Some time ago, I blogged about the difference between in-the-flow and above-the-flow uses of wikis and social software more broadly. At the time, I argued that "above-the-flow" use cases fail to generate adoption for the same reason that knowledge management failed in the 1990s: because it's really hard to motivate people to step outside their daily flow of work and do something extra. My conclusion was that social software delivers maximum business value when workers use it to collaborate transparently "in the flow" for things like managing projects, writing trip reports, capturing meeting notes, etc.
In short, my attitude was: In-the-flow rocks, above-the-flow flops.
This way of putting this has been bugging me lately. I've had the nagging feeling that my attitude towards above-the-flow was overly dismissive. A recent conversation with Nat Welch from the Center for Applied Research finally clarified for me what my analysis had been missing. Nat pointed me to the distinction between brokerage and closure articulated by Ronald Burt, a business school professor at my alma matter, the University of Chicago. Burt describes the distinction this way:
Brokerage is the activity of people who live at the intersecting of social worlds, who can see and develop good ideas. Closure is the tightening of coordination on a closed network of people.
Put differently, brokerage is all about sharing ideas, drawing connections, and making introductions across people who don't already work together--contributing above-the-flow. Closure is all about improving the productivity and connectedness of existing groups and relationships--collaborating in-the-flow.
Burt's point is that both forms of activity bestow professional advantage on their practitioners and benefit the firms in which they take place.
Closure is a complement to brokerage such that the two together define social capital in a general way in terms of closure within a group and brokerage beyond the group.
We need closure to work more effectively on day-to-day tasks. We need brokerage to innovate and execute holistically across different parts of a common business.
On a pragmatic level, this means that companies should pursue a range of use cases for their social software implementations. They should build out above-the-flow use cases that stimulate innovation across organizational silos, e.g.,
- Competitive intelligence
- Best practice sharing
- Professional and personal communities of interest
- Personal interests and expertise location
At the same time, they should also build out in-the-flow use cases to deliver operational efficiences to existing groups, e.g.,
- Project plans, timelines, and documentation
- Trip reports, meeting notes, interview notes
- Standardized documentation of repeated processes
Our social interactions are defined by both, and our social software implementations should reflect that.