The 2010 film The Social Network, directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin, dramatizes the real-life origins of Facebook. While the film is less about the social media platform than the interpersonal drama behind the scenes, there’s little question the film’s title leads the casual observer to conclude that Facebook is a social network.

Facebook is not a social network.

Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Yammer, and scores of other online venues where people “gather” and interact online are not social networks in any sense of the term. Technically they’re all social platforms comprising a number of social media. Users may recognize short-form blogging, threaded discussions, photo sharing, link sharing, instant messaging, asynchronous messaging, video chat, and a number of other social media that are combined with a personal profile and other tools. Even Twitter, primarily a micro-blogging medium and different from the aforementioned platforms, is not a social network.

So where are the social networks?

Social media don’t make up the networks, people do. The media are the channels through which relationships develop and information flows. In this way of thinking, the individual is effectively a node on the network (see Harold Jarche‘s Network thinking). Because each social platform offers different types of relationships (friends on Facebook, follows on Twitter, circles on Google+, etc.) and different tools, the social networks have grown with very different characteristics. People with accounts on multiple networks share and interact differently on each.

From social networks to social net work

With this understanding, I gained a new appreciation for two more of Harold Jarche’s articles, “Boundaries are for learning” and “Bridging the gap: working smarter.” In these, Harold describes how communities of practice, made up of individuals with shared interests and motivation, connect the social networks with workplace teams, facilitating information flow between them.

A representation of the individual as a node in workplace networks and a social network. From this perspective, the community of practice “zone” is a subset of the social network with loosely defined boundaries.

Complex social networks defy characterization, so it helps to look from the perspective of individual workplace professionals. Just as each may be a node on several social networks, each is also a node on several workplace networks (which is what work teams are). These individuals route appropriate work-related information out through their external communities of practice where information and feedback flows through both loose and strong connections. But each community itself is a subset of the larger social network, so information flows there as well through increasingly looser connections. The originator then filters what flows back in the context of the work at hand and work products are enhanced.

This is the concept of net work: individual nodes who connect work teams to vast social networks through communities of practice, making the work teams significantly more productive and effective. If there is power in a single connected node, imagine the increased power of multiple nodes connecting the workplace to individually cultivated communities of practice. The net work product has the potential to grow exponentially better.

Thanks for reading! @tomspiglanin


Social Net Work and the Workplace Professional — 2 Comments

  1. Tom, I agree with most of your thinking, but I think characterizing the CoP as a subset of the social network isn’t completely accurate, at least as diagrammed. I connect to people in a larger network that are not members of any CoP I’m in. That is, I have friends who I don’t engage with as a CoP, though I’m interested in their work and we interact. And while individual members of CoPs are connected to the broader social network, to me CoPs are inherently both within and across orgs, so they’re ‘different’ than social networks. They don’t connect to broader social networks except through individuals with their networks, not ‘the’ social network. Make sense?

  2. Thank you, Clark. It does make sense. I was attempting to illustrate a CoP “zone” in the external network that’s characterized by close connections (in this context meaning one degree of separation) and having similar work-related interests. It wasn’t intended to suggest all close connections are part of that zone and it doesn’t reflect the many work-related interests shared with connections (therefore several zones exist). The point is that the networks, through individual connections with people who share work-related interests, empower the individual who bridges the firewall and has the responsibility to filter information appropriately. The importance of this connected individual is actually elevated because many members (often a majority) of actual communities of practice are not contributing nodes in the external network.

    I’ll join your group in the Social Learning Centre on the Coherent Organization and encourage others with shared interest to do the same.

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