When you have a conversation with someone at an open space, such as in an open office landscape, or by the water cooler where other people pass by to stop for some water or just chat, it is not unlikely that someone who did not originally participate in your conversation joins in. The fact that you have a conversation at an open space signals to other people that it is ok for them to listen in, and to join if they have something to add to the conversation. Maybe the person joining have overheard something interesting and wants to share an opinion, or maybe the person knows someone who is already participating in the conversation and for that reason think it might be interesting to join. Whatever the reason is for joining, such the new participants often add value in the form of new and unexpected information, perspectives and insights
Unfortunately, with the fragmentation of workplaces that is taking place due to specialization, virtualization of work and globalization (where it can be argued that redundant competencies are no longer needed to exist at multiple locations), such conversations at open spaces become less common. People do more of their work by their computers, and they have less and less in common with the people which they happen to share their office with. They have more scheduled meetings online and offline, but less spontaneous encounters with other people. Even if they interact and work together with more people than ever, most of their interactions are virtual and happen in closed spaces such as collaboration sites and email. The conversations they have there can be compared to those taking place at scheduled face-to-face meetings in meeting rooms where only the people invited to the meeting can participate. They might very well be effective for solving issues at hand and making decisions, but the risk for group-think is substantial and lack of inflow of relevant new information from the rest of the work environment might affect decision-making negatively.
In a business environment such as the one described above, it becomes even more important than before to have a strong personal network. Those who already have, or have the opportunity to build those networks, are typically those who have both the right reasons and the time and resources available for traveling and having lots of meetings with other people across organizations and locations. Most of the people considered to be successful can be found in that category. Obviously, these opportunities are often available to sales people, managers and officially appointed experts, but rarely to the majority of the remaining workforce. As a result, the great majority of the workforce cannot build the strong informal networks they would need to be successful.
A study by NEHRA (The Northeast Human Resources Association) in 2009 confirmed that there is a strong correlation between being a successful leader and having a strong personal network, and vice versa. It found that 93% of successful change initiatives were led by leaders with strong or very strong personal networks, while 73% of less successful change initiatives were led by people described as having moderate or weak personal networks.
"Chance favors the connected mind", as writer Steven Johnson explains in this very inspiring illustrated talk. The problem is that if you don't get the chance to meet other people who you don’t already know and could benefit from knowing, then those sought-after moments of serendipity and fortunate "knowledge accidents" that opens paths to success are much less likely to occur. If you mostly interact with the same people and do so in channels where no-one can join your conversations unless they are being pulled into the conversation, then the chances of acquiring potentially relevant information you don't know exists and which doesn't exist the heads of the people currently in the conversation are virtually non-existing.
Online social networking and other social software solutions such as micro-blogging provides an opportunity for anyone in the workforce to build stronger personal networks. This is very important: these platforms provide the power of networking to anyone who finds it in their interest to build and maintain their personal networks. Furthermore, they provide open spaces for starting and joining conversations across any barrier such as organizations, locations and positions. In theory, they provide access to information and knowledge across the entire workforce and beyond, wherever and whoever they might be. The opportunities to become successful which were previously only available to a "business elite" consisting of sales people, managers and experts can now be made available to the anonymous and disconnected worker. And when combining the power to create and share with new forms filtering for better search and discovery, the gates to the collective knowledge of the entire workforce can be opened without flooding the digital work environment and everyone in it with irrelevant information.
It is not hard to see why many organizations now study and are beginning to embrace these technologies with great interest and hopes of creating substantial business value. It is also not hard to see why there is strong resistance towards these technologies and the kind of changes which they can be used to to bring about in an organization. The resistance typically comes from people who find it in their interest to maintain status quo, such as people who have been successful and competitive mainly because of their abilities to build strong personal networks and be the ones who access and use information that others cannot access. The resistance also comes from people who have been officially appointed and hailed as experts and acquired the status of internal gurus within their fields of expertise, partly because they are knowledgeable but mainly because they hold positions as gate keepers and brokers of the collective knowledge of their strong personal networks. The resistance also comes from anyone who is used to control and assert power over others by getting exclusive access to information or being connected with just the right people to assert their influence over decision-making processes.
Sorry guys (yes, it is mostly guys) but now "the times are a-changing". Since chance favors the connective mind (which any successful sales person, manager or expert could testify if being honest) then we must - now that we actually can - give everybody in the workforce the chance of becoming connected and getting the same chances as those who already have strong personal networks. We must do so both for the good of the anonymous and disconnected worker and the greater good of the enterprise, because the key to our success as a business collective is to use the full ability of every talent we have access to. So, to those who still object to this development the message should be pretty clear: please step aside and let your colleagues forward. Let them join the conversation, or they will create the open spaces themselves somewhere else.