Is Your Job a Social Network? Sometimes.

Should workplace social networks be transformative or augmentative?

Gadi Ben-Yehuda has an interesting post over at GovLoop about the extent to which the modern workplace resembles a social network.

The post was sparked by this New York Times article in which Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz knocked the workplace-focused social network Yammer, saying “work is not a social network, with serendipitous communications and photo collections. Work is about managing tasks and responding to things quickly.”

[To be clear -- and slightly cynical -- Moskovitz’s overarching point is not that workplaces don’t function like social networks. It’s that they should function more like Asana, the workplace social network he founded, than like competitors Yammer, Jive or the industry leader Salesforce, which is making a play for government customers].

Ben-Yehuda, who is social media director for IBM’s Center for the Business of Government, rejects Moskovitz’s definition for all but the most basic work, noting that most modern knowledge workers are valued more for the new ideas they bring to an organization than for their ability to complete a task on demand.

“Beyond a certain level (say, entry-level), work is as much about finding and creating work as about doing it,” Ben-Yehuda writes. Your social networks, he writes, are like alternative organizational charts -- places you can draw direction and guidance from whenever you see fit.

This seems largely true, but it understates the role on-demand tasks still play in the modern workforce.

Ben-Yehuda’s most important insight is noting the social nature of some work even in the absence of a social network. He uses the blog post itself as evidence. He received the Times article in an email from Dan Chenok, one of the IBM center’s senior fellows.

Chenok isn’t in Ben-Yehuda’s chain of command, but the two share common interests. Chenok also sent the article to John Bordeaux who works in an entirely different part of IBM and the three evidently emailed back and forth for awhile. The result was Ben-Yehuda’s GovLoop post. And it all happened on old-fashioned email.

The first crop of workplaces social networks often describe themselves as transformative rather than augmentative. Witness these lines from the Times article on Moskovitz’s Asana:

For the faint of heart, Asana does offer tools for centralized management.

For the bold, there are outcomes like Asana itself, where everyone can name and assign tasks to anyone else, or kick them back to the originator if they do not like what they were assigned.

Both Mr. Moskovitz and Mr. [Rosenstein, his co-founder] say their job titles simply are “Asana,” as are the titles for their 22 colleagues.

These descriptions tend to ignore the diversity of the modern workplace where some activities -- such as the Ben-Yehuda-Chenok-Bordeaux email chain -- are inherently social and others are more command and control.

Here at Nextgov, we don’t use an internal social network, but we do a lot of our work in a social way -- through meetings, group emails, desk-side conversations and a lot of questions tossed across the room to anyone who cares to answer [Is there any good synonym for social network?]. When it comes to filing stories, though, things turn pretty hierarchical. They go from the reporter to the editor, back to the reporter with any questions, then to the copy editor and online.

A more social model might bring added insights from other reporters, editors and anyone else who happened across a story. But it would be an exceptionally poor model for managing daily deadlines and breaking news when we often post stories in a matter of minutes. That part of the job really is about “managing tasks and responding to things quickly.”

It’s worth asking whether workplace social networks are best aimed at transforming all work activities into social ones or if they’re better aimed at making aspects that have gone social all on their own more efficient and effective. If a workplace activity hasn’t developed some social component naturally, might that mean it’s a bad fit for social?