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How Social is Your Organization?

Many organizations see the energy and engagement generated by their employees’ use of social media and wonder how they can harness that energy to benefit the business. Yet many companies have made a common mistake, say Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald of Gartner, Inc., an approach they term “provide and pray.” Just to provide the tools and the space for social media is insufficient, say Bradley and McDonald, authors of The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).

In the book, they lay out a thoughtful, progressive methodology that companies can follow to facilitate “mass collaboration,” the Holy Grail of social media. Bradley and McDonald note that a million “Likes” on Facebook are simply a measure of attention. To create community-based collaboration—the true strength and promise of social media—you must begin with a clear purpose, build a solid structure, and provide guidance to the community.

Of the book, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, writes, “The Social Organization expertly walks the reader through the value of and requirements for large-scale collaboration using social media, and clearly explains when and how to use this powerful new tool.”

Interview with Mark McDonald, co-author, The Social Organization
Q: What inspired you to write this book?

McDonald: We are both consultants—Anthony in the technical applications space, and myself in management and innovation. We talk with about 60 companies a month. A couple of years ago, we noticed that we were getting a lot of questions from executives about how to harness the energy and creativity of social media inside their companies. We quickly realized that it is about much more than a simple technology implementation, and brings a lot of challenges.

Q: How prepared were you to answer their questions?

McDonald: I was a fairly early adopter of social media, and I take a parent-appropriate approach to Facebook. I did have a personal interest in answering executives’ questions, as I have seen a lot of money and effort spent on collaboration that results in the same old top-down approach. There was the potential to do something really different.

Q: So, in fact, most companies had been doing social media wrong?

McDonald: When companies approached social media from the personal angle, looking at what employees were doing personally, managers and executives assumed that those employees weren’t working; they wanted to stop it. The early ban-and-block approach of many organizations was a lose-lose proposition.

Q: What potential were they missing out on?

McDonald: Policies weren’t going to stop employees’ use of social media, for one thing. And the executives who saw them doing cool stuff, which generated energy and interest, recognized this potential fertile ground: Social media captures people’s main interests. Many opportunities and advantages were left on the table.

Q: You write in the book, however, that many companies adopted social media only for marketing and communication purposes. A million “Likes” on Facebook seems impressive to me. Why is it meaningless?

McDonald: Social media can be so much more. Its true potential is in facilitating mass collaboration—the ability to do things and solve problems that can’t be done through traditional means.

Q: Is employee training and workplace learning also part of this potential?

McDonald: Yes, in that people learn best peer-to-peer. Yet, to many companies, digitization just led to the replication of the classroom environment online. Social learning is not just for transmitting content; the key is to make connections that expand the company’s knowledge base.

Q: Isn’t that what knowledge management is all about?

McDonald: There is a crucial difference. Knowledge management is the organization’s way of telling you what it wants you to know. Social learning is peers telling you what you need to know. Learning is often a very important outcome of mass collaboration, but it often isn’t its primary goal. Social learning is not really effective for the simple transfer of information. The learning can often be less successful if it is an explicit goal; implicit learning has greater uptake.

Q: What came as the biggest surprise as you were researching the book?

McDonald: The idea of structure. Many of us think of social networks as totally unstructured. But to facilitate mass collaboration in pursuit of business goals, you need just enough structure to inform and remind the participants of the professional environment. It also gives the executive team the confidence to relinquish control of the means, in order to get an innovative approach to the end.

Q: What’s the most important piece of advice you can give to leaders who want to create true social organizations?

McDonald: Determinism kills creativity. Challenges will arise. Behaviors may not be that great from the outset. You may see lackluster interim results. But learning theory emphasizes that students must struggle a bit; leaders must learn to trust the group, and to take an evolutionary approach rather than a prescriptive approach.

This is how you allow space for innovation to emerge.