How do social media harness structure

How do social media harness structure

So, here is the second post about my master’s thesis. A thesis concerned with the interplay between social media and organizational structure. You can read it here.

When I started writing my thesis, I was heavily influenced by organizational notions such as formalization, integration, and (de)centralization; ideas introduced in many of my previous organizational courses throughout my education.

However, one’s worldview luckily evolves over time, and I have come to realize that there are different ways of viewing organizations, different paradigms if you will.

The rational system perspective

The one introduced in my organizational courses was the rational system perspective. This perspective relies on formalization, goal specificity, specialization in job roles and much more (Scott 1998, pp. 33-37).

It offered a lens through which to view reality and guided much of my work. What’s more, it confirmed my own notions about working with social media. In my experience, a certain degree of formalization is/was required to guide the – some times difficult and complex – workflows connected to community management and content creation. Especially, when you are working with highly technical products and services, and there is an emphasis on providing the most accurate information possible (and I have relied heavily on my very skilled engineer colleagues as I know absolutely nothing about pumps!).

Interestingly, I have found that opinions are rather divided on this matter, speaking with friends, fellow students, and colleagues. Some advocate high levels of formalization to guide and ensure accuracy in the communication across social media channels, whereas others emphasize a need for agility and freedom to reply quickly and create creative content.

The natural system perspective

However, there are other ways of viewing organizations. What if formalization of the structure is important, but not necessarily the most important factor? The natural system perspective asks exactly that question, and it emphasizes the informal structure as having greater importance (Scott 1998, pp. 57-58). What people actually do; the behavioral structure, instead of what they are supposed to do; the normative (formal) structure (Scott 1998, pp. 57-58).

This worldview opened my eyes; the informal structure has been praised for easing communication, increasing trust, and correcting inadequacies of the formal structure (Scott 1998, pp. 59-60). When I revisit my own behavior, I quickly see how much I actually rely on these informal structures for feedback; but perhaps even more important how they can hinder the work of a social media team.

Informal structure is based on personal characteristics and relations of that particular individual (Scott 1998, pp. 59-60), and I quickly came to realize that many of the engineers I rely on for expert input are perhaps only known by myself. I trust them completely and we communicate quickly despite being located miles apart in different departments. But what happens if an employee with that knowledge is out sick? How can the next person pick up?

Does this uncertainty call for a high degree of formalization in social media initiatives, so that you “cut out the individual” and provide a formal structure with clearly defined workflows easily understood by someone not familiar with the initiative? Or does it call for a team made up of a new type of employees that aren’t hired for their ability to quickly adapt to new situations, but for their ability to network inside and outside the organization and work the informal structure?

Please feel free to join the discussion and share your opinion!



Scott: Organizations: rational, natural, and open systems (1998) chapters 1-3.

Social media’s interplay with organizational structure

Social media’s interplay with organizational structure

As most of us are probably aware, social media has increasingly gained prominence. A three year old survey, cited in an article on social media use in organizations, found that 65 per cent of businesses used some sort of social media platform or Web 2.0 based solution (Treem & Leonardi 2012, p. 143).

And it wouldn’t surprise me if that number was even higher today.

This interest has so far manifested in audiences, strategies, platforms and KPIs receiving most of the attention. However, other aspects are equally important (in my mind), if businesses want to truly leverage the power of social media.

One of these aspects is organizational structure (another equally important aspect is organizational culture, which can have a detrimental impact on internal social media (Parry & Solidoro 2013, pp. 133-134)). Any community manager knows how social media permeates the organization and affects more than the department it originated in.

From personal experience working with social media and as a community manager, I can attest that you receive a variety of different requests through social. And it’s this variation that permeates the organization; when requests range from the plain and simple “can I have your contact information” to “I’m experiencing this problem with your product” and the occasional “shitstorm” for some organization (luckily, I have never experienced this).

To deal with this, you have to have a structure (and culture) that allows for quick and agile knowledge sharing and collaboration between departments and business functions to successfully assist the customer at hand. And I would imagine that this is increasingly true the more specialized an organization gets.

Yet, this is precariously under emphasized in both business-related literature and the academic world with Linke & Zerfass (2012, p. 272) noting that: “organizations are still lacking appropriate structures, cultures and strategies for participative modes of online communication” .

I have therefore in my master’s thesis set out to investigate how organizational structure and social media interacts. Throughout this process, I will on a more or less regular basis share my thoughts on social media and organizational structure (once in a while adding the odd comment on culture; despite this not being in the thesis’ scope). So, if you find this interesting, stay turned for more thoughts.

Please feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts with us (Go ahead and write in Danish as well!)



Linke & Zerfass: Social Media governance: regulatory framework for successful online communication (2012) pp. 270-286

Parry & Solidoro: Social media as a mechanism for engagement? (2013) Chapter 6

Treem & Leonardi: Social media use in organizations: exploring the affordances of visibility, editability, persistence, and association (2012) pp. 143-189