer or a Facebook employee that is). But what is of an Enterprise Social Network (ESN)?

Many vendors boast about the gain in productivity and the rise of innovation following the implementation of ESNs. Yet, what business value can you extract from a deserted social network? It is no surprise that adoption is the main issue with many ESN implementations. But how do you get people who are already swamped with work-related tasks to fully engage within a social network? And once there, how do you retain them on the network?

This is a heavy loaded question with no easy answer. A first step would require understanding the motivation behind our staying or leaving (aka churning) an online social network. A rather comprehensive presentation of the question has been issued by Karnstedt et al. in their paper “Churn in Social Networks”:

A key observation of user behaviour in online networks is that users, with the exception of spammers, make contributions to online discourse without expecting any immediate return [39,11]. In sociological discourse, this type of activity is described in terms of the ‘gift economy’ [58]. In contrast to the commodity or service economy, which is driven by the exchange of good/services for money, economic exchange in the gift economy is defined in terms of an im- plicit social contract. In a gift transaction, there is an unstated expectation that the benefits of a gift will be reciprocated by the recipient at some reasonable time in the future. A more risky transaction involves ‘generalised exchange’, whereby the giver’s generosity is reciprocated, not by the recipient, but by someone else in the group. In social networks, this exchange mechanism applies to those contributors who give of their time and expertise but do not appear to receive immediate benefits. However, there is a risk that the group will not assume responsibility for the debt and the contributor will never be reimbursed in kind. In the worst case, if all members of the group never contribute (free-load), no one benefits and the exchange system breaks down.

This gets more delicate when applied within an enterprise because, well the stakes are higher for obvious reasons, and because what’s going on offline (office politics and such) is bound to affect the dynamics within the social network. Fingers are often pointed towards Enterprise culture and justifiably so. Culture does eat technology for breakfast!

Some argue that internal community management could help ESNs thrive, but it can only do as much. Data-driven approaches that proclaim the capacity of steering the community through web-based analytics are abundant. They could help understand the dynamics of the network, if only they focused equally on the relational aspects of the social network as they do on the content and activities occurring within the network.

Maybe the difficulties of adoption are only made more poignant because of the lack of pertinent methodologies to support the endeavor. What if we could visualize the network in real-time (through Social Network Analysis)? Augment it with activity-based indicators (number of posts of a user, numbers of views of a profile etc.)? What if we could even envision the future state of the network based on the patterns in its historical data and thus predict the likeliest users to churn (As is the case for online games platforms or telecom companies)?

Maybe that will steer the adoption efforts in a more accurate manner and maybe it won’t. I’m nothing saying it’s not a complex question, but wouldn’t hurt to dwell on it, would it?

Advertisements

“Everything is connected” – A paradigm to live by

Image

Source: Tv Show “Touch” revolves around the idea that everything is connected.

While I was doing some  much needed winter cleaning of my laptop, I found the transcript of this talk I did two years ago (if memory serves) and it tackled how, in today’s interconnected world, It takes a network-paradigm to thrive. As it’s resolutions season, although I’m not a big fan of the whole ritual, I thought I’d share an excerpt to take into account while forming this year’s big plan. *Turning sleeves up* (And by the way, Have a blessed and productive 2014!)

“I’ve become convinced that how networks work has become an essential 21st Century literacy.” ~Harold Rheingold

In the Era of interconnectedness that we are witnessing today, we belong to many many networks And weaving various network is the key to thrive. That is why to my sense, brokers (people who tie together otherwise disconnected people and leverage what is called weak ties)  are actually what we can call great network players. And here is why.

Rene Fourtou once said that “Shock comes when different things meet. It’s the interface that is interesting”. We learn most from people who don’t resemble us. Great ideas come from cross-pollination, a combinatory process that remixes ideas from different backgrounds to give birth to novel ones. How much exposure you have to various ideas determines how creative you can be. So when brokers play the role of interfaces between groups they are actually getting exposure to different ideas, which causes a shock, and a shock causes a spark, and spark gives birth to disruptive ideas. Brokers are creative!

Brokers are Problem solvers. People connected across these groups, who cross those gaps, are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving. They can juggle and appreciate divergent outlooks and multiple realities. They know that answers don’t lie within. Hence, they are more prone to have a vision of options otherwise unseen.

Brokers are Change makers. A Network Weaver is someone who is aware of the networks around them and explicitly works to make them healthier (more inclusive, bridging divides). Network Weavers do this by connecting people strategically where there’s potential for mutual benefit, helping people identify their passions, and serving as a catalyst for self-organizing groups.

Creative, innovative, problem solver, change maker. Who wouldn’t want to be all this. But how Do we get to that? How do we become network weavers? It really start by having a network mindset. The “me” attitude should be replaced with a “we” attitude which fits in the networked ecosystem we live in today.

Reaching out of your bubble: Going to event outside your normal sphere can enhance your exposure to new ideas. If you are a techy, try going to modern art expositions, literature events etc. Mingle with people with social science, philosophy, quantum mechanics backgrounds. The furthest you go outside that filter bubbleyou unconsciously locked yourself into, the better chances you have to come out with unique ideas. 

Always look for fresh blood: we are people of habit, we seek the comfort of familiar faces, of people who share our world view. There is nothing wrong with that. Greatest opportunities of growth though come from reaching out and connecting with those whose views are very different than ours. Intellectual diversity is a great creativity catalyst. Let’s then make it a point not to shun away from those who challenge us intellectually. 

Never miss a chance for a new experience: Spend your money wisely. Material things have a short life span, experiences on the other hand are life-long companions. Make it a point to try a new experience whenever the chance presents itself. An Arabic class? A travel to a multicultural destination? Anything that widens your range of interests is welcome.

Leverage the power of the web: In the words of Tapscott “The web, -indeed the world- is your stage, so get ready to deliver your star performance”.  Go out there and shine!

Each network you reach out to gives you access to a whole new reality you may have been oblivious to. The more exposure you get, the more your mind expands and the more creative you can be.

Links & Notes

Here are few links that captured my attention this week.

  • If a network is broken, break it more: New research from Northwestern University suggests that, instead of replacing the damaged lines in a network, we could restore the whole network by strategically disconnecting even more lines
  • Social Network Analysis: making invisible work visible: The paradox is that organizations continue to allocate a significant proportion of their IT budgets on communications infrastructure and ‘social software’ and virtually nothing on systems and tools that can analyze how effective this investment is.
  • Unstoppable march of big data: The driving force of big data is not technology, but the economics of data storage. Cell phones, lifts, doors and weather stations always used to throw out tremendous amounts of data every few seconds; we just never used to record it. Now we can.

Goodies:

  • Interesting app I spotted this week called Coffitivity that supposedly offers just enough noise to get work done
  • A great compilation of resources for obtaining, handling and visualizing data http://t.co/1DheCzVdE5
  • A video, inspired from Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, “the innovation of loneliness” is worth pondering as you unplug this weekend!

“Network theory” vs “Theory of networks”

It should also be noted that SNA theorizing encompasses two (analytically) distinct domains, which we refer to as “network theory” proper and “theory of net-works.” Network theory refers to the mechanisms and processes that interact with network structures to yield certain outcomes for individuals and groups. In the terminology of Brass (2002), network theory is about the consequences of network variables, such as having many ties or being centrally located. In contrast, theory of networks refers to the processes that determine why networks have the structures they do—the antecedents of network properties, in Brass’s terms. This includes models of who forms what kind of tie with whom, who becomes central, and what characteristics (e.g., centralization or small-worldness) the network as a whole will have.

Source: On Network Theory – Borgatti & Halgin

The Challenge of Network Analysis

“To represent an Emprical phenomenon as a network is a theoretical act. It commits one to the assumptions about what is interacting, the nature of that interaction and the time scale on which that interaction takes place. Such assumptions are not “free” and indeed they can be wrong”

~ Carter T Butts – Revisiting the Foundations of network analysis

Our greatest defect: crossing the chasm.

44226441-changeMakers
“Cros­sing the chasm bet­ween “Idea” and “Exe­cu­tion”. That is where the bodies pile up” ~Hugh macleod

Ok, maybe it’s not “The” greatest defect but it sure is one of the most significant and handicapping ones. I see this everyday and I’m sure you do too. Hundreds if not thousands of ideas that thrived throughout the ideation process but never survived the dreaded period of execution. Dozens of people who seem to have a sizzling motivation, a good vision, a cutting edge idea but never succeeded to concretize it in the real world. I fall for the same trap as well. More often than I like to. When I tried to understand why, I found out that our defect was in our little understanding of the two networks in play: the idea network and the execution network.

Network of ideas: Reaching outside the bubble

In the words of Thomas Alva Edison “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.”  So in order to really succeed in making ideas happen you need to be inspired first. That’s what networks of ideas are here for: Causing the sparks that could lead to the ultimate breakthrough innovation. However, most of the great inventions in History emerged from a cross-pollination of ideas. Which means that only a diversified network could render innovative ideas. And since diversity comes from bridging the white spaces between disciplines, fields, cultures etc., this translates into the following rule: Leveraging weak ties and avoiding flocking with similar people is your passport to better ideas.

Mistake number 1: Cocooning in your bubble and waiting for the spark to come your way

Network of execution: It’s about collaboration      

There was a nice equation in belsky’s book, that I think summarizes the whole issue promptly. Making ideas happen = Ideas (we covered that) + Organization + Communal forces + Leadership capability. 

Organization is a rather intrinsic aspect. A skill that everyone needs to acquire in order to get things done. I really think it belongs to our circle of control, which means that if we are motivated enough to attain in, we certainly will.

Communal forces and leadership capabilities are the trickiest. In the network of execution, we solemnly work alone. Collaborating with others is often the stepping stone to cross the chasm between vision and reality. Collaboration leverages communal forces and needs great leadership to occur.  It often requires stronger ties that those of the network of ideas, and a common vision with all entities involved. If 10% is for inspiration, 90% of the effort needs to be devoted to building a strong community with a common goal. Needless to say, this is a daunting task. Most communities are fragmented chunks and subgroups that come together because of the energy a new exciting idea brings about. If not under the right leadership, the energy fades and the network doesn’t stand the test of times.

Mistake number 2: Deluding one’s self that the energy of the idea network will fuel the execution network forever

The network of ideas and the network of execution are very different and sometimes contradictory. While one is built on weak ties, the other needs strong foundations to thrive. While one can be transient the other requires medium to long term vision. While one’s texture is built on barely connected subsets, the other needs constant stitching to make a solid construct. Making ideas happen equals getting the best out of each network and leveraging both at the right time with the right people.

Understanding Brokerage in Organizations

44051372-Brokerage

Source: A. Mrvar: Network Analysis using Pajek

I stumbled upon this article by two Harvard Business School researchers who were looking at Employee-suggestion systems from a different angle. While process improvement isn’t my field of expertise, this passage really caught my eyes:

Tucker also explains this finding in terms of “boundary spanning.” Nurses are at the far end of an internal supply chain. Even if they discover a gap between what the supply chain is providing and what the patient needs, they usually don’t have the authority or knowledge to go back to those supply departments and fix the problem; a higher-level person needs to be involved.
“This finding tells us that process improvement in hospitals will require people to work across departmental boundaries, where the problems happen, rather than within a particular department,” Tucker says.

Boundaries are often the equivalent of information flow and collaboration breakdowns in organizations. They arise for different reasons. The most common boundaries, as identified by Kate Ehrlich are:

  • Functional: Breakdowns between divisions (e.g., marketing and finance)
  • Geographic: Breakdowns between geographically separated locations (e.g., US and European offices, East Coast and West Coast offices)
  • Tenure: Breakdowns between long time employees and new employees
  • Organizational: Breakdowns because of M&A scenarios, or among leadership networks

So, if boundaries are obstacles to information flow for most networks, spanning or bridging them is a goal organizations seek to attain (as it’s the case of the hospitals in the HBS’s study). Employees who span these “Structural holes” and tie together otherwise disconnected people and information/knowledge entities, are referred to as brokers.  In order to understand the role of these employees, I’ll refer to Mrvar’s classification of the different types of brokers:

  • Coordinators are those who mediate between the members of the same group
  • When twomembers of a group use amediator fromoutside, this mediator is called an itinerant broker
  • representative is someone who regulates the flow of information and goods from his own group
  • Gatekeepers regulate the flow of information and goods to his own group
  • And finally liaisons are those that mediate between two groups while not belonging to either of them

Due to their unique position, brokers gain enough Social Capital to make them as much indispensable for the network as they are dangerous. Their bridging role translates into Control of the flow from one part of the network to another. They can thus be great change agents. Yet, the negative spin suggests that brokers can play a “Tertius” Strategy where they induce competition or conflict between neighbors who are not linked directly. This could render information retention problems, more conflicts and hence structural holes (which were supposed to be spanned in the first place).

For this reason, it is very important to identify and recognize your spanners early on. This is challenging because, as these employees sit in the white spaces between network pockets, they are not highly visible  and are frequently not in a position of formal authority. Cross and Thomas state that leaders can only recognize 30% of their key brokers which shows how much potential is lost because we are not leveraging network players as we should.         

Are you aware of the brokers around you? What are you doing to turn their power to the advantage of the organization?

It takes a network!

43911154-we

“It’s a profound thought….How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds.” ~Six Degrees of Separation

 

Networks are everywhere. Whether we acknowledge it or not our networks shape us to some extent. Making the best out of our networks is an enriching experience that can help us thrive as individuals, communities and societies. 

I pondered on this as I was preparing a talk for TEDxENSEM that tackled the theme: Dare to be different. It seemed to me that to be different, one has to leverage that web of networks he’s often unconsciously embedded in. Acknowledging this fabric of interwoven ties helps us unleash their power. In the era of interconnectedness that we are witnessing today, being a great network player boils down to being able to strategically weave various networks. And that’s what we should strive for. 
The video of the talk is yet to be available, until then, here are the slides of the presentation.