Why True Enterprise Social Networks Have Big Potential

Manuel Lima’s TED talk, which you can watch here, serves as an important reminder that the network isn’t just a distant scientific metaphor or social media buzzword. Rather, networks underlie many of the most basic parts of our lives—the way we organise knowledge, and social ties which hold us together.

As Manuel points out, over the course of human history the way we imagine knowledge has evolved radically. We’ve gone, from Aristotle’s tree, to the dense web of interconnectedness that is Wikipedia. But, despite this broader evolution, the way corporations imagine their internal organization has hardly changed at all. The typical org chart still looks like this:

Org Chart

Still very much a tree. At the same time, the actual social connections within companies are looking ever more like decentralized networks. Two things explain this disconnect between the way companies imagine themselves, and the way they actually work: inertia, and an absence of tools built to handle networked knowledge in an enterprise setting.

First, inertia. Most industries have evolved over the course of centuries. They carry with them norms, standards, best practices, and traditions, many of which are so deeply ingrained that they hardly realise they’re there. Individual companies quickly develop their own firmly entrenched corporate cultures. Their org structures are designed to reflect the way they want information to be distributed, based on a traditional understanding of how their businesses are meant to run. Companies need to reorganize these “intended information channels” to better match the networked way in which people actually share information. To make this sort of deep structural change happen, they will need to combat their own internal bureaucracies and their powerful vested interests. And if they want to have any hope of doing that, they need to acknowledge just what a problem their own rigidity is.

The second obstacle is lack of suitable tools. Most enterprise social networks are modelled after basic chat rooms, and are thus a poor match for the true complexity of modern companies. What’s more, current enterprise social networks place their emphasis on the easily marketable, yet often abstract and poorly defined, idea of Team Collaboration, rather than going after what most companies actually need – software that uses preexisting social ties to simplify employee access to information.

These two factors keep organizations using the basic tree structure—it’s often ineffective, but it’s much easier to understand and simpler to implement. But, given the rapid pace at which both technology and organizational practices are evolving, org charts aren’t going to keep looking like trees forever.

The future of companies doesn’t lie with the rigid hierarchy of tree structures, but with the innovative flexibility of networks. To make this shift successfully, companies need access to tools which are up to the job. This opens up a huge new opportunity for the software industry.

Alec Pestov and the Meemim team

Meemim, the true enterprise social network built around knowledge management.

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Alec Pestov
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