I was watching the Friendface episode of the IT Crowd the other day. At one point, Roy, Jen and Moss are all sitting in the office together but end up talking to each other on ‘Friendface’.
It made me think for a moment that this is probably what many people fear their workplace will turn into if they open the floodgates to social computing. I don’t mean the FUD about time wasting online with the real Facebook and Youtube etc, but the fear that face-to-face interaction will be replaced unnecessarily with chat boxes. Not everyone is a technophile after all.
The situation in the IT Crowd isn’t as silly as it sounds. When we talk about management or organisational design issues, we have a tendency to separate out the technology (particularly the information technology) from the human aspects. In my opinion technology is always socially situated… and we see this playing out in the workplace when we notice that people actually exist in a hybrid environment of face-to-face and computer-mediated communication (even more so, if we included telecommunications in that definition). The task switching issue between physical and online can be real, particularly when we experience it through the paradigm of the older style collaboration tools.
However, another side of this argument is that what is bad for one person or group of people in the workplace, isn’t necessarily bad for another. For example, if Roy, Jen and Moss weren’t sitting together in the same office then chatting online actually becomes a positive and potentially productive mechanism.
I would actually argue that there is definitely a step change in the value proposition for using communication and collaboration technologies that takes place between different organisational compositions with different orders of magnitude, although it is hard to pin-point when exactly that happens. It is not necessarily about small versus large organisations, although clearly a small co-location work group may find less direct value than a similarly sized geographically or time-zone dispersed team. Increasingly social software is also allowing computer-mediated collaboration to extend organically beyond the the normal organisational boundaries – in fact, remove the arbitrary organisational boundaries (which are really simply intangible legal and social constructs anyway) and we find that everyone is part of a network.
The issue of using social computing in the workplace then becomes one of:
- Understanding where different people sit in the network and how they add value to work flows;
- Understanding the barriers to participating productively in that network that social computing technology could improve*; and
- Designing social computing solutions that minimise the effect of task swapping between interacting with the physical and online worlds.
Call this the Social Business Design process if you want. But its certainly not you children’s Friendface.
*BTW the best way to achieve this is through a combination of analysis and participatory design, leading to solutions that support further refinement of those solutions through an emergent design process. You see why I added this point as a foot note 😉
A version of this post has also been cross-posted to the Headshift Australasia blog.