In Employee Advocacy, we talk a lot about external communication processes – turning employees into brand ambassadors and thought leaders for the firm, to the mutual benefit of the company, the employee, as well as the customer. And while Employee Advocacy in itself is a great way to increase the company’s social reach and brand awareness, while helping employees with social selling and personal branding – one aspect is oftentimes ignored in the discussion about Employee Advocacy: How it depends on the efficiency of internal communication processes.
Many Employee Advocacy tools and platforms focus exclusively on sharing articles, expecting their users to share the latest news with their networks, but without providing context or a way to explore the potential, the implications or the impact of a given post. Attributing points to specific actions, such as posting an article to the platform, or sharing it to social, however, can only bring a company so far, and misses out on the most essential benefit of Employee Advocacy: to foster employee engagement, communication and collaboration within the firm.
I am a strong believer in efficient communication – that is to say that communication processes should never be top-down or bottom-up only, but rather, cross-departmental communication needs to be encouraged and emphasized as part of the company’s culture. There can be no efficient Marketing team that is unaware of the needs of the Sales department, and no Sales team can reach their target if they are unaware where IT/Product are heading with the development. Likewise, Employee Advocacy cannot function in a vacuum, and it will never reach its full potential without the inclusion of different departments and locations to foster, capture and leverage the knowledge embedded within the employees.
With the rise of the new economy and globalization, knowledge management has become a competitive necessity for firms, and a new line of research emphasizes the importance of dynamic capabilities that include knowledge as the core for companies to survive – and to thrive – in hypercompetitive environments.
Managed Socialization as the Missing Link in Knowledge Management
Explicit – codified – knowledge, is easy to capture, making use of knowledge centers and databases of information, easily accessible to employees. Tacit knowledge, however, the knowledge that resides in the minds of people, is difficult to capture. Basic knowledge management programs and tools fail in leveraging tacit knowledge that is embedded only within the company’s human capital, and that requires interaction between individuals to come forth.
Tacit Knowledge: The skills, capabilities and ways of doing things as part of an organization’s culture. It is not written down, and oftentimes, people are unaware of its exact knowledge. It is deeply embedded in an organization and difficult to share outside of the context of a close social relationship. To learn from tacit knowledge, people need to work closely together, and their relationships need to be defined by trust, commitment and collaboration
Research shows that in order to unravel tacit knowledge, companies need to build an organizational infrastructure to facilitate interactions amongst team members: In organizations with a social network, interactions happen in an informal manner, essential to unleash valuable knowledge and expertise and strong ties are created that lead to a higher intensity of collaboration.
Moitra and Kumar (2001) argue that knowledge management has become one of the most elusive of management challenges for corporations, partly due to the intangible nature of knowledge as an asset, and even well-developed and formal processes, methods, systems or tools applied for knowledge management within companies have only shown partial success to capture and harness knowledge. They argue that the missing link in knowledge management in order to leverage the real – tacit – knowledge is Managed Socialization: social interactions and social networks based on strong ties within the corporation.
The Importance of Social Ties and Social Interaction in Knowledge Management
The strength of a ties between individuals is defined as “a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie” (Granovetter, 1973:1361). Academic literature on the topic of strong versus weak ties, often favors weak ties over strong ties, because strong ties do not – to the same degree as weak ties – provide new or specific resources, but instead lead to a redundancy of information (Burt, 1997). However, this redundancy occurs primarily within homogeneous networks of cohesive and equivalent contact, meaning strongly connected relationships that are likely to have similar information and linking the central person to the same third persons. Burt argues, that the best network has a low degree of redundancy and high number of structural holes, which are gaps between non-redundant and disconnected contacts in a heterogeneous network. Applying this to the context of an organization, it can be argued that due to the variety of departments and diversity of team members, firms usually have a rather heterogeneous network. By fostering the interaction between teams, departments and geographic locations, bridges can be built between employees, enabling management to strengthen their ties, control the flow of information and create information asymmetry to the advantage of the company.
“Real knowledge does not reside in repositories; instead it actually resides embedded in minds of the people and it comes out only in response to a contextual stimulus, resulting in sharing and circulating”
(Moitra & Kumar, 2001:150)
Connecting employees via an internal social network within the company that spans across locations and departments, companies enable their team members to develop ties with others that they otherwise would not – or not in limited way – have any interaction with. Over time, this leads to a better connect company, in which strong ties between employees can be developed over time, as collaboration is encouraged. Creating such an organizational infrastructure and social network to facilitate the interaction among team members can even lead to the development of strong ties across the whole organization and outside the boundaries of project teams, locations and departments.
It is important though that creating strong social ties to increase the flow of knowledge and information has to be led by senior management that oftentimes only has a passive and limited role within budgetary and administrative tasks. Management as knowledge activists, demonstrating their interest and involvement in knowledge management and information sharing, is one of the basic conditions for managed socialization.
By creating strong ties through social networks and interactions, employee engagement can unravel and foster sharing of tacit knowledge within individual team members. Done correctly, managed socialization leads to a higher intensity of collaboration within the organization and ultimately leads to improved financial performances of the firm, higher innovation, enhanced organizational learning, and better risk management through the anticipation of problems.
In conclusion, Employee Advocacy as a stand-alone tool can only add value to a certain degree for the company and its employees, but it requires the implementation of efficient communication tools and social interactions to add context to knowledge sharing platforms, which, all together, lead to a competitive advantage for the firm.