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Improve the way individuals think collectively.

When the President of a large consumer health organization wanted to redraft the company's vision, he didn't want it to be an empty exercise or one that involved only a handful of people at headquarters. The company was comfortable using innovative meeting designs to increase involvement face-to-face. However, to create a vision that actually made a difference in how the company operated globally, the process needed to involve people from almost every continent and it was not economically or logistically feasible to fly hundreds of people to headquarters in New Jersey. So instead, the company convened a four-week online meeting to network stakeholders from every part of the organization in a conversation about the future. One of the important aspects of this online event was that it took place over time making it possible for the group to engage in substantive conversations rather than just receive a broadcast of a speech from headquarters with some Q&A. Interacting with each other was even more important than interacting with the new proposals. Participants had an opportunity to preview the new language, add unique perspectives from different regions, and talk with each other about how the key ideas in the vision statement resonated with personal experience. As a result, the participants in this online network meeting felt both that they had influenced the outcome and that they had a stake in making it work. The sponsor of the online event said of the process, "We could not have gotten the quality result we got any other way."

A rich social network makes it possible to move from knowledge-sharing to collective knowing.

Because youíre externalizing a lot more when youíre on an on-line environment, you end up processing your whole life differently in a way. I know that I experience that. A lot of times Iím thinking about how Iím going to communicate and the experience Iím having as Iím having it, which actually has the effect of tuning it up for me, because Iím more sharp in my experiencing of it because since itís so easy to communicate it to my team or other people, itís not if I happen to run into them in the hall I might, itís that I know I can proactively choose to communicate it, therefore itís worth thinking about how I would articulate it. Therefore I undergo the cognitive process of understanding what Iím experiencing in a way thatís communicable Ė an exercise that raises my own level of experience.

Youíre not just quantitatively increasing the amount of knowledge thatís been exchanged, youíre qualitatively improving the process by which people perceive things in the world that are useful to the organization, and transmit thatÖ Even when I donít end up ever putting it on-line, itís still had an effect on my own thinking, to have thought through how and if Iíll communicate whatever it is, or how it doesnít relate to any of these conversations or not, and if so, how. Just that, thatís a one tick up reflective thinking process thatís catalyzed by being in that kind of environment.

You improve thinking.

Doug Engelbart asked in 1963 "What if we used computers to think and communicate with?" and he said, "What if you had an automatic typewriter?", essentially describing word processing. He pointed out that such a machine, which didn't exist until his laboratory invented it, not only makes it easier to retype pages, but also induces you to try many different things, because it makes it so much easier to see how it looks without retyping the whole thing. Therefore a low level change in your hierarchy of skills, the ability to move sentences and paragraphs around amplifies higher-level cognitive communication capability.

Turn training into a continuous process

The old model of training was that people went away from their job site to a program that was held in a special place at a special time. Often, the people most knowledgeable about the subject in the organization had "core dumped" their knowledge to the training staff so that it could be packaged for later consumption. The new model of training is more "just-in-time" where training is made available when the trainee actually needs to apply the new information or skill. Instead of being an "event," learning is something that can happen all the time. Instead of the experts providing a sub-set of their knowledge to others, training can involve THE right expert directly. Communication is an environment you live in, not something that happens to you through formal classes.

A recent consulting services client said that the product life cycle in their company was now shorter than the amount of time it took to design and deploy a traditional training course. Therefore by the time they could deploy the training course deployed, it was way too late. They are forced to look at more continuous and therefore conversational contexts for training.

Attract and retain the best people with social capital

We are at the beginning of an era where good employees are an increasingly scarce resource. The ability to attract and retain good people is much more important than itís ever been before. A strong community is an attraction to outsiders Ė strong face to face communities that have an appropriate online component constitute social capital that is only accessible to those inside the company.

Strong social networks can be a factor in retaining people at a time when competition for good employees is fierce. Allegiance to a key network within an organization could be a barrier to jumping across the parking lot to the company across the street.

But creating this allegiance requires more than providing Intranet portals with general discussions about software or hobbies that can be replicated by any organization. For online discourse to become authentically useful social glue, part of the online and offline conversation has to be about the company at a deep level, it canít just be about the baseball team.

Online networks make it possible to engage many more employees in these deep conversations about the kind of company weíre trying to be, what market weíre trying to be in, whatís important about the way we do things. thatís why you need to have internal online events that would reflect or in fact be designed by people in the community.

Online Social Networks Are A Key Strategic Resource

You get the biggest payoff for having a distributed organization when groups can work together across departments, functions, and roles on developing strategies to respond to changing conditions. This is where organization becomes more than the sum of its parts. Instead of relying on small, isolated groups or outside consultants, organizations can leverage their social network to identify opportunities and resources for strategic initiatives.

But strategy requires communication about more than project milestones and logistics. To support strategy, the communication across the network must be rich, conversational, continuous, and involve everyone in the organization.

The danger for distributed organizations is that their communication about strategy becomes disjointed because members lack the environment to support substantive, ongoing (between face-to-face meetings) discussions. Many people believe erroneously that f-t-f meetings are the only time you can have this type of exchange. New skills are required to engage with each other effectively at different times from different places.

This is where the organization can get the biggest payoff for investing in communications resources (time, energy, supporting technology). An organization that does this well can create strategies, processes, and new approaches it needs to thrive.

Conversations are the lifeblood of modern organizations. Until recently, the knowledge and understandings conveyed in meetings and memos and water cooler bull sessions just leaked into the air. The great advantage of new media is not how much information they can put at disposal of individuals and organizations Ė but the kind of conversations they make possible. The technology for sharing knowledge and cementing powerful social networks is no longer rarely accessible or expensive. The knowledge of how to use the technology, not the software or the physical means of transporting it, will be the strategic advantage of those who possess it and diffuse it.


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