By Gloria Lombardi

Paul Leonardi, a professor in Northwestern University’s School of Communication and Kellogg School of Management conducted a quasi-natural field experiment. His goal was to test the effectiveness of the company’s newly adopted social networking tool in a major financial organisation. I contacted Leonardi to learn more about the nature of the study and key lessons to draw from for internal communicators.

Origins of the study

A problem that many organisations face is that they hire many qualified, smart and knowledgeable individuals but often those individuals are unable to share that knowledge with one another. More and more organisations have now been recognising that knowledge-sharing is a major source of competitiveness, since it helps them to innovate better and to shorten the amount of time they spend on projects. If people have knowledge in a particular subject, task or market area, they should be encouraged to share their knowledge with people in other parts of their organisation, right? Well, according to Leonardi “this is not happening as often as it should especially in large organisations because people simply don’t know what their co-workers know.”

To explain further, Leonardi gave me an example of an organisation where he worked a long time ago. In their marketing department a woman was trying to create a new set of banner adverts. First, she tried to develop the text for the banner. Then, she hired a consultant to help her finesse it. Two weeks after she paid the consultant nearly $100,000 dollars to do all of that work, she discovered that someone else at the company had already created an almost identical banner. The root cause of the problem was that she didn’t know that someone else in a different part of the organisation had been already working on a similar project. Had she not shown her banner to colleagues, she never would have known.

Leonardi’s anecdote exhibits how many aren’t even aware of people’s skills or knowledge inside an organization till it’s too late. These kinds of problems were the underlying motivation for Leonardi to try to determine how employees can encourage and increase their knowledge sharing and the role technology can play in the process.

He was “fortunate enough” to work with a major financial services organisation. The company – made up of 15,000 employees – is headquartered in the United States with offices in Central Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The experiment

At the time Leonardi started his research, the company was implementing a new enterprise social networking site using the Jive platform. The goal of the initiative was to try to enhance internal communications by fostering employee dialogues to promote collaboration and knowledge sharing.

One of the major problems that Leonardi identified while working with the global financial company was that – since they were so large – employees often didn’t know what or whom their co-workers knew.

“Not only is important to know what other people know, it also important to know who other people know. To get access to certain people with a particular kind of knowledge or skill requires us to leverage a personal relationship. To be able to get the knowledge we need, it is important to know who has that knowledge as well as knowing who knows the person who has that knowledge. We call this ‘meta-knowledge’ – knowledge about what and whom people know. Meta-knowedge=knowledge about knowledge,” the professor explained.

That’s where the use of Jive came in. As Leonardi explained, its appeal stemmed from two elements that make an enterprise social network distinct from other communications technology tools:

1. Message-transparency – the messages that people send are transparent. Internal social networks make communications between others visible for anyone to see.

Leonardi stressed the importance of this point: “If you and I are communicating via email, that email may contain important pieces of information about things that I know and things that you know. However, the email is basically invisible to everyone else in the organisation.

Nobody knows that a) we have sent an email and b) what the contents of that email are. So what an enterprise social networking tool like Jive does is enable the conversation between you and me to be visible to anyone else in the organisation.”

2. Network-translucence – “Something is translucent when we can make out its shape, generally, but it is still not entirely clear to us” Leonardi explained. For example, somebody may see that two people have sent each other a message and infer from this visible communication that these two individuals know each other. Someone who can see them discussing, perhaps doesn’t know how exactly they are friends, how they work, or what their working relationship is, or if they communicate very frequently. That is not entirely clear. However, it is clear enough to gather that there is a relationship between the two.”

According to Leonardi, the above-mentioned elements impact companies in many ways. “There is a potential impact on many people in the organisation who are able learn where the knowledge resides. The main advantage of this visible communication is learning about what and whom others know,” he points out.

To prove this insight, Leonardi clustered two groups within the financial organisation: the marketing division and the operations division (in total, there were twelve departments in Marketing and thirteen departments in Operations). The two groups were very similar in all the demographic variables such as gender, age, the amount of time employees had been with the company, their level of seniority, and so on. People of both groups were also on a management and leadership programme that gathered them together twice per year to enhance their professional development and face-to-face contact with colleagues.

Once Leonardi recruited these two groups for the study, he conducted an early survey to determine their familiarity with other people in the group.

Subsequently, the marketing group adopted Jive and used the platform for six months. While they used engaged on the site, Operations continued to work during that period without using the enterprise social network. At the end of the six months, Leonardi conducted the same survey that he had distributed at the beginning. What he found was that the marketing group that used Jive increased their ability to identify who knew what and who knew who more accurately. In fact, within Marketing there was a 31% increase in their accuracy of identifying who had what knowledge, and an 88% increase in their ability to find who knew the person with the desired information. The Operations group saw no changes at all in any of those metrics over the same time period.

These results led Leonardi to conclude that “any networking site can be quite useful in helping people to learn about what other people know. That is due in large part to the fact that everyday work-related communications are filled with cues that signal what it is we know and who we know. And as the cues become accessible to others, people can make more accurate inferences about our knowledge.”

Different use by age

When observing generational differences in the use of the internal social network, Leonardi’s experiment swept away some very common assumptions. What he observed was that the youngest employees in the company tended to be the most resistant to the use of the new platform. When he asked all employees if they had been already using social tools, young people – especially Gen Y employees fresh out of college – were disproportionally greater users of social media than older people. However, they used the tools merely to keep up with friends and update them about where they’re going – not in a work-related setting.

So when these young employees heard that another social networking site was going to be used inside the organisation their first reaction was: ‘Why? I don’t necessarily want my boss to know where I am going to drink after work or who my boyfriend or girlfriend is’. Instead, the employees wanted to prove to be professional and felt that using an internal social media site would cause them to look anything but.

On the other hand, the study found that senior employees who did not use social media networking sites as much as their younger counterparts seemed to do a much better job at thinking of the new internal social networking tool as simply another way for communicating work-related information.

Based on these observations, Leonardi suggested that “organisations should be very clear in their strategy about ‘why’ and ‘how’ they are implementing these tools. If you don’t have a clear strategy about how you want people to use social media, you may lead to a problem where some people can either see it as a waste of time or feel uncomfortable using it.”

Adding a personal touch doesn’t hurt

Using a social network inside the company does not necessarily mean that employees have to share and post only work-related content. There are some benefits to having some social, personal, non-professional content on a site. Leonardi cited another example of a study conducted at IBM a few years go. Although the use of the company’s internal social network was predominantly task-based, people created their own profile pages, posted pictures of themselves, personal updates and comments (e.g. posts about their vacation: “I had a trip last week which was great!”). What the study found was that individuals who did not know each other within the company were more likely to access documents posted by someone else if those people had shared some amount of personal information on their pages.

“The same was found in this Jive study,” the professor specified. “People like to receive information from people who they know and like. And, even though people did not know each other personally, the fact that they saw pictures of them on their profiles, helped them to be more keen on reading the documents that they posted.”


And what about leadership visibility on the platform? Leonardi said, “Leaders in this particular study were initially a bit weary about using Jive.” Part of the reason was that they were worried about employees wasting their time or posting inappropriate content. Given that the company was a financial services organisation, leaders were also concerned that employees were going to share illegal information.

An additional part of leadership resistance had to do with the fact that nobody was clear about what specific value these tools had. Leonardi commented, “Metrics provided by vendors are often meaningless or are not of real use. They give you the number of comments posted, the number of pages viewed. But what does that actually mean? It is difficult to tell.”

In Leonardi’s opinion, a far better strategy is to give the organisation a specific objective to track. “Our objective, for example, was to give people these tools and help them to find the knowledge they needed in order to do their job.” Once a clear objective has been created, assessing if these tools are actually useful becomes crucial.

In the case of Leonardi’s study, he points out, “We measured how people were now more accurate at being able to access knowledge. That was for us an actual metric which made the business case for adopting an internal social network.”


This article originally appeared on simply-communicate