18 April 2009

Four Questions on Social Media and Organizations

Journalist Marie LaForge of the online technology and business magazine, atelier.fr, asked me about social media and organizations in an email interview for an upcoming article. With Facebook and Twitter appearing in the press almost daily, and businesses and government agencies fretting about how they can "leverage" social media to their marketing advantage (while simultaneously blocking their employees' use of them), I thought it might be useful to offer a somewhat deeper context to the conversation. Here, then, are the questions Ms. LaForge asked, with my responses.

1) Do you think that social media change the workplace organization? If so, why, and what does it change: relationships between employees, between employees and the company?
It is not that social media change the workplace organization per se. Rather, I would say that the workplace organization is changing, and social media is facilitating and responding to the change in interpersonal dynamics of how we collectively create effects and accomplish things in our world. I submit that organizations fundamentally emerge from relationships (rather than being created primarily to achieve a purpose; the purpose is emergent from relationships in a UCaPP world). Hence, social media provide a mechanism to enable, enhance, and accelerate the expression of the various relationships that create organization. In other words, social media actually facilitate contemporary organizations, by which I mean, those organizations that are more consistent with the contemporary UCaPP world, as opposed to those organizations that are more consistent with the Industrial Age and early modernity. Social media affect all relationships – those among employees, those among various sub-organizations within a larger organization, those among multiple organizations that are in relation and therefore become a type of super-organization when taken together, and relations among those individuals formerly called customers and suppliers who now, quite legitimately, can be considered members of the larger organization. This view, by the way, I characterize as a “valence organization”: one defined by the five “valence” (interacting, binding, uniting) relationships among individuals and organizations, namely, economic, identity, knowledge, socio-psychological, and ecological.

2) How must companies manage the social media? Do you think that their identities are built by others, too? Do you think companies have to resist or to accept how people build their identity?
I suggest that in a UCaPP world, identity is collaboratively constructed (and Identity-valence relationship seems to be the most potent, according to my research). This is a fundamental change in thinking for the modern, capitalist organization that has grown up with the notion of “branding” as a form of imposing a corporate identity on a consuming public. Instead, identity is continually being collaboratively constructed based on artefacts created by the organization interrelating with contexts provided by those with whom the organization is in social relation (i.e., other members of its larger valence organization). This means that an organization does not have a choice to either resist or accept. Identity is emergent and continually in flux. If the organization does not care for the identity that has been collaboratively constructed among its various constituencies, it can actively set about to change that identity by both changing its artefacts (that include both tangible and intangible aspects) and its collective contexts from which meaning is made. In this sense, because social media is a vital way to enable and express these valence relationships, it becomes an important mechanism to collaboratively construct identity. Thus, social media are not to be managed in the sense of controlled, but rather enabled for optimal engagement among the organization’s various constituencies.

3) Do you think that the emergent transparency also concerns companies? Must they also be more transparent? If so, to whom must they display this transparency?
Without a doubt! Emergent transparency is the phenomenon that occurs when various diverse and discrete artefacts are juxtaposed because of the effects of pervasive proximity, and create an image of the entity that produced the artefacts. In prior eras, that juxtaposition of artefacts and contexts was impractical, if not impossible. Today, it is akin to the ability of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, each of whom possesses one puzzle piece, to collectively assemble the puzzle in a very short span of time. The emergent picture often reveals that which the organization in question might prefer to keep secret. The best-known and perhaps most significant example of this in political action was the revelation of the extraordinary rendition program under the Bush-the-Younger administration, and the programs of torture. Similar, but perhaps less severe (or perhaps not in some cases) examples can exist in corporate organizations, which is why they are so sensitive to their employees using social media. However, in my conception of valence organization, all organizations are in relation with the society that, even in law, grants them the permission to exist (through their corporate charters). Hence, the principles of social responsibility dictate that transparency is essential for them to truly act as so-called corporate citizens (let alone “good” corporate citizens). Other principles of Valence Theory of Organization call for ceding of control in favour of collaborative understanding and enactment of appropriate overall effects. This idea additionally mandates not only transparency (which, as a distinct concept, is overrated, I think), but more important, active sensing and responding to the effects created by the organization throughout the total societal environment.

4) Do you think that the masses have more influence on economic and political decisions through social media, than they did before? Or is it just what the masses believe?
Social media is becoming far more influential in affecting economic and political decisions, and directing public policy. This has become a constant source of surprise for current politicians and policy-makers. However, we are still at least two generations away from it being commonplace to the extent that those involved in creating public policy who do not engage with the public in a sincere and authentic way will find themselves without power and influence, short of totalitarian rule. There are a few early and relatively gross examples around the world of how social media mobilizations have influenced public policy decisions and election outcomes. Certainly, the ability to mobilize public opinion, and the collaborative construction of identity were instrumental in the election of Barack Obama (George W Bush being such an extreme failure also helped). We are all still learning, certainly, and there are those who now enjoy power (Harper in Canada, Sarkozy and Berlusconi in Europe) who will have a great deal of difficulty in ceding control to embrace collaboration in the way that is truly characteristic of the contemporary world. This is why I say it will be at least two generations yet (and probably more) until we see a new polity.

Update (20 Apr 2009): Marie LaForge's brief article (en Fran├žais) is here.

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