You can’t swing a cat these days without hitting something with the prefix “social” stuck to it – especially if you’re at work when you’re swinging it. Which, I believe, would be an HR violation in most companies.

But I digress.

“Social” is our feeble linguistic way to cope with a communications revolution that’s flattening organizational hierarchies, exploding the barriers between customers and the companies they buy from and transforming the technologies we use to run our businesses.

The idea of the social business is already being championed by companies like IBM. On a more granular level, collaboration is a top-of-the-list item for many businesses, and social CRM has been a topic of discussion for the last six years. Its influence is being spread to other aspects of the business software ecosystem. Social tools are now extensively used in human resources and recruiting, marketing and software development. The term “Social ERP” has even been bandied about, evidence of just how deeply the social revolution is now permeating the business.

There’s been much ink spilled discussing the impact of these changes on how business works. But what has yet to be fully explored, even as we make our businesses ever more social and relationship based, is how this is going to impact the workforce.

Speak Up

The social era means that the characteristics that have made employees valued in the past are not necessarily the ones that will make them valuable in the future. Sure, a strong work ethic never goes out of style -- but grinding away with your head down in isolation until you complete a task is perhaps not as helpful in the social era as it was in the past.

“In a socially connected enterprise, spotting the best talent for the job at hand becomes far easier,” says Sameer Patel, an analyst and partner at the Sovos Group, during a session at last week’s Lotusphere event in Orlando, Florida. In other words, workers who are inclined to use social tools effectively will stand out, perhaps even more so than the ones who are especially skilled in their jobs but less likely to excel using social tools.

Rachel Happe, principal and co-founder of the Community Roundtable and an expert in collaboration and social media, concurred. “The employees who raise their hands most often will be the ones who get the choice assignments and the important roles,” she said in her Lotusphere session. Employees not active in being part of the solution will “weed themselves out of the process,” she added. “Workers who want to be the child in a child-parent relationship and don’t want to raise their hands will become less and less important as time goes on.”

Share Your Ideas

It’s not about being the loudest participant in these internal conversations -- indeed, monopolizing the conversation is even more of a faux pas in an environment where customers, partners and employees are looking for a selection of expert answers. It’s not necessarily critical that you’re the smartest person in the conversation either, said Patel. “It boils down to having ideas, and being courageous enough to share them because you have unique experience and insight,” he said. In a collaborative environment, it’s hard to anticipate where good ideas come from -- but well connected enterprises improve the chances of connecting those with questions with those that have the best ideas.

So does this make the workplace of the future an extrovert’s paradise? Not exactly. Social business can help flatten the hierarchies of businesses, so that the people at the top of the org chart have a better chance of hearing from the people at the bottom. But it also enables people who are shy, quite or less assertive than their fellow workers to elevate their voices to the same level as their peers. The quality of the ideas takes on greater weight than the personality with which they are presented.

The New Ideal

Adding “social” to a business discipline doesn’t undo the fundamentals of that discipline. The same is true for the emerging social employee -- most attributes that make an employee great remain.

The successful social employee is a person who brings all their old skills to the table, but is conscientious about participating in internal collaboration and has courage enough to share his or her ideas. Instead of the ability to dominate meetings through force of personality, the social employee is adept at thinking about problems in new ways and finding answers, and then being able to articulate them through whatever collaboration framework the company uses.

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