It's a living thing

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. As the internet, and in particular, social media technologies become increasingly prevalent and pervasive, we have become comfortable creating and sharing content in new and seemingly unpredictable ways. For businesses seeking to thrive in this increasingly social environment, adapting to technological and socio-cultural changes may seem to be a daunting task. What appears to be at first complex becomes clearer, however, when we realise that the human values which underpin our use of social media – community, reciprocity, a desire for meaningful relationships – are fundamental drivers of human behaviour.

IF HR professionals are to maximize the human potential of employees, they must look to refine their business model to embody these core values. These core human values of connectedness is what is driving the underlying trend which has driven the rise of social networking and Internet cultures, and it is one which HR professionals  must apply to the businesses they manage.

HR professionals are in a position to influence both the structure and culture of their organizations.  Whether they believe this to be an operational or strategic matter is up to the individual – but regardless of the approaches taken, technology must be recognized as being primarily for the usage by humans, and secondarily about wires and circuits.

The current hierarchical models of business are built around principles from the previous centuries, particularly those of the Industrial Revolution. Companies are structured and their operational models are like machines, designed for efficiency to meet specific objectives. Employees are divided up into silos or ‘black box’ units which don’t communicate with one another, because according to traditional economic philosophy this helps them function more efficiently. While these rigid structures are efficient they don’t allow much flexibility. In an increasingly dynamic business landscape, flexibility and agility is a necessity, not an optional extra. Historical, rigid organizational structures will not have the flexibility to thrive or even survive in the future.

Social business; a new era

Instead, we should think of how we can build social businesses, working cultures which can transform how employees work and interact with each other to drive better business outcomes. If we look at current technology trends and the core human values discussed earlier, we can gain insight into how best to proceed. The success of social media technologies like Facebook and Twitter suggest that humans crave interpersonal connection; we want to be part of something larger, which is why we use such technologies to share content, engage in dialogue, and develop new relationships. Professional networking tools such as LinkedIn, and certain usage of Facebook and Twitter such as in critical disaster events, provide examples of how these activities are not simply frivolous – they can be harnessed by the business world and reap great benefits for those involved.

A social business, then, is a community rather than a factory or a machine. It brings employees together in clusters rather than separating them into silos. By encouraging collaboration and co-operation, it gives employees the freedom and means to work in the manner and with the people best suited to them – not according to the rigid procedures enforced in traditional top-down business models. While this may seem a terrifying prospect to managers, they need to understand that the most productive outcomes arise when employees know their actions matter, not only to their personal performance ratings, but also to the broader business community of which they’re a part.

In a social business, information flows more freely. Having the wrong information or taking too long to find it can not only dishearten the individuals who make up any business, but also slow down overall operations or in some cases derail them entirely. It may appear somewhat counterintuitive, but replacing linear bureaucratic processes with loose networks of information sharing allows information to be transferred between individuals much more efficiently. It means that the people who need information can get in touch with the people who have it, faster and more intuitively than before.

Finally, social businesses dispel with the rigid hierarchies which characterized earlier models. In the internet-mediated communities of today, everyone has an equal voice and an equal chance to be heard. Value judgements about this aside, we are living in an age where being able to speak up and be heard is considered one of our inalienable rights – and if organizations are not going to embrace it, their employees will find recourse in social media and online. This has implications for everything from corporate image and branding to the hiring and procurement processes: as the emphasis on transparent and flexible working environments grows, it will become increasingly important for HR executives to be able to demonstrate such attributes to potential employees and job-seekers.

Users in control

Most of us already know this at some level; but there is some apprehension when it comes to restructuring.  First of all, restructuring an organisation is an immense task, one which can take up significant resources and time across the board. Continuous attempts at restructuring are not only prone to failure, they can generate even more inefficiencies due to policy discrepancies and general employee fatigue. However, the problem with this model of restructuring is deeper than just time and effort. In reference to the earlier analogy of a machine, restructuring is like taking the machine apart to perform a different function, but finding after the machine has been rebuilt that the requirements have shifted and another restructure is required. If we are to build social businesses, we must recognise that cohesive social networks and relationships are not instituted from the top down. Rather, they are created by the users or employees themselves.

What HR professionals can do is open the internal communication channels for such networks. They can work alongside IT executives to make available to the business the technological tools and channels which are already changing how we relate to our friends and families. They can also advise the C-Suite on the tangible benefits – adaptability, productivity, employee retention – of social business, and help fashion sustainable strategies to ensure the longevity of such ventures. Finally, they can communicate directly with their employees to ascertain what measures are in fact most likely to succeed.

We now understand businesses to be less like machines than living organisms. It is the connections between employees, the cells of the organisms, which determine whether it thrives or perishes. If we give our employees the tools to develop these channels of information and expertise, we stand the best chance of success for the future.


About the author

Mike Handes is the social business innovation lead at IBM Australia and New Zealand

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