Yesterday I wrote about Learning to be Productive at the Water Cooler based on a post by Arie Goldshlager and a study by MIT’s Alex Pentland and Benjamin Waber. The quick answer, water cooler discussions increase productivity and Twitter is the new virtual water cooler. Then Gil Yehuda, in response to the water cooler issue, brought up the question for today’s post, what about smoker networks. Stewart Mader’s tweet back to us, “is Twitter modern equivalent of going out for a smoke?” I tweeted back that the answer is yes and no and it would take a blog post to answer so here is my answer.
Gil wrote about an experience at the beginning of his career in IT in Lessons from New York Smokers. Eric, a team member, “was always more informed than anyone else. When someone had a question, he’d know about someone in some other group that we could ask and get help. The reason he was so well connected was simple: he was a smoker. Smokers developed an informal employee social network. They spent nearly an hour a day chatting with other smokers in other groups about all sorts of shared interests. Eric was pretty junior, but he hung out with some of the more senior managers too – those who smoked, that is. Eric knew about people and initiatives that we never heard of. He was our eyes and ears, and was invaluable to the team.”
This prompted him to understand the value of social networks and the need for them at the work place. He concludes that Enterprise 2.0 types of online social networks make this social networking easier, especially when you work in multiple locations, and you do not have to risk lung cancer. Now I have experienced similar situations. When I worked on projects, I always knew how to talk with people normally hard to reach, if they were smokers. So is Twitter like going out for a smoke?
In a more limited way it is but fewer people go for a smoke than a drink of water so you are dealing with a more limited subset. On the other hand, there is likely more camaraderie amongst beleaguered smokers than the water drinkers. So there is likely more egalitarian communication between different levels in the organization in the smoker’s group. Enterprise 2.0 also lets senior and executives have more direct communication with employees at all levels.
So if implemented right it is more like the smoker’s group without the health risks. With Twitter there is also the timing factor as to whether your paths will cross which also applies to the water cooler. In both cases, the smart networker will know the patterns of his or her prey and look for the right times to engage. Since the smoker group is together for longer periods of time, there are also more likely to be established rules of contact than the newcomer needs to learn to be effective. Smoker’s groups might be more likely to meet at certain times. There are also patterns of high Twitter use to observe.
In all cases, Twitter, smoking, having a coffee, and visiting the water cooler, you are often taking a break from focused long-term work and are open to short exchanges, especially if they are entertaining and helpful to your work. Putting yourself into a water cooler mode might help make your tweets more useful and appreciated. It is like the elevator speech, another place of change encounter. Except people are less open to elevator talk, especially when you do not know everyone on board.
We could on analyzing the different chance encounter places. I remember what seemed a strange behavior during one of my first visits to a client location as a new consultant. All of the client people would bow as the passed the stalls in the men’s room. I wondered what this ritual was until someone explained, they were checking to see who might be there to over hear their conversations. They wanted to be sure they were DMing each other.
I know a number of organizations that opened coffee rooms to encourage communication between departments and they usually worked. At a major British utility I worked with, the implementers exchanged best practices over their morning cup of tea while they waited for the day's assignments. Taking this away by having people work out of their homes seemed to reduce productivity.
Like many virtual collaboration tools Twitter gives you both more and less control then its real life equivalents. Keeping in mind lessons learned from the real world conversations will help you in the virtual world of Twitter.