Are Your Social Business Systems Designed for Extraction or Contribution?

by cv harquail on May 12, 2011

The move of social business systems into work organizations exacerbates a tension that’s built into every idea-intensive workplace.


Idea-intensive workplaces ask employees to contribute not just the work of their bodies, but also the work of their minds and their hearts. These workplaces set up a tension between asking people to give of themselves as employees and to give of themselves as persons.

Social business systems, because they are implemented to increase employees’ intellectual and emotional contributions to social business work, rachet up the demand on employees to give of themselves.

Social business systems are designed to extract from employees rather than to contribute to employees’ larger selves.

Social business work systems are social media platforms and architectures brought inside the work organization. They look like and operate much like the social networks we already know– like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Ning, for example. And, like social networks, they succeed only when individuals invest their selves – their personalities, their emotions, their relational styles, and their personal connections — as they use these networks.

However, compared to social networks, social business systems are designed for a different purpose.

While social networks are built to support and increase our contributions of self into the community, social business systems are built to extract the most from us and from our participation.

Social Systems Support the Experience of Contribution

Socializing and social networks in “real life” (aka outside of work) run on social, personal, personality-driven, personal-interest driven interaction. We interact with people we like and love, around things we care about and find meaningful. We participate in communities because participating gives us a chance to contribute to something meaningful and to people who are important to us, and because participating feels good. We participate because we want to.

Online, social networks and digital communities operate with these same motives. We use these digital tools to support and expand communities we care about, and support and expand our selves as social beings. The dominant verbs in these activities are “giving”, “helping”, and “sharing”. Participating in these social networks adds value to our lives as individuals, families and communities.

Social Business Systems Support the Experience of Extraction


When we’re inside organizations and ‘at work’, the systems we use — intranets, knowledge-management systems, content management systems, enterprise resources systems and other systems of engagement— are designed for a different purpose. These work systems are designed to get us members & employees to do more work— different kinds of work, such as creative work, relational work, and emotional work — but work nonetheless.

Notwithstanding that many of us enjoy our work, have pro-social motivations to do our work well, and may contribute above and beyond expectations because we like to, social business systems assume that we will contribute to them in the same ways that we contribute to our (non-work) social networks. Social business systems depend on the same spirit of giving, helping and sharing that motivate us in our social networks.

Social business systems ask us to use our relationship skills, our friendships, our personal interests, our unique voices, our creativity, our mindshare, and our personality flair, to move work along. This work extracts value from us, like social capital and intellectual capital, that we may or may not be compensated for.  This work that may or may not fulfill us as people, and this work that may or may not contribute to our larger life purpose.

Social Business systems extract value from us as employees.

Can they genuinely add value to us as persons?

Despite raising these dystopic concerns, I’m all for the idea that we should use systems of engagement in organizations to do our collective and individual work more effectively.

What I get hung up on is the idea that social business takes our generosity, our personality, and our loving spirit for granted. I’m concerned that our generosity, our personality and our loving spirit will be extracted from us, to become ‘work’ rather than a freely-made generous contribution to life and the world around us.

I’m concerned that our social, personality and caring efforts will be judged in our performance evaluations (for example, through social scoring), that our generosity will become the property of the organization, and that being a good, full, authentic person will become another way for a company to make some money.

This concern may sound awful to some of you. Like, what is she thinking? Is it really so horrible to “engage” using social business systems?

I felt a similar recoil when I was working at the soap plant, introducing high performance work systems. There, the technicians resisted taking “ownership” for scheduling, team assignments, and quality control.

“Even if you pay us more”, they said, “that’s not responsibility that we want. That’s not where we want to put our energy.”

I recall being shocked— isn’t having more responsibility a good thing? And today, isn’t it a good thing to be more fully human, more relational, more social, and more creative at work?

Yes, but also no. There are current examples that show us how social business systems are too focused on extraction.

Look at the dilemmas faced by organization members who’ve taken the lead on using social media to extend the organization to customers. Through their personality and their relationships, brandividuals generate value for the organization. But, they also find it hard if not impossible to take that part of that value with them when they move into other job roles.

This is not just a white collar, professional issue either. Hourly workers who get involved in extra-role customer service though social media get engaged emotionally and want to contribute. But companies don’t want to pay them for this work.

So the challenge is—

Can we recreate social business systems so that they nurture a spirit of contribution? Can we move away from the conventional experience of extraction?

Can can we structure, convene, facilitate, and use our social networks so that people experience participating not simply as a contribution to the organization, but also as a contribution to their colleagues, their own values, and their own selves?

Possible options

A straightforward way of dealing with the extractive bias of internal social networks might be to build in rewards. I don’t mean superficial things like cute badges and game points, but meaningful rewards like recognition, celebration, and related personal development opportunities. Building in some genuine goodies might balance out the extractive bias of these social work systems.

[ Note, this is the basic assumption of ‘for purpose’ businesses— that our participation in the purpose creates the contribution experience to balance out the extraction experience.]

Another strategy would be to change the basic terms of employee contribution itself, perhaps through changes in the ownership structure of the organization. Systems might feel less extractive if the (economic and other forms of) value they created was shared across contributors in a way that felt commensurate with our increased and diversified contributions.


Which adoption strategy will we choose?

Whenever we adopt a new technology, we have two strategic options. We can choose to fit the technology into the organization to make things more efficient, or we can choose to change the organization using the technology as a catalyst.

I’ve already noted that the corporatized conversation around “Social Business” seems oblivious to concerns about how these digitally-facilitated higher expectations change the psychological contract between persons, organizations, and work. And, I’m very encouraged by the emerging community of thought leaders who are examining our assumptions about ‘social business’ and the broader concept of ‘social work organizations’.

There is an opportunity here to change the world of work and make it better, by using social networks and systems of engagement across organizations.

Right now, though, it seems like nature and motives of social networks will be squeezed to fit into organizations that are themselves designed for extraction.

I would rather see adoption follow a different dynamic. I’d rather help us use the expansively human nature of social networks to push the boundaries of how we think about working together, and to change organizations themselves.

How can we shift the conversation about Social Busineess, so that we use social media and networks to help change our organizations for the better?

See also:

Systems of Engagement: Technology for Social Organizations
Social Media for Social Change — Inside the Organization?
What’s your personal ROI as a Brandividual?
Networks and the Myth that Flatter Organizations are Better

A Vision of the Social Organization, by Rachel Happe

Non-exempt Social Business by Peter Kim


John Tropea May 31, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Great post, here’s my thoughts

Points are organisational design barriers, what’s in it for me, creating conditions for engagement (not knowledge sharing)

david simoes-brown November 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm

Thoughtful post. There’s a new blending of work and personal selves that is irresistible and this forms the backdrop to social business systems. In working on open innovation projects with large firms we’ve noted that far from people resenting being asked for their ideas, their ability to express their creativity is very self-affirming.

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