In less than a generation, the social fabric of our workplaces has undergone
a number of dramatic changes.
Now, chief executives come and go with alarming frequency, nobody believes
in the notion of a job for life and union membership has slipped to around a
third of the country’s workers, with the average age of members rising fast.
Meanwhile, all the evidence suggests a lack of trust in business leaders.
Working people no longer feel allegiances to the institutions that used to
buttress working life. People do not commit themselves to formal social
institutions in the way their parents did.
So what are they doing instead? They are getting together in more informal
networks inside and outside the workplace. Analysis of how we are developing
so-called ‘social capital’ reveals there is a trend towards the formation of
loose types of associations – more personal and less visible social networks.
When employees leave an organisation for whatever reason, they feel that
while they are changing their formal terms of employment, they nevertheless
take their social networks with them.
This creates threats and opportunities in equal measure. The threat is that
knowledge circulates in ways that no longer benefit organisations. Opportunity,
however, lies in the fact that informal social networks are extraordinarily
nimble and can channel knowledge between key people in a way top-down
decision-making never can. So today’s managers face a struggle. They do not
wish to destroy valuable social capital by attempting to institutionalise it,
but must be equally wary of this asset going to waste.
Solutions may be found in another area of our workplaces that has witnessed
dramatic change over the same period – the widespread growth of information and
communication technology (ICT), and in particular, of networked computing.
Technology is good at storing and accessing large bodies of information, but
can it develop and harness social capital?
Absolutely. Employers have to stop viewing social and technological networks
as separate, and start recognising that the way employees communicate via the
internet holds great potential for knowledge sharing. Technology shouldn’t be
used to inhibit the way people interact, by making them fear for their privacy.
As my colleague William Davies argues in an intriguing new report You don’t
know me but… Social Capital and Social Software: "Technology should tap
into the social fabric of modern workplaces and improve it".
This is one of the opportunities raised by the newly emerged ‘social
software’ movement, which unites software developers and social capital
analysts around a shared agenda – how to create online tools that facilitate
fairer and more productive types of informal social collaboration.
For HR managers, it is still relatively early days, despite the prevalence
of e-mails in many UK workplaces. But, over time, social software systems may
offer considerable benefits to organisations seeking to draw on their rich
bases of social capital. For now, use ICT to further the emerging new forms of
collaboration. But don’t use it to control or you will have a revolt on your
By Will Hutton, Chief executive, The Work Foundation