Whether we like it or not, Facebook is upending conventional ideas about community and forcing us to rebuild them. And the changes are seeping into our work lives.
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How social SharePoint shatters departmental silos
The importance of breaking down barriers in large organizations is now well understood: Organizations now consider it a matter of sheer survival. The density of barriers between departmental boundaries can slow a company to the point of ossification, which can, of course, put a stranglehold on its ability to compete. These days, increasing the flow of information and ideas between groups has become a strategic imperative.
Facebook began this shift in the context of our personal lives. To whom are you friended? Most likely, your friend list includes family; colleagues; close friends; casual acquaintances; and people from your college, high school and even grade school classes. If your Facebook community is configured in the traditional way, all these people can see one another and see you interact across social boundaries.
In short, Facebook "de-silos" our lives. SharePoint can have the same effect in the enterprise. Its Community Site feature -- a template loaded with methods for create groups across organizational boundaries -- can be used to generate interest, attract expertise, and get ideas and discussion flowing from all around.
Social media integration: Fostering truth?
Facebook has had an unnoticed but important impact on how we present ourselves to the world. When I'm on Facebook, the people who know me best -- my family -- are watching and reading alongside the people I work with, the people I play golf with, the people I grew up with. I can't get away with being someone I'm not: Too many people would immediately notice and call me on it.
These days, increasing the flow of information and ideas between groups has become a strategic imperative.
Unfettered social media in the workplace can have the same effect, stimulating authenticity and exchange of unfiltered ideas. I consulted with a large health care company recently, and it had deployed such a system. I got to know people throughout the organization, from top-tier execs to the folks who ran the cafeteria, in discussions about everything from health care reform to the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory.
I logged into SharePoint one morning, for example, and the top discussion threads included an open call for new ideas to make the company's online presence more politically neutral; training tips and stories from those participating in a local marathon; and a debate about whether Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness or Man of Steel would be the hit of the summer. While those items may seem unrelated, they have several things in common: active outreach for ideas and input, openness to a diverse range of views and experiences, and a relaxed atmosphere of debate. Great organizations are built on these things.
Social SharePoint and the wisdom of crowds
In social psychology, the wisdom of crowds theory argues that the many are smarter than the few. A large, randomized group of minds will generate more accurate solutions than any single mind will. An example of this is Linux, an operating system that continually evolves by committee, with many people building on a foundation of ideas.
Facebook has a similar effect: Ideas, good and bad, pour forth in individual news feeds all day long, from a broad and randomized group of contributors -- and this flood of ideas kicks off discussion, triggers the spread of memes, heightens awareness of content, and generally amplifies "smart" and "stupid."
SharePoint Community deployments accomplish the same thing via new microblogging features, which bring to bear the mechanisms that work so well on Facebook and Twitter. Some consider Community a plus, because it increases connectivity, not just between information sources but between people and information, in familiar ways, and places that connectivity in the hands of the people who use it, rather than under the control of IT staff.
Ad hoc content parsing
One criticism of the "wisdom of crowds" argument is that the effect of averaging the input of many people and having it trump the input of one works in controlled experiments only when the input is random and unconscious. If I try to rally the wisdom of the crowd in solving a problem explicitly, the input is neither random nor unconscious.
But this concern about randomness isn't really an issue with social media. A social media feed enables us to process information in such a way that it reintroduces randomness and unconscious factors. How? Through the continual parsing of content, as we sift through whatever the crowd offers up today. We "like," tag, forward and comment on content. And we usually do so passively, without making explicit decisions. We respond impulsively.
The SharePoint Community template has those same powers built in. I can use hashtags, adding keywords to content; I can post comments; I can create "mentions," directing content to the attention of others. I can follow sites and people and I can subscribe to posts, feeds and content within SharePoint.
So, I can add to the randomization of the group mind's collective power by using the Community Site's parsing features to winnow and refine it, and my efforts are balanced and augmented by the efforts of everyone else.
The downsides of social SharePoint
Any avid Facebook user will concede that the medium poses challenges too: Yes, it's easy to pull down a vast flow of information from diverse sources, and yes, it's easy to configure that flow to inform a problem or project; but that vast flow has plenty of noise and idle chatter associated, and there's a cost to that noise. While Facebook can contribute to better ideas, it also requires filters for reducing that chatter and minimizing the time sink involved.
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So, you have to think about the costs associated with Facebook as well. Implementing a Facebook-like information flow in the service of institutional problem-solving means accepting the overhead of moderation and cleaning up the input, just as sitting in front of Facebook in the evening means having to read some nonsense to get to the good stuff. There's no way around that problem if you want to preserve the open-ended virtues of a social media-like approach.
For better or worse, Facebook has changed the way we deal with both people and information. For better, hopefully, SharePoint's mimicry of Facebook and greater integration of social media into its platform has brought all that change into the office.
This was first published in August 2013