The Hierarchy Name Game – Do the Rules Apply in Enterprise Collaboration?

|   Jul 7, 2010

I’ve always been one to respect the company hierarchy with any official communication tool that I use at work. It’s natural for me now to list the names of employees, or send @username messages in hierarchical order – senior executives are listed first, and others are listed after that in order of rank. However, with the influx of social tools and young employees into today’s enterprise, I question how the corporate hierarchy is or is not intertwined with the way that employees use real-time collaboration tools. Do employees treat these tools like email, or are there different social conventions for navigating the company’s hierarchy in social media?

About a decade ago, my first “corporate” boss Jennifer gave me my first “corporate” responsibilities as an entry level PR employee at Nickelodeon. It seemed simple enough: “When you’re done writing the press release, email it to me, and copy Blaine and MaryAnne.”

My eager, novice ears heard the instructions and I did just what I thought was expected – I emailed the release to Blaine (the Assistant), Jennifer (the Director and my boss) and MaryAnne (the VP). In that order. It was alphabetical, I thought, and probably the right way to get this information to everyone. To my boss, however, I had made the mistake of undermining her authority by failing to respect the reporting relationship via email.

I didn’t realize until later that day what a mistake I had made. As a new employee fresh out of college, I didn’t realize that there was a hierarchy to email communication. There are signals sent with every email that floats into an inbox – and the “to” and “cc” fields sometimes speak volumes more than the actual written words themselves. Like the nuances of grammar in the English language, where emphasis can be added for effect by slightly different placements of a comma or an adjective, the entire meaning of an email can be changed based on who is listed first in the “to” field, who is copied, and who is completely omitted. In email, meaning is derived heavily from how the corporate hierarchy is included and arranged.

The introduction of public, asynchronous communication systems into the enterprise has not only shifted how we communicate, but to whom we communicate. The question then arises – do the same rules of the communication hierarchy apply inside enterprise communities? Should employees always address higher-ranking executives before middle management when posting to a community? Should they “cc” or “mention” someone’s boss when offering praise inside the network so that the deserving employee is sure to be recognized? Overall, do we respect the traditional rules of email, or do we break free from them with the mentality that social communities are inherently different?

I argue that tools like Socialcast should continue to respect the corporate hierarchy and that users should be addressed with respect to their position. But every company is different – and this may not be the case across the board. What do you think? How does your company treat the addressing of employees inside social communities?

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What is Socialcast?

Socialcast by VMware (NYSE: VMW) is a social network for business uniting people, information, and applications with its real-time enterprise activity stream engine. Behind the firewall or in the cloud, Socialcast enables instant collaboration in a secure environment. Socialcast is headquartered in San Francisco, California. www.socialcast.com