Augmenting Your Social Capital

By Christian Buckley posted 06-11-2012 16:41


Many organizations underestimate the cultural learning curve associated with implementing more social collaboration tools. People are becoming more familiar with consumer-based social tools, yes, but how those familiar technologies fit into the enterprise, and how their enterprise permutations align with business processes and information worker productivity are not as simple as your average SharePoint interaction. And then there is the concept of social capital.


Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, offered the observation that "much of the success of the United States as a nation had to do with its ability to generate social capital, that mysterious but critical set of characteristics of functioning communities."


Social capital is, simply put, the level of trust that is earned by an individual or a brand within a social construct. A new user entering a technology forum, for instance, has no social capital. As they participate in conversation threads, asking questions and answering questions, they slowly build capital. The same activity happens within an organization. In fact, my observation has been that highly trusted individuals in the traditional workplace who do not participate in online social networking do not automatically receive this same level of trust within the digital world, as the types of interactions may be different between expert and community and the rules that define social capital may be different.


The importance of augmenting or improving one's social capital, whether online or offline, may benefit more than just the quality of your professional relationships. Putnam continued, "Individuals in groups with more social capital are better off on a large number of metrics, from health and happiness to earning potential, than in those groups with less social capital." Individuals with strong social capital have more access to data, and generate quicker and more detailed feedback from their networks. Case in point: anyone new to the SharePoint community can ask a question via Twitter and generally get a quick response back, but the volume and (quality) or responses increases dramatically when the same question is picked up by and re-tweeted by a trusted member of the community.


Traditional social capital (through conversation, offline interactions) is on the decline, while online social capital is on the rise. Why? A lack of time. Online interactions provide a much more efficient method for most forms of professional communication. However, quality is clearly impacted. Putnam concludes, "Across a remarkably broad range of measures, participation in group activities, the vehicle for creating and sustaining sound capital, was on the decline in the United States. One of the greatest assets in the growth and stability of the US was ebbing away. One cause of the decline in social capital was a simple increase in the difficulty of people getting together -- an increase in transaction costs, to use Coase's term."  

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