Trends Behind Social Engagement & Collaboration

Social media plays a big role in our society today — people can find, communicate and connect with others around the world with just one click. However, it can also have a dark side, and often serves as a constant temptation when we should be focused on other tasks. In the workplace in particular, social media is a concern to CEOs and managers alike, who claim it distracts employees, wastes money and even threatens the bottom line. 

However, Wietske Van Osch, an assistant professor of Media and Information, has found that while social media can easily distract us from our daily tasks, it can also foster collaboration. Her research helps to explain how social media can help people work together, share knowledge and develop creative ideas and solutions. 

Corporate Social Media Engagement

Wietske VanOsch

Van Osch has worked with corporations to research how their internal social media platforms can promote collaboration between employees. She also works to discover what components of corporate social media messages lead to increased engagement, helping corporations answer a few essential questions. 

For example, is social media effective and can the creative ability of individuals and teams can be improved if they are given feedback on their collaboration methods? 

Working with other ComArtSci researchers to help companies like Leo Burnett Detroit and Steelcase conduct research, Van Osch has been developing answers to these questions for the past six years. Her work with both companies has generated approximately 50 publications and a dozen invited industry talks.  

She has conducted studies for Leo Burnett Detroit analyzing social media messages to discover what components of a message, such as its content and media elements, boost user engagement. Van Osch and her colleague, Constantinos Coursaris, an associate chairperson of Media and Information. The pair have assisted the company in training some of their largest clients, including General Motors

“I see collaboration as an opportunity to learn and to be better together,” Van Osch said. “All of these industry partnerships have helped to broaden my horizon, to learn about how things are done in other places and to produce products — whether research articles or industry publications — that are of higher quality.”

The first stage of the team’s work with Leo Burnett Detroit focused on understanding what different social media posts are about, if they are assigned to specific categories and how effectively they’re earning engagement. 

“Which messages make people click the ‘like’ button, leave a comment or ‘share’ the post onto their Facebook wall?” said Van Osch. “Also, we wanted to see if there are other characteristics of a message that explain engagement, such as if the message was about providing information and facts or if it trying to evoke an emotional response.”

They found that there are a number of reasons why certain social media messages drive engagement while others don’t. Messages containing corporate history or culture needed photos and videos to trigger engagement. However, messaging providing information and facts received engagement even if they were simple text-based messages with no imagery attached. 

“Through an experimental study, we found that consistent exposure to highly engaging messages does increase the positive attitudes of consumers towards brands and their intent to purchase from the brand,” Van Osch said.

Communication and Innovation in the Workplace

Van Osch has also worked closely with Steelcase for nearly six years alongside her colleague Charles Steinfield, a professor of Media and Information. A large portion of their studies have been funded by the National Science Foundation

At the time they began their research, the company had recently implemented an Enterprise Social Media (ESM) system, social media networks and software that can only be accessed by employees on a private network. The pair were interested in seeing how these social platforms can facilitate innovation and the sharing and management of information among employees. 

“Traditionally, social science research uses self-report methods for collecting data, like surveys or interviews,” said Van Osch. “However, people tend to misrepresent certain behaviors or attitudes because they might be concerned that their data is shared with their boss or with colleagues, or could simply be perceived as abnormal.” 

To combat this problem, Van Osch and Steinfield used algorithms to sort through large amounts of user data, including information on who people connect and share knowledge with and what they write, comment on or engage with. The data allowed them to analyze people’s true behavior on internal social media platforms. 

Van Osch found that people spend about 20 percent of their time socializing and the remaining 80 percent on work-related and project-focused conversations. She also discovered that people create open or secret groups in strategic ways to pursue distinct work objectives. 

“For instance, open groups are used to brag about group achievements, gain attention from senior management and obtain resources, whereas secret groups are used to coordinate project goals, budgets and deadlines and engage in the sharing of confidential, third-party information and radical ideas,” Van Osch said.

While past research literature on ESM argues that increased transparency of content and interactions drives improved knowledge sharing and innovation, Van Osch’s research reveals the opposite is also true. 

“Teams develop strategic ways to ‘hide’ from the rest of the organization, and it is precisely in these sanctuaries that the most advanced forms of coordination, sharing and creating occur,” said Van Osch. 

Future Research

Van Osch is currently working on deriving insights from the large amounts of ESM data she has collected from corporate innovation teams. She plans to compare teams that are good at generating new ideas to teams that are not to see if there are specific characteristics that can predict positive collaboration outcomes. 

“I am passionate about empowering teams to thoroughly consider their dynamics and alter it in productive ways,” said Van Osch. “Our aim is that through an advanced understanding of the drivers of successful knowledge sharing and innovation within and between teams, we can build a feedback tool that helps teams adjust their behaviors in the most creative and productive manner.”

To provide feedback to teams about their idea generation and teamwork efforts, Van Osch is  pursuing funding to develop a system that utilizes user data and collaboration insights to map the way teams interact in real time.

By Rianna N. Middleton