Notes in the Margin

On the intersection of web apps, digital content and social media

Changing Instinct, Changing Behavior

As a new social Intranet program moves ahead, I’ve been been thinking increasingly about how employees will respond to the sharing behavior enabled by a new social collaboration Intranet. Effective use of this kind of communication environment is no small change for an organization. It requires new instincts and new priorities, which result in new behavior.

For generations – maybe forever – people have been accustomed to sequestering information, and meting it out judiciously, often for some kind of personal gain. Even the simple act of sharing news or gossip can be done to position oneself as a valued source of information. In the extreme, and often in political organizations, jealously safeguarding information can feel like a survival strategy.

This instinct may vary from company to company, but I suspect that information hoarding is a natural human instinct.

The Social Web frames the information hoarding model in a more dubious position. The remarkable uprisings in the Middle East, enabled in large part by open access to information, are a stark reminder of this. When populist information is scarce, or the channels are mediated or occluded, it’s easier for regimes to wield power. The same is true for large organizations.

But once those communication channels are open and unencumbered, and information is no longer a scarce resource, what becomes of our information hoarding instinct? There are surely times where it’s still valuable, as when doing strategic planning or employee assessments, but for many other situations there is a need to develop or enhance the opposite instinct for sharing, generously.

This new instinct is more than a need, it’s an imperative. It leads to deeper engagement and ultimately greater job satisfaction. From the business perspective, information sharing leads to higher productivity, better alignment, as well as greater market awareness and responsiveness.

In a recent post called Change Is Good, But It’s Also Really Hard, Om Malik wrote:

Large companies are somewhat like me — once they get used to a certain behavior, they develop a certain culture and a set of procedures, processes and a work environment that defines them and their future. These define their corporate DNA. It is hard to change. You can’t buy new DNA, and companies can’t acquire their way into new corporate cultures. Furthermore, companies that lack that self-awareness of their DNA and behaviors, in the end, find themselves extinct.

Later in that article, Malik makes it clear that the required change is not about changing the DNA – the essence of a company, which is virtually impossible to change – it’s about changing behaviors that aren’t useful or constructive. Information hoarding can be one of those unhelpful behaviors.

As mentioned above, a vital element of the new information sharing instinct is engagement. With an online sharing environment, this can be seen as participation in the constructive, creative and enabling conversations that move the business forward. In a post called, Is Innovation Possible in Communications?, Valeria Maltoni frames engagement this way:

The difference between a motivated and energized group and one that sleep-walks through the day is engagement. And isnt that the very thing so many organizations are seeking from teams? What is engagement if not awareness, seeing whats going on around you, and responding appropriately and accordingly?

Information hoarding is the stuff of previous centuries and outdated regimes. But how do you change organizational instincts, which collectively is about changing corporate culture? Perhaps an infusion of new blood, though Om Malik was understandably not sanguine about those prospects. A populist uprising, though compelling on the world political stage, seems unlikely in a corporate environment, especially during a down economy when job security is paramount to most. Execs, comfortable in their relative isolation and unconvinced about the value, are unlikely to lead the charge.

Our approach is to tap high-value and catalytic people in the middle and upper levels of the organization, individuals we’ve dubbed Social Network Champions. These are people who are moving fast and generally making things happen in the organization. Not rooted in tradition, they can see the value of a new platform that will help drive, even accelerate, their agenda. We’ve also seen that if the platform is cumbersome, or the UI is ineffective, these people won’t waste time and will find other ways to get their work done.

These highly engaged individuals, we’re just beginning to see, don’t see information as something to wield selectively, but they instead distribute it freely – spewed out as a kind of collateral value, a by-product of their main activity.

So the hope is that the social platform will highlight the high-value sharing behavior of these Social Network Champions, and provide a clear example to others in the organization. This is the hope for changing behavior and, ultimately, instincts.

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Written by tstaley

February 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm

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