EngagementCultureVS roundup: Jon Ingham on social capital in collaborative culture

VS roundup: Jon Ingham on social capital in collaborative culture

HRD Thought Leader Jon Ingham describes the concepts of social captial and distributed networks in relation to a collaborative culture.

Recent times have posed a puzzle for organizations and teams: how to build a truly collaborative culture while miles, and sometimes even nations, apart? It goes without saying that modern platforms, from file sharing and virtual conferencing, to document collaboration and instant messaging, help to maintain and build the links that are needed for teams to work efficiently, smartly, and successfully.

That said, a key problem in today’s model is that the spontaneous moments – a chat in the kitchen, trading ideas after a meeting – aren’t so easily replicated in the planned and somewhat regimented conditions of working virtually.

To that end, author and consultant Jon Ingham, in his presentation at our Virtual Summit in October, elaborated on what he terms ‘social capital’ and ‘distributed networks’ to ensure that organizations are paying sufficient attention to the chance encounters that help build a collaborative culture.

Before moving on to ideas like social capital and distributed networks, it’s good to understand what we even mean by ideas like ‘collaborative culture’?

There’s a paradox around culture. Over the last 20 years, it’s become much more important, but at the same time, because of its importance, talking about culture has become increasingly less useful. When I started my career in culture change, 30 years ago, I found the term ‘culture’ incredibly useful. These days, I just find the term is so overused, abused, misused, and two people will talk about culture and they actually mean very different things.

I believe we need to talk about the capabilities, which are the useful qualities we’re trying to create in people in organizations, that will make the organization more effective, and influence the culture. If you change the capabilities, the culture is going to change as well, it will be different, maybe a little bit behind the way capabilities are changing.

In a sense, it’s the capabilities that are most important, not the culture, and you can’t really manage or measure the culture, but you can be a lot more specific about the capabilities. Those are generally around the human organization and social capital, which I know a lot of people don’t like those terms, because they sound a bit like jargon. I think they’re really useful, and they’re helpful, they’re strategic, they’re progressive, and focusing on those helps us do better HR.

So what role do you think social capital plays in the wider organization today?

We need to focus on the social capital that is at the heart of collaboration and cooperation in organizations. So human capital, the value of the individuals, is the value of the way we organize people. Social capital is about the value of the way that people connect and cooperate together. It’s largely about the connections, the relationships between the people based on those connections, and the quality of the conversations they have based upon those relationships.

It’s the value of the way that people work together in teams and communities and networks, and the reason why this is so important, and it does link to that increasing importance of culture as well, is that the workforce has become much more collaborative rather than individual, as it was around 20 years ago, most of what we did was working individually against our own objectives.

In increasingly automated workplaces, what questions should leaders ask to maintain a truly collaborative culture?

The key differentiator for human work these days is our relationships with people, how we use those relationships, how we improve those relationships, how we do things based upon those relationships. It’s all about collaboration, and hence social capital.

Therefore, when we’re thinking about everything we do in HR, we should always be thinking, not simply how do we do HR to improve the performance of individuals, which has been our traditional focus in this area, but how do we do what we’re doing to improve people’s relationships, the way they’re able to work together in teams and networks?

How does your idea of decentralized networks compare to the reality of today’s organizations?

Some organizations require a centralized approach, but increasingly I think we need to move away from that, because organizations are getting too heterogeneous; there are so many differences in the types of people they employ and what those people need to do, and trying to centralize all of that is getting harder and harder and increasingly inappropriate.

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So we can think about all of the connections in an organization being centralized, around the chief executive, the executives in the middle, we can think about those connections being decentralized to hubs within the overall organizational network, primarily teams and communities.

We can also think about a broader, much more transformational distribution and those connections, so that we’re actually putting more freedom, responsibility, accountability, autonomy on individuals to do their work, but also to connect to the people that make sense for them to connect with. However, we were not always doing so.

Secondly, in the pandemic, it’s those distributed connections that have seen the greatest deterioration. So, the centralized side of organizations is still going quite strong. The decentralized aspects have probably strengthened during the pandemic because while people have been remote, they’ve been more proactive to work closely with those people they need to work with you because they’re not bumping into people.

Therefore, it’s been a more deliberate action. Teams have actually jelled even more than they were doing prior to COVID. However, the distributed connections tend to be the ones which are more discretionary, more serendipitous, that they’re about the people that we bump into in the corridor, or we sit within the restaurants. We’re not doing these things for now, we’ve not put in place strategies to make them work.

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