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As we become increasingly consumed in our digital world, a common question we hear is “does our online behavior mimic how we are offline?”

Digital natives are now entering their thirties, and the digital divide, as we know it, will be cast aside into the annuls of the history books. However, there is still intense interest in the relationship between online and offline experiences. 

Understanding Collaboration Behaviors

For more than a decade, big brand retailers have been fighting off new-age online retailers.

At the same time some online retailers have found value in opening physical stores, with Apple a prime example.

The research and commentary on online/offline consumer behavior is both rich and deep. My interests, however, are in understanding the collaboration behaviors among enterprise staffs, and how their online and offline behaviors might compare.

This is an area less studied, but potentially more important in an overall business context.

For the past two decades I have been analyzing relationships between staff in usually large organizations.

A Look at Social Network Analysis

My technique of choice is Social Network Analysis (SNA), a technique that can surface the informal relationships inside organizations. A regular challenge that I’ve faced over the years is in educating my corporate clients about a technique that is people- and relationship-centric, rather than business process-centric.

When I began to use a medical analogy, comparing SNA with X-rays and CT scans, I got instant awareness.

Like an X-ray, SNA can make visible important characteristics that are normally invisible. Rather than an X-ray machine, we used specially designed survey instruments.

Like X-rays we produced pictures that could be assessed to diagnose potential ills. In essence we are practicing “Social Radiology.”

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One shortcoming of both medical and social radiology is that it’s a single point in time assessment.

As anyone who has had a blood pressure reading knows, one reading isn't enough. It has to be measured continuously for an extended period.

Opportunities of Digital Transformation 

Well, digital transformations and the Internet of Things (IoT) have exposed some real opportunities to address this shortcoming.

Activity bands are now becoming ubiquitous, with some advanced models able to continuously measure blood pressure.

On the social front, a team at MIT led by Professor Sandy Pentland has invented a Sociometric Badge, which can measure face-to-face interactions, conversational patterns and even body language.

Pentland has provided his own label to the ensuing data analysis, calling it “Social Physics”.

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As intriguing as these devices are, scaling their use to whole populations or organizations is somewhat problematic at this stage. However, there are other digital data sources that can afford this desire to monitor continuously.

Enterprise Social Networking Platforms (ESN) are now increasing in popularity, especially for larger, more distributed organizations. As their use increases, they offer real opportunities to continuously monitor the interaction patterns of staff across complex organizations looking for issues or opportunities to improve performance.

And of course the question raised at the start of this article —“Do staff online behaviors mimic their offline behaviors?” — is prescient.

Mining Yammer Installations

To test this we built a new machine that could mine interaction patterns from the activity logs of Microsoft Yammer installations. 

In a little over six months we have been able to analyze the interaction patterns of some 135,000+ individuals in 20+ organizations over an extended period.

We designed a set of personas to describe the online interaction patterns we found. Our aim is to understand if these online personas also reflect offline behaviors.

And if so, could we indeed impact organizational performance through amplifying the most constructive personas and dampening the less constructive ones?

It’s still early days yet but already the richness of the larger data sets collected are revealing some early insights from our benchmarking analyses:

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We found that for ESN implementations, the majority of participants are only modestly active. We have labeled them “Observers.”

For those non-Observers, the most common persona was the “Catalyst" — those that are looking to encourage engagement.

In the offline world, these could be your line management and leaders. The “Responders” and “Engagers” were roughly the same.

We see the “Engager” persona as the most constructive, as they actively connect people through conversations.

The “Responder” is what we call the “caregiver” in that they support or encourage others, through their responses.

The “Broadcaster" we believe is mostly a negative persona. No doubt you know people in your organization that do more talking than listening and responding.

Aligning Online and Offline Behaviors

So how do these online personas align with offline behaviors?

It’s really too early to say definitively, our research is on-going.

Anecdotally though, using the sample of our own small company, we can see some broad alignment but acknowledge that particular contexts can force different online behaviors for short periods.

But isn’t that the same in the offline world?

With a mountain of big social data being collected in the popular social networking platforms like Yammer, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and the like, perhaps we will see the “Social Radiologist” sitting right up there with their Medical counterparts, as a critical member of the “business” health team?

Title image by Jesse Orrico