Why communicative participation of employees is so important for businesses

Series: Participation in the intranet, part 2

There are at least three good reasons why many companies can benefit from increased employee participation in the intranet: used properly, it leads to an increase of productivity, agility and controllability.


After consulting firm McKinsey  had  analyzed several thousand enterprises worldwide for five years, they published a study in 2012 drawing the conclusion that knowledge workers could increase their productivity by 20 – 25 percent, if they made proper use of social software. They found that two thirds of the potential added value of social technologies resulted from improved internal communication and collaboration, leading to employee skills better finding their way to the departments where they are needed most (‘matching talent to tasks’).

It is important to note that successful participation in the intranet doesn’t only depend on technology but on quality and quantity of social interactions. While IT is necessary to facilitate the required speed and coverage of interactions, the exchange will only take place if supported by a culture of cooperation and  the willingness to participate. According to McKinsey, this willingness to participate is decisively encouraged when executives act as role models and the use of software becomes a regular part of the work process.


Participation has, however, not only the potential to increase productivity, but it can make companies much more flexible. Change management expert John P. Kotter thinks it is critical because in times of constant change hierarchically dominated management methods aren’t fast and agile enough. Hierarchical processes work well for the recurring demands of daily control of a company, but when it comes to being continually on the lookout for new solutions, they are too clumsy.

Hierarchy and network_11072015

Exhibit 1: hierarchy versus network

As a result, Kotter proposed to introduce, parallel to the traditional hierarchy, a second ‘operating system’ for companies that works like a network. While hierarchies proceed according to established rules and processes that have been optimized for the most efficient handling of known tasks, network resources can be re-assembled again and again responding to changing requirements. In a hierarchical organization, the management focuses on administration and control of the system. The management of a network, however, motivates to find new ways and  is more fault-tolerant.  In a hierarchy, communication is mainly top-down, in directives which are sent via the cascades of the organizational chart. The communication in networks on the other hand runs in dialogues that, according to requirements, may run criss-cross  through the organizaton. What matters here, is how valuable the contribution is for the new requirement, not where it comes from.

Hierarchy and network as dual operating system

Kotter’s point is not to replace hierarchies by networks, he rather wants to create a ‘dual operating system’ in which both organization models complement each other. Reliable day-to-day business and ongoing innovation should be able to coexist. The participation of employees plays a crucial role for the success of the network. To allow for rapid change, Kotter recommends  to involve as many employees as possible on a voluntary basis. Volunteers set to work with a ‘I want’ instead of ‘I must’ attitude and contribute to cost-containment to boot. In return, they want to be involved in change, not only be affected by it. To this end, it is necessary to exert a leadership style that  works with motivation and appreciation instead of delegation and budget control. According to Kotter, leaders on all levels must be involved to establish the network as legitimate part of the organization.

I consider Kotter’s approach very productive because it reflects the reality of business. Every business needs hierarchies to remain efficient and capable of making decisions, especially when it has reached a certain size. And every business needs network structures in order to adapt to the ever-changing environment. Kotter presents a model in order to mediate this conflict of objectives and illustrates the crucial role of participation for companies to cope with the constant pressure to change.

However, what Kotter describes as ‘dual operating system’ also seems to be dualistic, because network and hierarchy are working  in parallel without being truly integrated with each other. The connection between the two is primarily  based on the personal union of employees  who play a role in both systems and as a result have to settle the conflict of objectives in themselves. I believe that decision making hierarchy and networking culture can be reconciled in another way and by doing so improve the controllability of the organization.


Increased employee participation allows for management to gain new insights into the state of things and based on that for making more informed decisions. More informed decision making improves the controllability of the organization as a whole, but it also brings a new quality to communication controlling in particular, because with participative internal media it can be measured how messages resonate in the organization.

Closed loop of internal communication

Exhibit 2: Closed loop of internal communication

Exhibit 2: Closed loop of internal communication

Traditional internal communication mainly serves as the mouthpiece of the executive board. It shapes messages dealing with the ‘targets’, the goals and plans that management want to reach with the organization. And it coordinates the distribution of these messages along the hierarchy, from top to bottom, through the cascade and traditional internal media such as the staff magazine. While this management of messages is well tested and established, internal communication so far had little opportunity to find out how they resonate in the organization.


With the participation opportunities enabled by social software all this has changed. Now it can be determined how much of the messages has actually come through and where there is still need for reinforcement. Horizontal networking makes opinion-shaping processes visible which were in the dark before . With employees openly cooperating on the same project or exchanging views on the same field of interest (‘peer-to-peer’), new internal publics emerge which serve as means for knowledge exchange but also show where the organization stands with its projects. Depending on the internal social media landscape, the actual state of things can directly emerge from observing the exchange or can be purposefully collected as social intelligence from the bottom up. Thus a targets-actuals comparison is facilitated that shows how far apart plan and reality are and what is needed to close the gap between the two. Through the communicative participation of employees a loop is generated that makes the internal communication significantly more controllable than it was with a silent audience.

However, participation in the intranet doesn’t work like grasssroots democracy. There are different levels of participation and formats with active influencers and more passive followers. Internal communication has to adjust to that with appropriate models of participation, and we’ll look into those over the next couple of posts in this series.


Why we can’t have more than 150 friends and still need more than that

Everyone’s talking about “social”: “social networks”, “social media”, “social web”, “social games”, “social apps”, social everything, increasingly culminating in the idea of “social business”. But what does it mean to be social in this context? Are you more social when you have 1,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook rather than just 100? It certainly seems that way when looking at many social media success stories.  However, can you actually be social with 1,000 or more people? Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford,  believes that the cognitive limit to the number of individuals humans can maintain social relationships with is at 150. Much to the professor’s surprise, “Dunbar’s number” has made a considerable career on the Internet, certainly helped by the popularization of his findings through Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Tipping Point” and supporters such as marketing guru Seth Godin. Still, Dunbar’s number is not yet common knowledge, and among those who know it, it’s meaning is controversial. So, I figured it’s worth looking into the concept and its possible applications for business communications.

Based on studies with primates showing that there is a correlation between the size of their social groups and the size of their brain’s neocortex, Dunbar speculated in a 1992 paper that this correlation could be extrapolated to humans and predicted a group size of approx. 150. He then compared this number with data on social group sizes in human history such as the sizes of villages, tribes or units in ancient armies and found his hypothesis confirmed (within a band of variation). In a 2002 study, he also examined the “social network size in contemporary Western society based on the exchange of Christmas cards”, and again,  the “maximum network size averaged 153.5 individuals, with a mean network size of 124.9”.

If 150 is indeed the maximum of stable inter-personal relationships humans can maintain, Dunbar’s number also explains why larger groups don’t work without additional structures such as hierarchies or laws to organize the relationships. This is what Malcolm Gladwell picked up on pointing out that organizations suffer from a sharp productivity loss when growing larger than 150 employees. As a result, companies such as Gore, the manufacturer of Gore-Tex fabrics, organized their teams in smaller groups, so that they could keep strong working relationships.

Social GroomingFinally, managing more than 150 stable relationships would not only go beyond the brain’s capacity but also take too much time. In that regard, humans face the same challenge as primates: social grooming is laborious! It has been suggested, though, that humans might be able to increase the number of relationships with the help of social media, since it makes it easier to memorize a relation’s origin and then stay in touch, even over large distances. Dunbar counters, though, that dependable relationships need in-person meetings and social media still doesn’t remove the biological constraints (see for instance this video interview Dunbar had with the Guardian). And indeed, a recent study by Gonçalves, Perra and Vespignani (August 2011) validated Dunbar’s argument. They modeled activity of 1.7 m users on Twitter over six months and found “the data in agreement with Dunbar’s result; users can entertain a maximum of 100-200 stable relationships.”

Does this mean any number of social network connections larger than 150 doesn’t make sense? Well, it depends on what you are trying to achieve.  For instance, a mobile social network company called Path limited the number of friends users can have on their network to 150 (with reference to Dunbar), since their service is built for circles of close friends. That’s understandable. However, as early as 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter pointed out that not only those people you are closely connected with are important for your network. In fact, they might even bring less value to it, because they probably know the same people and things that you do whereas your wider network of weak ties might open up access to new information and new networks. On a larger scale, the component of weak ties supports the concept of crowdsourcing as famously crafted by James Surowiecki back in 2004: If you really want to extract the wisdom of crowds, diversity is one of the critical success factors, and you will only get it out of a wide network with weak ties.

So, from my perspective, Dunbar’s number is certainly a factor business communicators have to take into consideration. If you want to have a group of people interact and collaborate productively to get things done, the size of this group shouldn’t go beyond Dunbar’s number. Making this group larger might lead to a loss in productivity, because an increasing amount of “noise” in the system can be distracting and will increase the need for coordination and filtering. Also, large numbers of followers or “fans” shouldn’t be mistaken as a proof of social interaction that is by default allowing for stronger relationships than traditional reach. Dunbar has shown that stable interpersonal relationships can’t be managed in large numbers, unless you do it one Dunbar group at a time. IBM employees, for example, operate thousands of internal and external social media platforms creating tens of thousands strong ties inside the organization and outside-in.

Conversely, if the goal is to open up a specific business unit or the whole organization to innovation, it is necessary to go far beyond the Dunbar number and include weak ties. In fact, too many strong relationships within the crowd you are working with will threaten the diversity needed to go beyond existing approaches. Online communities in particular are threatened by the “echo chamber effect“, because once a claim is made by one participant it’s extremely easy to have it repeated by like-minded people, resulting into the reinforcement of their beliefs and possibly hindering critical discourse. Memes or myths  are being created as a result and can block the way for innovation. In addition, the echo chamber effect can be aggravated by algorithms homogenizing search results within social networks, a phenomenon Eli Pariser called the filter bubble. In fact, I sometimes do have the impression that we as business communicators do suffer from the echo chamber in our social networks, because a Dunbar group is reinforcing myths such as  the loss of control on the social web at conferences and on the web. Thanks to Dunbar and others, we can better understand these mechanisms. It is a whole different discussion how to create a wide network with weak ties allowing for diversity and then aggregate the ideas for innovation. Perhaps, a discussion for another post. This one has already been long enough!

Georg Kolb