With the radical change from an industrial to a knowledge society comes the increased significance and autonomy of knowledge workers. Developments in technology and society have given rise to more openness in the processes and practices of these knowledge workers. Working, learning and innovating are less constrained by organizational, geographical and cognitive boundaries. The challenge that organizations increasingly face is to combine this openness with integration across individual knowledge workers, units and areas of expertise, and counter inherent threats of fragmentation.
To unravel the challenge of combining openness with the integration of knowledge throughout organizations, KIN has been working on an NWO (The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) project: New Ways of Working and Human Capital Development. Marleen Huysman is the lead researcher of this project, which the Belastingdienst (Dutch Tax Office), CERN, Kentalis, Rijksdienst voor Cultureel Erfgoed, Sparked, and VUMC are part of. Some of the research projects are coming to an end, and for that reason Bart van den Hooff and Nick Oostervink visited the Dutch Tax Office. Bart supervised several studies conducted there, and combined the findings of those studies with the findings of Nick’s research.
Openness at the Dutch Tax Office
The Dutch Tax Office has been working on their “collective brain” for some time now. Like many other organizations, they are trying to make knowledge more accessible throughout the organization. By allowing people to locate relevant knowledge and expertise in different parts of the organization, people can more easily find answer to complex problems. One element in making this collective brain happen is the introduction of a social technology that allows employees to share messages, documents, and other files in an online environment.
Three different studies have been done at the Dutch Tax Office, by several master students that were supervised by Bart, who was also involved as a co-promotor in the PhD project of Nick. Hence the findings at the Dutch Tax Office could be juxtaposed to the findings of Nick’s PhD research.
In line with a growing literature on enterprise social media (ESM), the presentation and discussion showed the complexity of successfully introducing and managing such platforms. The Dutch Tax Office is quite a document-heavy organization: to do their work, the employees of the Tax Office require official documents such as laws, regulations, policy-files, et cetera. At the same time, while the employees recognize the benefits of being able to see what others are working on, it is a challenge to determine whether something is relevant enough to share.
Two Points of Attention: Technology Framing & Guided Freedom
Based on the presentation by Bart, and the lively discussion that followed, there seem to be two general points of attention that organizations can address to stimulate their ESM initiatives. Note that these points of attention are preliminary: we are currently processing more data on the use of ESM in organizations.
- Technology Framing: an important topic in many different studies on ESM is the challenge of framing the initiative in the right way. If framed too much like a social platform, people start to perceive the technology as purely social. If the technology is framed as purely business, the social “element” that is necessary for in-depth interactions might be missing. The answer to this tension is yet to be found, but organizations are advised to really think through the framing of their initiative, regardless if it’s a bottom-up or top-down initiative.
- Guided Freedom: people do not like to be forced in how they should or shouldn’t use a technology in their work. Our research hence shows that it might help if people are free to engage with a new technology if they deem that relevant for their work activities. Some of our studies do show that some guidance may help, but it seems to depend on many contextual factors whether guidance facilitates or frustrates the use of the ESM. A clear topic of discussion in many organizations is the extent to which anything can be shared. When is something too confidential? How to cope with incomplete or incorrect information on such platforms? These are some questions that will be different for different organizations, departments, and even cultures.
Generally speaking, the study at the Dutch Tax Office, and all our other research at different organizations, highlights that a clear-cut roadmap for introducing and managing ESM is an elusive ideal. As academics we continue to study these and other technologies inside organizations to really see what happens in practice when people utilize different technologies in different ways in different contexts.