How Social Media Create Organizational Meaning

by cv harquail on January 18, 2011

Social media tools can transform an organization.

One of the things I enjoy so much about social media is the chance to be (more often) the person I am, with my specific sets of talents, interests, and goals. Every time I extend myself out on social media, I get to choose what I’ll say, how I’ll represent an idea, and how I’ll demonstrate what that idea means to me.

The same is true for organizations. Each time an organization reaches out to share a message, it is aiming to create an impression on its audience(s) that conveys a sense of who that organization is and what it cares about. Each message creates meaning.

Historically, this reaching out, this extension of the organizational ‘self by creating meaning,’ happened in one of three ways:

  1. formal corporate communication,
  2. advertising (either for products or for corporate), and
  3. CEO presentations (e.g., interviews, speeches).

All of these efforts involve managing the corporate, collective self into a single, intentional voice– keeping the meaning as tight and limited as possible. The message was (and is still) almost always massaged, shaped, intentional, deliberate, goal-oriented.201007280927.jpg

What makes social media so interesting as a tool for creating meaning
about an organization and within an organization is that:

1.) Social Media messages often bypasses the ‘professional massage’ step, and
2.) Social Media messages come from many places, many individual and many interactions instead of one central source.

When communication bypasses the sausage machine, it can create meaning that evades centralized, controlled boundaries. It can be ‘off message’ and offer a very different meaning, it can be ‘on message’ and be more complex than the typical extruded meaning, and it can be somewhere in between, fleshing out and filling in our understanding of what that organization is all about.

Because social media communications come not only from ‘corporate’ or ‘marcomms’ efforts but also from online representatives, brandividuals, and a motley assortment of folks connected to the organization, all these additional, little bits of communication offer an alternative form of data for understanding the organization.

Instead of a massaged, managed, deliberate stream, social media give us many local, specific, situational, personalized messages about the organization.

While it’s true that sometimes the meaning conveyed in these messages just reinforces the centrally-managed meaning, a lot of these messages create new meaning.

New meaning gets created when individuals speak about something specific, on behalf of the organization.

When individuals are speaking on behalf of their organization to some interested person, that individual faces a unique challenge. S/he has to take the general, global, abstract, big picture message of the organization and translate it into the specific context. S/he has to understand the organization and s/he has to put that understanding into her or his own words. Her own words convey new meaning.

The organization member her or himself has to craft specific meaning out of a general understanding. In that moment of crafting, at that point of articulating, the individual has to put new words together in new ways to represent the organization’s point of view.

At that moment, in this unique communication, the individual creates new meaning about and for the organization.

One source of new meaning is how the individual translates an abstract organizational position into a specific statement. Another critical source of new meaning is that the individual contributes her or his own knowledge — local knowledge, from her or his direct engagement in the organization — into that message. That local, personal knowledge is almost always new information, and in this way the real experience of that individual member creates new meaning for the organization.

In the process of creating new meaning, the new meaning also accrues some additional heft. Not only does the new meaning get created, but also it gets ‘owned’. The person who said it owns it, and now has to stand behind it. S/he may called upon to repeat this message, to elaborate on its meaning or even to demonstrate it in her next interaction with that audience. Thus, the new meaning has legitimacy, some authority, and more than a little bit of authenticity.

Here on this blog, writing about the dynamics of social media, new meaning creation, and how it engages organizational identity and reputation challenges me the same way that writing ‘about’ Zappos culture on Twitter challenges the average Zappos employee.

We both have to take a big picture message, and convey a big picture intent, in specific communication acts. We have to understand, translate, embellish, exemplify, recreate, rewrite, from general to specific. We have to create new meaning each time, in each blog post and each tweet.

And so it is with each of us who, through social media, puts into words and into interactions the values, the attributes, the goals, the meaning of what we are part of, who we are speaking for, and what we are speaking about.

We’re not just making it up as we go along; we’re making new meaning as we talk together.

See also:

Be Your Own Hashtag
Tweet Yourself Like the Person You Want to Be
The Best PR that $1.6 Million Can’t Buy: Authenticity in Action at Zappos
Why We Want Brandividuals on Social Media

Image: Solidarity….. misconceptions by Super is Sunny

{ 1 comment }

Heidi Forbes Öste January 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Great post. I particularly like your line “individual creates new meaning about and for the organization.” Keep up the great work.
Cheers, Heidi

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