Do Social Technologies help organization members think more holistically?

by cv harquail on December 14, 2011

While it’s true that I’m an unabashed advocate for social technologies as tools for transforming organizations, there are lots of reasons why we’d want social technologies in our workplaces and ‘together places’. Social technologies help increase engagement and make organizational democracy easier — just to name the top out offocus light.jpgtwo reasons.

But the biggest reason to like social technologies? They can help us keep the big picture in mind, even as we pursue our own local goals and tasks.

My personal favorite bit of social technology is the social intranet— a socially enabled organizational commons, where people can find the resources they need to get their work done. I like social intranets because they help build community and connection from the organization’s core, allowing everyone (not just a few early adopting departments) to get a taste of active connecting to the community.

From a social psychological perspective, there’s a lot about a social intranet that facilitates collective behavior. The social commons that is the intranet helps us keep our eyes on the community’s purpose, helps us see progress being made, helps us see our contribution to the whole, and give us a useful and relevant place to add our voice.

Social technologies do this ‘instrumentally’, in that they have features designed to accomplish these goals, and they do this psychologically, by triggering cognitive and emotional responses that in turn nudge collectively-oriented behavior.

Psychological Mechanisms Triggered by Social Intranets

We attribute a large part of the shift to collectively-oriented behavior to a prominent social psychological mechanism — social identity.

When individuals are made aware of the larger organization– say, by seeing the larger entity represented on their social intranet screen in the form of logos, icons, and visuals — their identity as a member of that larger entity becomes more salient, leads them to think first of themselves as a member, leads them to think that their interests and the organization’s interests are the same, and leads them to act in the organization’s interest. Voila, triggering social identity triggers collectively-oriented behavior.

An odd bit of research suggests another subtle but valuable way that a social intranet can lead to collectively-oriented behavior by shifting individuals to be biased towards “global processing” instead of “local processing”.

[Global processing bias is usually a good thing in groups. It’s assumed to reflect a more open mind, and to be somewhat more conducive to creativity. ]

This new research suggests that individuals can be nudged to think more of the whole than of the details, if they are exposed to an ‘urban’ environment. An urban environment is more populated, more full, more active, and more energized.

tweeters.jpegSo here’s the conceptual leap:

If the social technologies we use in the workplace function as our ‘environment’, an “urban” technological environment could trigger individuals to think more holistically. It could trigger us to focus on the big picture, and to think first of the global issues over specific details.

I know, this is a superbly nerdy post. But don’t you think the concept is intriguing?

The cognitive mechanism for triggering a global bias is shorter than the mechanisms of social identity. And, it bypasses the self-concept (always so complex), and just works on shifting cognitive perspective. Shorter doesn’t mean better, but sometimes more automatic processes are so subtle we miss them.

It’s intriguing to think of the myriad of ways that our technology influences our most ‘automatic’ psychological processes. If we are looking to ‘sell’ the value of social technologies in the workplace, or even better to tweak them until they bias us towards ‘good’ and not just ‘different’, we need to keep wondering how they are working to shift the ways we think.

Hat tip to the Research Digest of the British Psychological Association: Do urban environments trigger a mindset that’s focused on the bigger picture?

Caparos, S., Ahmed, L., Bremner, A., de Fockert, J., Linnell, K., & Davidoff, J. (2012). Exposure to an urban environment alters the local bias of a remote culture Cognition, 122 (1), 80-85 DOI:

Local-to-global processing begins with local details and builds up to global configurations, whereas global-to-local operates in the reverse order, begin ing with global configurations and working downward towards the details.
More fun stuff to read:
Growing Social: 4 Different Paths to Social Organizations
4 Reasons Why Socializing Your Intranet Makes Organizational Change Easier

From The Social Workplace:
Creating a Social Intranet where Employees can Learn, Plan and Do


Andy Jankowski December 22, 2011 at 7:53 am

CV, I love this post on several levels, but especially like your proposed concept of the “digital urban environment”. For many the term urban implies big city. Love them or hate them (I personally love them), big cities have their downsides. They have barriers to entry (e.g., cost). They require being there to benefit from them (e.g., geography). They can be unsafe and hard to navigate. On the other hand, a social intranet (or your urban digital environment of choice) has none of these downsides and in fact can be viewed as a safe, cost effective, easy to get to and navigate “densely populated area” where ideas can be exchanged and a collective consciousness can be formed … inclusive of even the most rural areas of our organizations.

Rachel Happe December 22, 2011 at 11:19 am

CV –
So I tripped across the term self-synchronization recently in a video about how the military became a networked organization in order to counter a network-based threat. However, in order to have self-synchronization individual troops need ‘shared situational awareness’ which is similar to some of the themes you bring up here.
Net-net, the operational benefits are huge in the speed and scope of decision-making and reaction. I would definitely recommend checking out the video/presentation –

I’m fascinated by this concept.

John Jocuri January 5, 2012 at 5:39 pm

People are always interested in maintaining the social connections. Social networks ease the process of maintaing the connection between people. Having a lot of friends on facebook, for example, makes each one feel closer to the level of comfort needed to interact in the real world. I don`t know.. that is my opinion..

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