No technology is social. People and their practices do.

In short : developing practices and behaviors to bring them online and favor technology adoption is only the visible part of the iceberg. Before all a “social intention” should be created, so we need to know what factors stimulate it.

Social technologies are often shown as a means allowing to favor more efficient work practices. Of course, that’s because of their…social nature. But, to make a never-ending story short : social technologies don’t change a thing (or even make it more complicated) when practices aren’t social.

To some extent, it’s even easier to see concrete things in companies having worked on social practices and implemented them without technology or with irrelevant ones (even if this last situation is painful and frustrating) than in ones having the best technology to date and irrelevant practices.

Marcia Conner perfectly says it  in The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media:

Social media is technology used to engage three or more people

Social learning is participating with others to make sense of new ideas

What’s new is how powerfully they work together.

Of course. People have been doing social learning for centuries. Have been using social media for years. Purposely or not. What did the tools change ? They leverage existing practices provided people had the intention to do things in a certain way. And what Marcia said about social learning can in fact apply to any “social” activity.

Should it be about decision making, management, learning, recruitment we’ve seen social practices emerging over time, long before social technologies appeared.

On the other hand tools were powerful levers when used to support these practices. That’s obvious. And the results they made possible have often been beyond expectations.

What leads us to question the primacy of offline practices over online ones.

Here there are two schools of thinking : either one considers that “online” helps to do things that would never have been done offline, or considers that “online” is only the replication of “offline” but at a much wider scale.

I believe in the second option for many reasons :

– we can see new behaviors in companies using no social technologies

– we observe that leaders in social technology adoptions started to change their practices long before these technologies become mainstream. Sometimes it happened painfully with irrelevant tools, but it always was coherent. My favorite example being Danone where a deep work have been made on behaviors years before they implemented their social platform.

– most people now admit that, as for community management (since some still king that socializing organizations means adding a community layer over the existing ones) that the most successful communities are those that exist in real life.

That’s something  I said in october in the presentation I gave at HRTech Europe. Among the questions I had after, one specially interested me because it made me consider a new input in my thinking. The question was from Stowe Boyd who showed me the limits of my approach, saying that without technology he would need to make thousands of people take a plan and gather them in a stadium to share a message with them.

At first sight there’s no contradiction here with what I said because in my opinion tools help to make things scalable and get rid of time and space limitations. Of course technology allows to interact with more people, wherever they are.

But Stowe was right one one thing : technology allows things that are not possible offline since in some cases interactions need a critical mass to bear fruits. If I’m a fan of football team there are many chances I can easily meet people who share the same interest in my close neighborhood, so the only benefit how technology is scalability. But if my passion is something very rare and poorly shared, the probability to find the right persons offline is close to zero. So the dynamic need to move online to start. Typically, if we consider all the people who started to be interested in enterprise 2.0 in 2005, there are many chances no dynamic would have emerged without technology since finding one another offline would have been less than unlikely.

That made me think about the notion of intention. If one has no intention to engage, share, collaborate on a given topic, nothing will start, either offline or online. If the intention exists but is not shared in one’s “physical” surrounding, technology helps to make things happen because of a mathematical phenomenon : there are more chances to find someone who share’s one’s interests offline than in your neighborhood and the more specific the topic is the more true this theory is.

But finding one’s peers, either online or offline, without the intention to socialize with them lead to nothing. Technology or not.

So we need to find what drives, causes intention. One’s culture, values and personality do. These are factors that are not set but can evolve depending on time and context.

So let’s talk about the context. As a matter of fact, if intention is individual, it takes place into a group or, at least, is to meet the group. Intention and the above mentioned factors are influenced by others. When people around behave in a way, those who see it and see the benefits are more likely to adopt the same behaviors. Either because of the value of the example or mimicry.

Then comes the system I already mentioned in a former post. As a matter of fact, even if one has an intention, it does not mean that it will lead to an action. What makes that, in a given environment, one will turn intention into action or refrain from doing it ? The environment’s rules and codes, no matter they’ve been worked out collectively of imposed from the top. That’s what explain that internauts are often more social than workers, than to similar people have radically different practices because they work in companies where rules and context are different.

That’s what will make that your social technologies will be used…socially. Or just used. And that’s even without technologies, a little something may start to emerge.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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