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.