Research: Social Software Appeals More to Older Workers

Posted on June 28th 2013

Research: Social Software Appeals More to Older Workers

ImagePaul Leonardi, a professor of communication at Northwestern University conducted a carefully controlled experiment to determine the extent, if any, that social software can improve employee content discovery and relevant expertise location. A major credit card company was implementing an enterprise social networking tool called A-Life. The company wanted their 15,000 employees to have a better sense of who their colleagues were, and what they were doing, in order to reduce inefficiencies.

Leonardi persuaded the company to let him to perform to test the effectiveness of the social networking tool through quasi-natural field experiment. He decided to compare two demographically similar groups within the company: marketing and operations. Before the tool’s implementation, the groups were questioned about whom and what their colleagues knew. “The rationale for asking those two kinds of questions is that knowing who knows what is really important, but in many cases, even if we know who knows what, we can’t get to that person directly,”

The marketing group was given access to the social software. For six months, this group conducted much of its routine communication through the site instead of through email or in-person interactions. As predicted, after six months marketing group who used the enterprise social networking site improved their ability to find information by 31%. They also improved their ability to find people who knew the person with information by 71%. This improvement occurred despite the fact that employees sent, on average, just one message on the site per week.

Leonardi did not find that use of the social networking tool differed based on someone’s role in the organization. Ironically, he found that use instead differed by age: younger employees across the company were generally more skeptical of the tool. Leonardi explained that the younger employees, “would say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be posting things my boss would see.’ … On the other hand, the senior employees didn’t have that same concern. For them, the technology was another mode for communicating about work-related matters.”

I often hear in conferences that social software appeals more to younger workers. The older workers “do not get it.”  I always object to this whenever I hear it, usually to strong support from the audience for my position. The argument is that this group uses it in their daily lives so they will expect in their work life. This research found just the opposite. It is only one piece of research but it certainly pokes holes in the idea of providing social software to appeal to the younger generation. 


Bill Ives

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