We've all heard the claim that social business approaches increase worker productivity. But if you're looking to use that as the business case for your social business initiative, you should know -- it's not as straightforward as many would have us believe.

If you've been paying attention then you’ll know that this is the fourth article in my mini-series exploring the social business phenomenon.

In the last article we discussed the findings of a recent report which claimed that although increasing numbers of executives are recognizing the importance of social, the majority of companies are stuck in first gear and making little progress in becoming social businesses. Respondents to the survey cited three barriers holding companies back with regard to social: a lack of strategy, a lack of proven business case or strong value proposition, and too many competing priorities.

I tackled the first of those issues and argued that the key to developing a successful social business strategy is to understand whether your aim is to improve operational capabilities, how you earn money today; or your dynamic capabilities, how your organization can adapt to change and earn money tomorrow. Or to make it really simple -- productivity or innovation. 

Now for a look at productivity:

Productivity is About People, Not Technology

In my experience almost every executive claims that knowledge worker productivity is important to their organization, but few can define it, almost none measure it and no one seems to be sure who is actually responsible for improving it.

Management guru Peter Drucker, the man widely credited with coining the phrase, “Knowledge worker,” famously claimed that achieving a 50 percent increase in the productivity of manual workers was the greatest management achievement of the 20th century and that delivering a similar increase in the productivity of knowledge workers was the greatest management challenge of the 21st century. Drucker argued that six factors determine knowledge worker productivity and he distinguished it from manual worker productivity.

1. Knowledge work and knowledge worker productivity is difficult to define. How do you measure the productivity of a doctor? Measuring a sales person’s productivity in terms of sales revenue doesn't take into consideration relationship building, or the fact that the research they do or proposals they write might be re-used by colleagues.

2. Knowledge workers are specialists who understand their work better than managers and this implies that they must take responsibility for their own productivity. They must have autonomy.

3. and 4. Continuing innovation and learning must be part of the work and again, must be the responsibility of the knowledge worker.

5. Knowledge worker productivity must be measured in both quantity and quality dimensions. It’s not about how many decisions a manager makes, but how good those decisions are.

6. Knowledge worker productivity requires that the worker is seen and treated as an asset rather than a cost. The knowledge worker must want to do the work. Drucker points out that each of these requirements, except the last, is the exact opposite of what was required to increase the productivity of manual workers.

The key message here is that the productivity of knowledge workers is strongly influenced by approaches to managing people, and that managing knowledge workers and knowledge work is very different from managing manual workers. If you don’t get that right then throwing software at the problem probably won’t help much.

Access to Information and Expertise

Many evangelists cite the theory of weak ties as an academic foundation for the argument that social business approaches improve knowledge worker productivity.

American sociologist Mark Granovetter published The Strength of Weak Ties in 1973. The research looked at how people found jobs. The majority of people in the study found new roles through acquaintances with which they had infrequent contact (weak ties), rather than friends that they knew well and saw regularly (strong ties). According to Granovetter weak ties provide efficient access to novel information. The argument is that enterprise social networks have the potential to improve knowledge worker productivity by reducing the amount of time it takes to find information and expertise.

There’s a “but …”

Research published in 1999 contrasted claims from the literature on product development that close and frequent interaction (strong ties) between research teams often led to project effectiveness due to timely integration of knowledge across organizational boundaries with claims from the social network literature that weak ties led to effective sharing through reduced search times. The question was whether strong or weak relationships between people within organizational units lead to efficient knowledge sharing?

Unlike prior social network research, this study considered the characteristics of the content flowing through the network -- not just the network configuration itself. The study showed that weak ties are inefficient for transmitting tacit knowledge, expertise which is experienced-based and difficult to write down. It also showed that speed of access to knowledge is only one element of productivity. Once knowledge or expertise has been located it then has to be transferred from the source to the target and then be prepared for use. Some knowledge is highly complex and its use is dependent on other knowledge. It can take time and effort to transfer and prepare. It’s these circumstances which can leave you thinking it might have been quicker to do it yourself.

The study concluded that weak ties have the potential to deliver productivity gains but only in circumstances where the knowledge being transferred through the network was explicit and had a low dependency on other knowledge.

Productivity and Engagement

A second argument often made regarding social and productivity is that an enterprise social network contributes towards employee engagement, and that engaged employees work harder thus improving productivity. There does seem to be evidence to support the notion that there is a correlation between engagement and productivity, but what’s the evidence that enterprise social networks affect engagement?

Research published in 2012 in the MIT Sloan Management Review contrasted the experiences of two organizations, one that had been successful with an internal social network and one that had been unsuccessful. The study concluded that success with internal social media isn't about the software or the crowd, but that most successful employee communities tend to be actively managed by executives. The advice is that organizations should expect instrumental benefits such as improved information exchange, motivation, morale and reduced staff turnover only after emotional capital has been developed.

There are four pillars of emotional capital: authenticity, pride, attachment and fun. Authenticity is felt when employees perceive that what their company and its leaders say and do are aligned. In a social media context this means that the messages conveyed by leaders through digital channels must be perceived to match actions in the physical world. For example in one of the organizations studied, management claims of community spirit on the social media channels were greeted with cynicism as the company had recently engaged in a restructuring that led to redundancies.

Pride is defined as a feeling experienced when one’s competence and achievements are recognized and appreciated. The study describes the experiences of an organization in which financial incentives and the use of personal targets and annual appraisals to drive the use of a company wiki were seen as divisive. This is contrasted with the case of the second organization, in which the leader used internal social media to publicly praise employees for achievements.

Attachment is generated when employees feel that they belong to a community with shared values and interests. One organization in the study did not provide a means to enable employees to identify peers with shared personal interests, while the second explicitly used social media to solidify the feelings of shared values and interests regardless of whether these were work related or not.

Fun is the fourth pillar of emotional capital and the research shows it leads to feelings of interest and safety amongst employees.

Social and the Productivity-Based Business Case

Knowledge worker productivity is an important strategic consideration and a key management challenge. There is evidence to suggest that enterprise social software has the potential to contribute towards improvements in knowledge worker productivity in two ways. First, enterprise social networks can help knowledge workers maintain networks of weak ties that deliver productivity improvements in scenarios in which productivity relies on the transfer of explicit knowledge with low dependency. In other scenarios with tacit or dependent knowledge, weak ties deliver no productivity gains. Second, social can contribute towards positive employee engagement and that can affect knowledge worker productivity but success relies on active leadership by executives and a focus on building emotional capital.

Can "social" improve the productivity of knowledge workers? Yes, but it depends. Unsurprisingly social seems to be about people and how they are managed more than technology, and not all knowledge work or workers are the same. Social is not a one-size-fits all answer to the challenge of knowledge worker productivity.

Next Time …

In the next article we’ll be examining the ways in which social can be a source of competitive advantage through innovation, learning and change.

Editor's Note: Read the first in this ongoing series by Symon, Knowledge is Power: The Problem with 'Social'