Manifestations of Hierarchy on Enterprise Social Networking Sites

June, 2012 / Excerpt

The increased use of the Internet as a new tool in communication has changed the way people interact. This fact is particularly evident in the recent development and use of friend-networking sites such as Facebook (Raacke & Bonds-Raacke, 2008). Previously associated with private usage, the rise of social networking sites targeted at professionals indicates that social networking also offers value in work-related contexts. In fact, some researchers even suggest that social software tools will be the dominant means of communication of the next generation of workers (DiMicco et al., 2008); many companies have recognized this and started to provide such tools internally (Brzozowski et al., 2009; Levy, 2009; Zhang et al., 2009).

While the body of research on social networking sites (SNS) in private contexts has become increasingly broad, research on the use of social media at the workplace is just starting to emerge. Zhang et al. (2009) remark that academic insight regarding the social function of enterprise SNS is still limited. They judge it ‘imperative’ that more research be done to disseminate the dynamics of knowledge sharing on enterprise SNS, as more and more companies are implementing such tools. Levy (2009) notes that existing research focused on users in general but did not differentiate between various groups within the user population.

Despite this modest state of academic knowledge, a number of enthusiasts have proclaimed that enterprise social networking tools had the power to substantially change the way that organizations operate. A quick Google search of ‘enterprise social networking’ surfaces numerous popular blog articles proclaiming how enterprise social networking is flattening organizational hierarchies; how it creates a more open environment where employees can be more collaborative or ‘think nontraditionally’ (Doolittle, 2012; Jarche, 2011; Ma, 2011; Spark, 2011). However, I have yet to encounter scientific support for such assumptions. Personally, I must admit that I am a little skeptic about the powers of social networking in this regard; partly because my own experiences with enterprise social networking have not supplied me with evidence for such claims. I believe one could just as easily suspect that existing hierarchies are reproduced, or even reinforced on social networking platforms. It is this initial skepticism that triggered me to conduct research on the topic. This paper’s contribution is a qualitative exploration of manifestations of hierarchy on enterprise social networking sites, enabling a better informed discussion of employee empowerment at the workplace.

Social Networking Sites (SNS)

Definitions for social networking sites in work related contexts are scarce, as research in this area is just starting to emerge. Since social networking platforms previously existed predominantly in non-organizational contexts, let me first draw on scholars’ understandings of traditional social networking sites (SNS). Since their introduction, social network sites have attracted millions of users. Currently, the most widely known of example is Facebook, with over 835 million users as of March 31, 2012 (Internet World Stats, 2012). Raacke & Bonds-Raacke (2008) define social networking sites (SNS) as “virtual places that cater to a specific population in which people of similar interest gather to communicate, share, and discuss ideas” (p.169). Amongst the features of SNS, they count the possibility for users to post information about themselves, leave messages for contacts, post pictures or information about upcoming events. However, it is important to note that social networking sites might vary on a number of features; the above definition gives only an indication. Cook (2008) finds that SNS can contain many categories of software tools that people use to consume, convey, create and share content among each other. Among others he names blogs, podcasts, and wikis.

After having found their place in the private sphere, SNS are now making their way into the corporate world, as many organizations are recognizing their benefits as a means to achieve corporate objectives (McAfee 2009). The blossoming of wikis, blogs, and media-sharing is no longer confined private usage. Within only a few years, SNS have permeated the business landscape and many organizations have begun experimenting with the use of social software at the workplace (Brzozowski et al., 2009). To this end, they are moving SNS from the Internet onto corporate intranets, encouraging both personal and professional sharing inside protected walls (DiMicco et al., 2008). McAfee (2009) places the internal use of SNS under the general heading ‘social software’ and refers to it in the context of ‘Enterprise 2.0’. According to Gray and Honick (2008), enterprise social software (or Enterprise 2.0) is a term describing instruments like blogging, tagging, people search, wikis, and other web-based collaboration tools, when used internally in organizations. Hence, enterprise social networking sites can be placed into the wider context of the discourse on social software platforms.

This discourse quickly clears out a wide-ranging assumption: SNS are much more than a tool to connect with friends you haven’t seen since high school. While “keeping in touch with friends” might have been one of the key uses of ‘friend-networking sites’ according to Raacke & Bonds-Raacke (2008), enterprise social networking sites, or social software in general, can be put to many more uses. McAfee (2009) observes that organizations increasingly see social software platforms as an instrument to leverage user-friendly interaction and communication over the Internet, enabling new applications within organizations. Bingham & Conner (2010) highlight the ability of SNS to promote social learning and to provide a platform for exchanges unhindered by time or geography. They perceive that SNS are becoming increasingly popular knowledge-building devices in organizations. Individual usage motivation is one of the better researched aspects of social networking sites in work related contexts: a comprehensive study by DiMicco et al. (2008) reveal that employees at IBM mostly use internal social networking to build stronger bonds with their weak ties and to reach out to employees they do not know. Main motivations for this behavior include connecting with co-workers personally, as well as advancing project goals, and ultimately their career. However, this study did not take into account possible variances among user groups. Thus it is possible that differences in usage behavior exist between hierarchy levels, for example.

Organizational Hierarchy

Organizations can be structured using a formal hierarchy. In fact, the term ‘hierarchy’ is often used synonymously with organization in management and organization studies (Diefenbach and Sillince, 2011). In an organizational hierarchy, there is a single person or group with the most power and authority. This group is usually referred to as top management or, as Mintzberg (1981) calls it, the ‘strategic apex’. Each subsequent level represents lesser authority. According to Weber (1948), hierarchy means the vertical integration of positions in the organizational structure whereby each position is under the control of a higher one. Consequently, the authority an individual commands within an organization depends less on personal traits but is highly connected to the ranking of their position (Mechanic, 1962).

“People are put in unequal relations to each other via an anonymous or abstract order; person-independent rules create a stratified system of social positions for individuals. In return, vertical and unequal social relationships are officially sanctioned, legitimized and made permanent by the prevailing rules and regulations as well as social action” (Diefenbach and Sillince, 2011, p.1518).

For centuries, an ideological battle has raged between two very different schools of thought regarding organizations: the ‘humanizing’ school puts humans first. The ‘systems’ school contends that organizations are in charge of people (Leavitt, 2004). Famous promoters of the Scientific School of Thought include early 20th century scholars Max Weber and Frederick Taylor. Their work generally advocated that companies form multiple layers of hierarchy to supervise the work process and meet productivity targets and explained hierarchical relationships as a consequence of the limited span of supervision necessary for coordination. In Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor proposed that organizations break down tasks and remove decision making from employees, who needed to be rigidly controlled if they were to work (Cloke & Goldsmith 2002). Max Weber (1948) proposed the theory of bureaucracy, which relied on three key characteristics: (1) clearly defined roles and responsibilities, (2) a strict hierarchical structure, and (3) respect for merit. In his Essays in Sociology, he presents the following analogy (1948, p. 214):

“The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine compare with the non-mechanical modes of production. Precision, speed, unambiguity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs- these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration.”

This model survived largely unchanged for more than 50 years (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2002). Post WWII, the tide began to turn. First, a series of studies carried out by Kurt Lewin showed that productivity increased when workers were involved in decision making. Then McGregor developed the theory of X and Y management. Theory X, or traditional organizational theory, was based on the idea that employees shun responsibility and do not like to work. McGregor suggested theory Y, which worked on the assumption that employees want to do useful work and gain pride from doing a good job. Based in part on this research, a growing number of scholars began arguing in favor of democratic leadership, employee participation and self-management (Cloke & Goldsmith, 2002).

Nonetheless, organizational hierarchy is regarded as a crucial principle to achieve corporate objectives until today. Researchers in the field of organization theory and business executives alike still consider the bureaucratic approach to deliver the basic blueprint for most modern organizations. Even modern forms of organization, such as the so-called ‘network organization’, are often structured in a hierarchical fashion, due to ‘functional necessities’ (Diefenbach and Sillince, 2011). For example, a center-periphery structure often persists, with Mintzberg’s ‘strategic apex’ remaining in control of key issues. Courpasson (2000) notes, that many times new organizational concepts only leave workers with a feeling of being empowered. He argues that “in spite of the success of the network form utopia, the re-emergence of bureaucracies is a sign that organizations are more and more politically centralized and governed” (2000, p.141). Leavitt (2004) concludes that even when hierarchy is reduced by alternative modes of organizing, it is never absent. Thus it is fair to assume that organizational hierarchy still has strong implications for power, influence, and status in social relationships (Mahoney, 1979). In the following I want to have a closer look at possible manifestations of organizational hierarchy.

Evan (1977) identified four dimensions of organizational hierarchy, resulting from an unequal distribution of resources: (1) inequality of skills and knowledge, (2) inequality of rewards, (3) inequality of authority, and (4) inequality of information distribution. The first dimension, inequality of skills and knowledge is often based on experience. This is in line with Diefenbach and Silince (2011, p.1523) who constitute that “in most if not all professions, formal hierarchical order comes first in the form of the principle of seniority”. It can also be education-based, which comes forward in the form of academic or professional degrees. The second dimension, inequality of rewards, addresses the circumstance that higher-ranked individuals often earn more money than lower-ranked individuals (Evan, 1977). However, the interpretation of this dimension is not confined solely to monetary rewards. Often, there are other benefits associated with a higher standing: a nicer office, the first pick for vacation days, et cetera. The third dimension, inequality of authority, is straightforward: whoever inhabits the higher position in the hierarchy, possesses more institutionalized rights and privileges, and generally has the final say. The fourth dimension, inequality of information distribution, is concerned with the information differentials along the hierarchy. People at the top are often better informed, as the dissemination of information is usually controlled top-down.

Diefenbach and Sillince (2011) further remark, that the mechanisms of hierarchy often find expression in social guidelines and interaction. As examples they cite norms and values, attitudes and behaviors, and communication. For example, Schmid Mast (2002) found a strong correlation between hierarchical position and speaking time during group interaction. Expectedly, high-profile actors are generally assigned more time to share their thoughts than are low-profile actors.

Organizational Hierarchy and SNS

In their review of the literature on organizational hierarchy, Diefenbach and Sillince (2011) take note of the fact that a number of business observers claim hierarchies were losing importance because of technology. When studying professional blogs, it indeed seems that some authors are under the impression that enterprise social networking is flattening hierarchies, or that it at least creates an environment where organizational hierarchy does not play that big of a role (Doolittle, 2012; Jarche, 2011; Ma, 2011; Spark, 2011). Sparks (2011), for example, cites research by Jawadi et al. (2010) who analyzed collaboration in virtual teams. They found that online collaboration is facilitated largely by human relation rules and not power structure. Sparks (2011) concludes that internal system rules of control and coordination do not bear much significance in virtual environments. Other authors are even more cerebral. Ma (2011) emphasizes that enterprise social network sites allow knowledgeable lower-level employees to raise their profiles by visibly contributing to discussions. Doolittle (2012) quotes Chris Robinson of consulting firm KPMG:

“Organizations are turning to enterprise social networking because it breaks down the silos, creates a more open environment where employees can be more collaborative, think nontraditionally and share innovative ideas across the organization with the integrity of doing what’s good for the organization. It flattens hierarchies by creating an environment where employees can dialogue with anyone from their organization”.

But is that really the case? To some extent, the enthusiasm portrayed in blogs is shared by scholars and business writers. Bingham and Conner (2010) write that “emerging technologies enable a new ecosystem with people at its core”. Brzozowski et al. (2009) cite Benkler, who suggests that the ‘commons-based peer production’ is more efficient at “mapping talent to questions and tasks than traditional organizational hierarchies” (p.2). Brzozowski et al. also propose that “unlike email, which must be targeted to specific recipients or distribution lists, social media provide a free broadcast platform, allowing authors to circumvent traditional organizational hierarchies” (p.2). But is this really enough to proclaim the demise of organizational hierarchy by the hand of enterprise SNS?

There are also critical voices. According to Hathi (2009), corporate intranets are a valuable channel for top down communication but their benefits for horizontal communication are limited. She states that it will still take a lot of time before they will be adopted as a channel for employee collaboration and turn employees from passive visitors into active users. Research by Argyris (cited in McAfee, 2009) indicates that even when organizations want to adopt a more collaborative communication style, managers sometimes (willingly or unwillingly) obstruct this by practicing a rather controlling management style. Furthermore, surveys revealed that many organizations are unable to adopt internal social networking tools in the first place, due to a lack of backing from senior leadership (Hathi, 2009).