Measuring social capital in organisations may be like holding up a magnifying glass on existing problems – it’ll reinforce whatever it sees.
The most important elements of organisational social capital are often not in the forefront of our minds. We’re generally not fully aware of the organisational culture: the norms, values, attitudes and beliefs, and we generally don’t think about how much we trust other people in the organisation.
When challenged most people can describe the organisational culture, but it is generally “prereflective” – often requiring some reflection for us to be able to articulate its nature.
These factors operate in the background to provide the context for how we act and interact in the organisation, and these actions have significant implications for productivity, creativity, innovation, and resilience.
Since we’re not fully aware of them, when we measure social capital we are required to think about them; to reflect on the nature of the organisational culture. This process of becoming more aware of them can reinforce or strengthen the norms, values, attitudes and beliefs – regardless of whether they are positive or negative.
Social capital measurement is not just a data collection exercise. Instead it changes the social capital of your organisation: for better or worse.
Take a very simple question that relates to social capital: Can you trust your coworkers?
If there is a high level of trust in the organisation then the act of asking this question will help to reinforce trust by bringing this reality into peoples awareness.
Unfortunately if there is a lack of trust then this same question asked in the same way would focus people’s attention on this fact and make people more distrusting because it reinforces the belief that other people can’t be trusted.
The background nature of organisational culture
Members of an organisation are immersed in its culture.
People live within the organisation’s culture, and their thoughts and actions are framed by its culture.
An organisation’s culture is a shared understanding or consensus on what are facts and what are legitimate courses of action within the organisation.
It is created by its members and it is reconstructed with every action or interaction. The culture is shaped from the top by rules, procedures and guidelines, and by the words and actions of every member of the organisation.
It is what you do, and also the how and why.
Organisational culture is the inescapable context of knowing and acting in the organisational setting. It is tested by experience yet it operates in the background with people never fully aware of its full context.
Organisational culture is taken-for-granted background assumptions, or presuppositions, that affect our thought and actions in the organisation.
An example is the unwritten and generally unspoken norms about how we work in open plan work spaces. The use of headphones, consumption of smelly foods, how to make phone calls, when to chat about non-work topics and events, and many more informal “rules”.
Organisational culture can also shape how we address problems, how we relate to each other, how we do our jobs and much more. It strongly influences how people act, including how they think and even feel. It contributes to their sense of belonging, motivation and empowerment.
Is organisational culture social capital?
Absolutely. The key factor that separates truly successful companies from the rest is their culture. In the 21st century highly successful companies have a culture that maximises their product, employees and physical assets. Their culture helps to make them innovative, creative, efficient and resilient. It makes them places where people want to work, which helps them attract the best people, and strengthens their corporate image.
Organisation culture then has enormous value and since it’s social and it’s capital I think we can call it social capital.
Isn’t social capital just your network: how many people you know?
Many people think of social capital as how many people you know. This is called structural social capital and in this context good social capital is knowing a lot of people well for a long time.
Of even more importance in organisations is cognitive and relational social capital: the culture of how people act and interact: how they collaborate, share information and work together.
Awareness of culture and confidence in our actions
When the individuals in an organisation become more consciously aware of these background contexts, and the importance of them, the culture is reinforced by creating a coherent set of presuppositions of social action.
When we are more aware of the appropriate or “normal” action in a given context then we are more likely to be influenced by this culture and we have more confidence to act in that way.
Imagine you walk into a university library for the first time. You may be uncertain about the appropriate way to act in that context. Do you have to be quiet? Can you just take books off the shelves? Can you sit at any table or desk?
If you act contrary to the norms you may receive social sanctions – a stern look, a comment that may cause embarrassment, or you may even be asked to leave.
When we become more aware of the norms we have more confidence in our actions. This awareness can come from repeat observation and interaction with others.
The magnifying glass
Many of the questions that we use to measure social capital require thought or reflection to answer accurately. This reflection can solidify the cultures that already exist, but are in the background.
For example you may be required to reflect on how people in the organisation address problems. After reflection you may realise that most people tend to blame others for mistakes and avoid taking responsibility for the problem or its solution. This realisation may cause people to be more likely to do the same thing since they think others will.
What we have just done by attempting to measure social capital is reinforce a negative culture.
Should we measure social capital in organisations?
The same processes that can reinforce negative aspects of the culture can also reinforce positive ones. So when we measure organisational social capital we need to be careful to structure the process to promote positive elements and ameliorate negative ones.
I call this process participatory social capital measurement. When done right it can transform organisational culture with all the flow on effects that we know social capital can provide.
Make sure you don’t magnify problem aspects of your organisational culture when you measure your organisational social capital.