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Where is Social Enterprise with no Social Contract?

Posted by Mark Bennett on February 14, 2009


Imagine the following variant of a classic Office Space exchange:

Bill Lumbergh: So, Peter, what’s happening? Aahh, now, are you going to go ahead and answer some questions on our social network this afternoon?
Peter Gibbons: No.

Bill Lumbergh: Ah. Yeah. So I guess we should probably go ahead and have a little talk. Hmm?


Not too difficult to imagine Peter’s response, right? Why is that so? What would work instead?


There has been a bit of controversy around a suggestion that companies look at collaborative tools such as enterprise social networks as a means to retain knowledge that would otherwise be lost when an employee is laid off. Part of the problem was that it wasn’t made clear whether the tools were supposed to have been in use for some time prior to the layoff or not. The suggestion also included rewarding or even forcing participation if necessary. There was a lot of pushback – mostly on how it either wouldn’t work or worse yet, would create unintended consequences.


We should look at how this might be telling us how employees and employers sometimes view the social enterprise differently. To some employers, collaborative tools are seen as *only* a technology to be used as a means to drive higher productivity, make innovation happen, and capture and preserve “tribal knowledge.” It’s true the technology can indeed enable and/or accelerate these benefits, but the essence of the pushback is that the technology alone is not enough. For the benefits to occur there must be genuine participation by employees. For there to be genuine participation, there must be trust from employees, which means looking at collaborative tools from their perspective and interests.


This is where the “Social Contract” comes into play*. The “Social” in “Social Enterprise” is not just a catchy label – it says that genuine participation is needed to make it work. And *genuine* participation, as opposed to merely going through the motions, is primarily an optional exercise for the employee. The “Social Contract” between employer and employee is based on its participatory nature. The employee always has the option to “opt-out”, at least in such a way that will cause efforts to use collaborative tools to fail.


So what would work? Focus on why an employee would “opt-in”. You would have little reason to participate if you knew layoffs were imminent and that management has consistently sent a message that all they value is what you know. If management has instead demonstrated they value how you help solve problems or get things done using what you know and collaborative tools in turn help you do that, then you would be more apt to participate. In this situation, the value the company has in the employee encourages the employee to use the collaborative tools.


*The idea of the “Social Contract” comes from Jean Rousseau and has been adapted to business issues such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR.) There is naturally a lot of debate on this since Rousseau was focused on political rights and government while businesses are private property. However, employees are not the property of business and therefore a “social contract” of sorts exists between the company and the employee, although its nature has changed over time.

12 Responses to “Where is Social Enterprise with no Social Contract?”

  1. Mark, fantastic post on collaborative technologies impact to the employee. The notion of employees being reluctant to participate in explicit information sharing in uncertain times is certainly an important issue to consider. Great post.

  2. Thanks Steve! I appreciate the kind words and I’m glad to see the message being heard. The introduction of social media in the enterprise has incredible potential for both companies as well as employees and it would be a shame if it was mishandled.

    Folks, Steve’s blog ( http://steveboese.squarespace.com/ ) is a great source for those wanting to learn more about how to best utilize technology in HR. He has almost 15 years experience with using technology to solve business problems and has developed and teaches a Graduate course in HR Technology.

  3. Amy Wilson said

    Great post, Mark! You hit on why Social Enterprise software is different from Knowledge Management software. Knowledge Management was about what people know and Social Enterprise is about who people are. While we take advantages of the benefits of that difference (a more compelling reason to opt-in), we must also be careful not to violate the distinction.

  4. […] Where is Social Enterprise with no Social Contract? […]

  5. Meg Bear said

    I’m 100% with Amy on how Social can succeed where KM fails. The more an enterprise tries to control it, the more likely it will fail. Companies really need to clarify their strategy for a Social initiative making sure they are clear about the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) part.

  6. […] So head on over to The HR Capitalist or FOT and vote for your favorite posts.  Our own Mark Bennett is representing the TalentedApps team with his post: Where is Social Enterprise with no Social Contract? […]

  7. Mike said

    Nice post, Mark. And fantastic job reminding everyone of the link back to Rousseau. It’s good to remember that these kinds of useful concepts don’t all come out of McKinsey and B-School.

  8. […] Talented Apps […]

  9. […] at this single-minded. For example, grading everyone on their “centrality score” is apt to backfire. How central in a network one is helps some individuals more than others based on their role, for […]

  10. […] we discussed how networks are inherently “opt-in” since they are usually not formal organizational […]

  11. Extremely great article, definitely enlightening information. Never ever imagined I’d find the tips I want right here. I have been hunting everywhere in the internet for a while now and had been starting to get frustrated. Thankfully, I came across your blog and got precisely what I was searching for.

  12. […] technology tools to use will be an important part of our decision making, a social network has no value without the participation of people in that network. In other words, the technology provides the platform, but it is not the […]

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