At one of my clients, they don’t have a cashier in the corporate restaurant. No, they just rely on the honesty of the employees and let everyone input the food they’ve chosen on a touch display. Actually that’s not completely true, I suspect that they rather rely on the social control than the pure honesty of the individual. The system seems to work pretty well because there are always people standing next to you who are loosely following what you are doing.
A good friend of mine (who is a PhD student) remarked that it wouldn’t work at the university since there is a different dynamics going on with the social control in that context. During a bottle of wine, we were discussing this intriguing fact. Why would the social control dynamics be different at a university than in an office? Could it be that students have a common interest in living as cheap as possible (due to limited budgets) and thus sticking together “against the system” will benefit them more than ratting each other out? Could it be that the “forced relationship” employees have (they are paid to work together) is stronger than the “well we happen to be at the same university but I don’t necessarily need to know you” relationship at university? I’m not a socio-economical researcher so I can’t answer this in a scientific correct way.
BUT, it did trigger me to put this in the context of a more digital (online) social network. One of the biggest problems that companies face is that when they set up an internal corporate social network (enterprise Facebook or whatever you want to call it), that they lack adoption. There are many causes for that and a lot of people have good ideas about how to (potentially) solve this problem but would it be possible to use the dynamics of social control to achieve your goal of a more active social network?
If you look at the definition of social control in Wikipedia, you get the following: “Social control includes social mechanisms that regulate individual and group behavior, leading to conformity and compliances to the rules of a given society or social group.” A very interesting phenomenon you see is that external CVs on LinkedIn tend to be of a higher quality and more up-to-date than internal CVs (internal CVs are very important for consulting and systems integrator companies). Why is that? Well, your colleagues, your clients and your potential future employer is watching it. You have every interest to keep it up to date. If there is a big gap in your CV because you neglected to update it, other people might think you’re out of job and will most likely tell you “hey where have you been the past three months?”.
So, in the CV case it is in your own best interest to keep it up to date, to post status updates, to post presentations, etc. Not because you think it’s so much fun, but for the sole selfish reason that you know that other people are reading (=controlling) it. Bottom line: you care about it.
And there is where a lot of companies go wrong. They set up an internal social network, a knowledge management system or a wiki for the greater good of the company (= company-focused). It might be more efficient to focus on what the individual gets out of it (= people-focused) and rely on the dynamics of “swarm intelligence” (remember the swarm intelligence post a year ago?) to make it work. If we quickly recap the three important points of swarm intelligence: “The agents follow very simple rules”, “no centralized control structure dictating how individual agents should behave” and “local interactions between such agents lead to the emergence of complex global behavior”, then we can conclude that by focusing on the selfishness of the individual (what do I get out of this?), there is a higher chance of making a big corporate social network succeed rather than relying on the individual’s interest for the greater good.

Lee Provoost is a Cloud Computing and Social Media Strategist at Capgemini. You can follow his ongoing stream of thoughts on Twitter http://twitter.com/leeprovoost and Posterous http://leeprovoost.posterous.com.