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Just a Spoonful of Sugar

I stumbled across an interesting perspective this morning – one that argues perhaps we are “over thinking” the notion of a social enterprise. “How different I wondered was the social capital I build up when I share a Word problem work-around on the company social network from when I lend my neighbor the proverbial cup of sugar. In both instances, I’m sharing because it’s the proper social thing to do and because I likely believe the next time, that person might help me when I need it.”

The author goes on to posit that our social capital management is probably the same offline as offline. All these efforts to identify behaviors and set expectations for enterprise social behavior is misguided, we’re making things too complicated. Invariably, (although not in the piece I reference here), we come to impugn the motives of those who are “making things complicated.” The author, as I say, does not fire that bullet, but sums up thus: “Maybe we are just doing what we’ve always been taught to do, to share and cooperate with one another. If we tap into these simple ideas, all enterprise social software is doing is taking advantage of the way most of us were brought up.”

Ahem. In addition to reflecting almost none of the case studies of enterprise social software, the author of this piece misses two critical points: your workplace is not your neighborhood, and the cup of sugar examples fails because sugar-sharing is a 1:1 endeavor, while the Word problem work-around sharing is 1:n.

Taking the second point first: You are much more likely to share assets, resources, knowledge, etc., when approached and asked within the context of an individual’s need – than you are to “share” with no immediate reciprocity or other statement of value.

In other words: you may give your neighbor a cup of sugar upon request, but I doubt you place cups of sugar outside your door on a regular basis. Nor would you drive to the mall and leave a cup there.

The mall? To my first point: Yes, the mall is another created social construct, just like your workplace, that drives certain behavior. When we place ourselves into purposeful social constructs, such as a mall or a workplace, our identity / role / time management (etc.) all change. The mall is designed to facilitate retail commerce; dropping bags of sugar hither and yon would, among other things, violate the intention of the sugar merchant therein. Similarly, in your workplace, you are motivated by what is measured and valued. For many reasons, there is a gap between the rate and quality of what is shared for organizational value and what is actually shared.

Understanding the organizational incentives, and the degree to which they force us away from our natural good nature sugar-sharing selves, is critical to solving this gap. Social constructs and contexts matter, and comparisons invariably fall down when they ignore the context.

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