In a recent study we looked into the ways in which users gain influence in Enterprise Social Networks: Is it through their position in the organisational hierarchy (formal influence) or by way of being an active contributor to the network (informal influence)?
We measured influence through the ability to garner responses to one’s messages posted into the network. In other words, does my ability to convince others in the network to reply to my messages depend on what my formal role is or does it depend on whether or not I am an active contributor myself.
For this study we had access to the ESN data of Deloitte Australia, who were also able to provide data on the formal role and hierarchy position of about 65% of their users. All data was anonymous; users where only identified through an ID.
We operationalised three separate dependent variables: reply received yes/no, number of replies received, and time lag until first reply received.
We then hypothesized that 1) the higher one’s position, the more elikely they are to receive a reply, the more likely they are to receive more replies, and faster. 2) The same hypotheses were formulated for activity: The more active someone is in the network, the more likely they are to receive more replies, and faster.
After statistical testing, our results confirm both forms of influence. Interestingly however, the informal influence of communication activity is the much stronger effect.
Hierarchy in ESN matters – but not much
On average, a user’s hierarchical level has a statistically significant influence, but this influence is so small that it does not to matter in day-to-day practice. For example, a user who outranks another user by one level in the hierarchy is able to elicit on average 1% more responses.
Interestingly, messages from users in higher positions elicit slightly slower responses on average. We reason that people might need more time to formulate an adequate answer or take more care in editing replies to users in higher positions. The reason might be the perceived social distance between sender and receiver.
Being active matters most
The strongest finding from our study is that a user’s communication behaviour has a much stronger effect on response behaviour than their hierarchical position. Our findings thus confirm the long-standing argument put forward by proponents of ESN that the social networks that emerge on ESN platforms can lead to a re-balancing of influence in organisations – away from formal hierarchy toward recognising user contributions.
In other words, people who have something to contribute will be recognised by the organisational community and be able to derive influence from their standing in the community, even if they do not sit in high-level hierarchical positions.
At the same time, our findings show that formal hierarchy does not lose its influence entirely, as both formal and informal hierarchy show up in our data. We also need to point out that the results operate on averages, it does not mean that single individuals will not derive significant ESN influence from their position on the org chart.
Yet, being the first of its kind, our study demonstrates that prolific knowledge workers might benefit from their contributions to and investment into the ESN, because they are able to draw on the network for contributions, not having to rely merely on information flows along the organisational hierarchy. We are conducting further research to unpack these effects with more detailed analyses. I will post more results in due course.
Stieglitz S, Riemer K and Meske C 2014 ‘Hierarchy or
Activity? The Role of Formal and Informal Influence in Eliciting
Responses From Enterprise Social Networks’, Proceedings of the 22nd European Conference on Information Systems ECIS, Tel Aviv, Israel, 11th June 2014. Download the paper.