Real world vs. Online hierarchy and generation differences

Sheila poses a couple of interesting questions in her comment

  1. Does Social Computing remove hierarchy structures in face to face communications?
  2. Is there evidence that shows Gen Y is more adept at social computing than their older Gen X and Boomer colleagues?

On hierarchies—

I haven’t seen any research on this exact topic, but I have had some thoughts about how social computing can have a beneficial impact on flattening hierarchical structures.  I think you need to look more closely at the nature of each environment to make a better judgment.

There are still plenty of people who use the social computing tools to support command-driven agendas.  However, I think there are two things that can lead to a lowered perception of hierarchy in the real world.

First, I think the social computing environment itself creates a certain approachability.  There is no “executive row” where lower level staff fear to go.  Everyone starts off equal without rank, tenure, gender or other discriminator.

Second, when there is an honest attempt to open communications and a sense of real reciprocity (that is everyone at every level actively engages in a constructive way), Social Capital begins to build.

According to Prusak and Cohen in In Good Company:

“Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviors that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible.”

So the new behaviors that get enabled in the cyber world ultimately may provoke change to be realized in the face-to-face world.  I think you can envision how the openness enabled by the social computing environment could positively affect the real world.

On Generational differences—
Concerning the differences in behavior among the generations, there’s been some reporting lately that it is not necessarily true that it is the younger generation who are the first movers or the most active in social sites.  I think it’s safe to say that the younger generation who have been IMing and Facebooking and MySpacing are more familiar with the tools and may be more likely to just use them.  However as it was reported in the Q&A at the end of the webinar, some of the findings of the CIA in their Intellipedia were that it was the older generation who were the biggest contributors.  They had a lot to share and it was easy for them to do so.  They probably also had the best perspective on the contribution to the overall mission.

It was also reported that in some cases they younger people don’t share at times because they are trying to build their reputations (I suspect this has to do most with the intersection of self interest and corporate culture in places where the equity and reciprocity haven’t taken hold).  To me this is again a symptom of missing trust components in the overall environment.

I’ll do some more digging over time to see what I can find to support my thoughts.  Please feel free to continue to share yours.


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