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Employee empowerment or workers’ control? The use case of enterprise social networks

19 June 2018| doi: 10.5281/zenodo.1293811

In the context of the digitization of the workplace, numerous companies are introducing digital platforms that are intended to strengthen employee participation. The implications of social media for the meaning of political engagement and participation has been widely addressed in the field of Internet studies. In the working environment, social networks have gained increasing attention in recent years, especially because of their potential to empower workers to engage in knowledge management strategies within organizations. The benefits of Enterprise Social Networks for internal operations, including the dissemination and creation of information, are promising.

The advantages of democratizing access to information for employees include but are not limited to: increasing employee commitment and motivation towards the organization’s objective; the advancement of productivity and creativity among users; and an overall higher satisfaction rate of workers. Enterprise Social Networks have received much attention in academia recently, with works addressing diverse aspects including its potential to enhance employee participation in organizations.

At first glance, collaborative communication technologies disable hierarchical structures of information flows, extending information channels laterally as well as enabling bottom-up communication. However, Enterprise Social Networks not only foster communication among employees through social collaboration tools, they also enable workers to be quantified while extending mechanisms of information control and governance by the employer. The options of real-time tracking make it easier to trace employees’ activity, which increases employee monitoring altogether.

This development leads German works councils for instance to prohibit the implementation of Enterprise Social Networks, as the Works Constitution Act (§ 87) allows them to veto if the employees’ well-being is put into question. The issue of workers’ control on digital platforms must be addressed by examining new forms and processes of employee empowerment online. In our research project at the Humboldt Institute for Internet on Society in Berlin, we investigate the affordances for digital transformations within organizations, including their respective adaptation to German workers’ rights. However, Enterprise Social Networks not only represent a threat to workers’ rights but may also function as an extension in favor of employees and the business practices of German works councils. The co-determination rights in Germany invites workers to actively participate in shaping of their working environment – the participatory nature of Enterprise Social Networks could therefore foster employee participation within organizations for instance.

Besides new prospects of workers’ control within Enterprise Social Networks, new constraints and affordances of information processing are further occurring for employees, while information asymmetries among employees are being intensified. Not every employee is naturally a talented blogger and therefore a successful knowledge sharer. Not all employees across the board of the whole workforce can meet the skills to share knowledge comprehensively for others. Elderly personnel for example, who are not digitally native, may be excluded from Enterprise Social Networks. Further not every work process allows access to Enterprise Social Networks—for example, as soon as one’s work routine does not include a computer or smart device. Thus information asymmetries among employees might be intensified by the implementation of Enterprise Social Networks, which constitutes one of its disadvantages. This can be highly problematic, as knowledge sharing influences formal and informal social structures within organizations, as Professor of Technology Management UC Santa Barbara Paul M. Leonardi argues: “Information is a valuable commodity in organizations because the possession or absence of it can alter social structure by positioning those who have information as powerful actors, and those who do not as less powerful” (Leonardi, Activating the informational capabilities of information technology for organizational change, 814).

The quantity and quality of information possessed by an individual affects their standing within an organization. When information is distributed equally, individuals may experience an equalization of participation rates among members and weakening of the group power status system overall. Certain users may have advanced skills to acquire information in an Enterprise Social Networks, and therefore have more power in the decision-making processes. Formal power in an organization corresponds to the degree to which knowledge can be accessed and changed. Informal power structures are also information and knowledge structures.

Organizations that implement Enterprise Social Networks must be aware of the prospective challenges that Enterprise Social Networks entail. The democratization and humanization of work remains a central task of employee representatives in the negotiation process of changing industries, especially in Germany where workers’ rights are historically embedded in the majority of organizations offering a say for employees when tools like Enterprise Social Networks are being introduced. However, this should not route works councils to simply preclude new technological tools as this response hinders innovation overall, but should rather inspire them to appropriate these for their own work practices and to challenge aspects information control in the negotiations processes with the establishment.

This article was first published by Connected Life Conference (Oxford Internet Institute).

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Shirley Ogolla

Former Researcher: The evolving digital society

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