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How Online Social Networks Benefit Organizations

By Lisa Kimball and Howard Rheingold

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  Online Social Networks get Knowledge to People in Time  

Source: Rheingold Associates: Online Networks

In major energy company needed to develop a strategy for its future, and make a real difference this time.  The process had to involve more people across the company to get grass-roots buy-in for recommended changes.

So they opened an online network to connect people at all levels and from all parts of the company in a discussion about the business environment, economic trends, and technology developments that could affect their ability to succeed.

The online network had a profound effect on the organization.  People felt involved and that they were better able to cope with the crisis because they had timely and accurate information about what was happening. 

Online social networks grow from conversations among people who share a common affinity.  When the people are distributed across time and space, then these conversations need to take place online, over an intranet or on private internet forums.

A well-tuned online social network can enhance the company's collective knowledge and sharpen its ability to act on what people know, in time to be effective. 

Answering questions is powerful, but it's reactive to problems rather than proactive toward future learning.  A company that has a good early warning system won't miss opportunities or fail to meet challenges quickly enough.  The organization needs a strategy for noticing pattern changes to make sure that important things get up on the organization's radar screen soon enough to make a difference. 

Professionals learn best when they have the opportunity to apply knowledge, reflect on their experience, and get feedback from peers and mentors. Hearing from a peer about something that really worked where the rubber meets the road has immense value. That's what makes a person willing to try something new.  Well-designed online social networks provide a vital context to knowledge exchange that can make the exchange more potent and widespread than a traditional training.  The online social network provides a venue for storytelling, showcasing projects and best practices that could be leveraged to create new knowledge resources.

There's also the knowledge problem in organizations that's been described as "who knows who knows what?" Most people find that it's easier to be open and share ideas with people after informal conversations; exchanges about beer-brewing, or their dogs, or collecting Mexican folk art over in the café. The more we go back-and-forth in a conversation, the more we know about each other and can tune our questions and comments to be more aligned with each others interests and needs.

Responsiveness is rooted in relationship.  The closer our relationship, the more likely I am to take the initiative to provide you with "intelligence" and the more I'll take the trouble to add value to the raw material.  A common problem for organizations is that their conversations deteriorate to being routine reports, and administrative matters.  This just doesn't provide the "juice" you need to support the essential creative energy required for effective teamwork. 

One of the most difficult things in a distributed organization is for members to "see" and feel what's happening above and around them in the organization - how does their part relate to the whole? They don't have a "line of sight" to key parts of the system and so feel disconnected which reduces their effectiveness.  CC'ing people on meeting minutes isn't adequate, they need the stories, the feel, the picture, the emotional tone which is the essence of what they are missing by not being physically present at the meeting.

Organizations run on conversations, but conversations are rarely structured and almost never recorded.  Those strategically important conversations that are recorded in the form of minutes are not indexed to ongoing operations, so they could be used as a store of knowledge.  Asynchronous, web-based conversations in the form of multimedia webconferences can structure and organize conversations and the support materials, including graphics, tables, links so that conversations automatically become valuable searchable knowledge bases. 

Create a place to put questions and answers.  Give people a community memory that's mapped well enough and that has a social element to it.  Create a place, that makes it easy for people to open topics to put up knowledge, and stories in a social context.

The new model of training is more "just-in-time" where training is made available when the trainee actually needs to apply the new information or skill.  Instead of being an "event," learning is something that can happen all the time. 

But strategy requires communication about more than project milestones and logistics.  To support strategy, the communication across the network must be rich, conversational, continuous, and involve everyone in the organization. 

New skills are required to engage with each other effectively at different times from different places. 

This is where the organization can get the biggest payoff for investing in communications resources (time, energy, supporting technology).  An organization that does this well can create the strategies, processes, and new approaches it needs to thrive. 

Conversations are the lifeblood of modern organizations. Until recently, the knowledge and understandings conveyed in meetings and memos and water cooler bull sessions just leaked into the air.  The great advantage of new media is not how much information they can put at disposal of individuals and organizations; but the kind of conversations they make possible. 

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