Social networks boost productivity

For many Generation X managers, work and socialising are two distinctly separate notions, and they therefore often seek to limit employees’ socialising so that they can “get on and do real work”. But what if that real work could actually be improved by socialising? What if social networking actually helped you work better?

In late 2008, I blogged about the potential for engineering firms to benefit from using social networks, linking an article by Design News‘ Beth Stackpole, and a follow-up post by Manufacturing Business Technology‘s Jim Brown. Jim has continued to explore this theme and his latest post highlights some research from MIT reported in the Harvard Business Review (also discussed by Mel Starrs): How Social Networks work best. This reports:

“A recent MIT study found that in one organization the employees with the most extensive personal digital networks were 7% more productive than their colleagues – so Wikis and Web 2.0 tools may indeed improve productivity. In the same organization, however, the employees with the most cohesive face-to-face networks were 30% more productive.”

For Jim, where teams are increasingly geographically dispersed and therefore ‘virtual’, social networking applications like Twitter can replace a lot of the daily interaction that used to take place face-to-face, over lunch or coffee or in the pub after work. Moreover, they need not be restricted to one organisation:

New product development (and product innovation in general) are extending outside of the enterprise and into the supply chain. Virtualization has gone beyond the internal departments. Reaching out to suppliers to do development products in parallel is more common these days. Customer involvement can also add significant value. Further, there are opportunities to reach out to customers in entirely new ways such as crowdsourcing that take advantage of community interaction and knowledge.

Not just manufacturing, AEC too

The implications for the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) industry are clear, and not just to the manufacturers supplying the AEC sector. Probably even more so than in manufacturing, AEC professionals tend to work in fragmented, geographically dispersed, multi-company teams, and many may rarely (in some cases, never) meet fellow project team members face-to-face.

The problem can be exacerbated by the relatively short duration of many project assignments, and by the transient nature of many commercial relationships – meaning that interpersonal bonds often last no longer than the project at hand. This is common, but there are good examples of enlightened construction clients establishing long-term framework agreements with their supply chains that create and maintain more long-lasting relationships.

Last month, for example, at a joint Constructing Excellence/Construction Products Association meeting, I heard how Birmingham City Council had instigated what is now a seven-year programme of work with three main contractors and a host of specialist sub-contractors and suppliers. The Birmingham Construction Partnership has won numerous awards and its success is very much down to its long-term focus on integrated collaborative working (something close to my heart as one of Constructing Excellence’s Collaborative Working Champions, as are two BCP members), without any great use of clever collaboration or communication systems.

Mainstream ‘extranets’ or construction collaboration platforms (of the kind provided by UK vendors such as BIW Technologies and other members of the NCCTP) do not really help bridge the social communication gap. Many projects simply use them to replicate paper-based processes electronically, and the systems generally offer few opportunities for individuals to network online with other project team members – although I have been talking recently to one US vendor, Kalexo, whose solution does feature significant Web 2.0 functionality (see EE post).

I hope that the leading UK collaboration vendors will recognise that Web 2.0-type functionality could enhance their product offerings. If not, perhaps their customers (usually industry clients, contractors or project managers) or other supply chain members will start requesting social networking type features for just the kind of productivity benefits identified by MIT’s research.

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  1. […] with manufacturing businesses also bringing social computing into the work of their employees (post). But adoption by engineering/construction organisations apparently lags a long way […]

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