Two papers this week got me thinking about the revolutionary power of technology in the workplace.

One paper, “Capitalism Goes Social, or How Technology Will Enable the 99% to Change Your Business Forever” published by analyst house Gartner predicts that social media will cause the top-down hierarchical model of management to be replaced by a “social capitalist” model within the next decade.  Another paper from Info-Tech describes the competitive advantages for businesses to encourage employees to champion tools from outside of the IT infrastructure.

Despite the unrealistic notion that social media will change the workplace into a egalitarian body, as I thought about the Gartner paper I couldn’t help feeling that there is a sliver of truth in their conclusion.  And the Info-Tech paper articulates how a social-media enabled corporate culture could happen.  (Disclosure: I am speaking of the abstract and press release for the Gartner paper as the actual report costs $2000 to buy).

Ponder not the Pinterest workplace

The Gartner paper is a Utopian fantasy.  If you consider social media in a bubble (which oftentimes people do), you may make a compelling argument that Facebook will save the world.  But it won’t.  The reality is that most social networks perpetuate weak connections and are inefficient means to communicate a message (meaning a post only reaches a portion of its intended targets).

Factors far more powerful and ingrained than social media dictate the terms of corporate culture.  In the U.S., laws such as the “right to work” legislation enacted in many states enable top-down hierarchical structure, public subsidies of corporations as recently examined by the New York Times drive down the cost of labor necessitating hierarchical structure, and the Citizen’s United ruling provides opportunity for unlimited funding of political candidates by wealthy donors.  Internationally there are “Free Zones” in Jamaica where corporations can send raw materials for cheap labor add, and you have some variation of that in China and other countries in SE Asia.  And these are just the most top of mind examples.  There are far more powerful forces at play than social media.  Even if you only consider knowledge workers, it’s still not very plausible that social media would fundamentally shift the corporate paradigm.

People may point to the Arab Spring as an argument for social media’s transforming powers.  But let’s be honest: the differences between Northern African military dictatorships and any particular workplace are pretty vast.  Mass protests with the scale of Northern Africa and South America may be perpetuated by social media, but they are enabled by dire life situations that are incomparable to the typical workplace.   Just because a person in Egypt and a person in a cubicle both have Twitter accounts doesn’t mean that they’ll use them for the same purpose.

A matter of resource

This is where the Info-Tech paper offers some pragmatism.  In it they discuss the benefit for companies to encourage technologically savvy employees to champion the adoption of technological tools (such as social media) into the IT ecosystem.  Info-Tech cites examples like Facebook, Twitter, Evernote and cloud storage solutions as third-party SaaS solutions that could be championed, but the possibilities are almost limitless if you think about it.  Yammer, Google+, Pinterest, WordPress and hundreds of solutions down the long tail could make workplaces more efficient, more open, maybe even more egalitarian.  The key component of this being that business is open to adopting these technologies.

Yet the option for many businesses is to cut off these technologies.  Businesses restrict access to social networks all of the time, presuming that time spent on Facebook is time not spent to task.  The act of restricting internet sites is indicative of hierarchical management.

What Info-Tech concludes is that empowering employees through technology is an employer’s choice.  Corporate culture isn’t determined from a groundswell: any given company may have a wealth of talent that could easily champion and implement a tool like Yammer or Facebook into an organization.  But they don’t.  Or companies dabble without deliberateness.

In Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, he discusses the competitive advantage of learning organizations. But anyone who has read it understands that the only way for an organization to be a “learning organization” is for the management to devote appropriate resources to the effort.  Same deal when Brian Solis discusses “social businesses” in The End of Business as Usual.   The concepts of Senge’s learning organization have been around for 25 years.  There are plenty of businesses that have implemented a non-hierarchical management structure far pre-dating social networks.  There are many businesses who make tremendous effort to empower their employees.  The non-hierarchical, empowered workplace isn’t a unique construct of social media anymore than it is spontaneously caused by social.

Businesses that want an empowered corporate culture will embrace it.  Those that don’t won’t.  As Info-Tech aptly points out, SaaS technologies (I lump social media in that bucket) can benefit a business that embraces them.  But ten years from now, corporate cultures that empower employees in this manner will be those that deliberately choose to.  And I suspect that they will still be the exceptions to the rule.

What do you think?  Does social media have the capability to change culture?

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Author information

Jim Dougherty
Writer and chief of miscellany at leaderswest.com
I see social media as a huge differentiator for small businesses and try to tailor my insights to support that view. I am the 12th most influential social media blogger according to Kred, and the single most influential person on the topic of David Hasselhoff according to Klout. Neither of those is probably true. Representing Cincinnati, Ohio and my hometown of Seattle, Washington.

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