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Beyond Human Capital

The Silken Threads of Social Capital

Human capital is a term that has driven many an organisational restructure and change process. Leaders put human capital as a high priority in strategic decisions for the future proofing of their businesses. But often strategic human capital decisions are made with the same approach as other resources - with little regard for the real life impact on people. Large consulting companies show organisations how to ‘minimise’ their human capital expenditure to benefit stakeholders. Impersonal 360 feedback assessments further the commodity approach. Skill development is seen not an opportunity to build potential of the individual and the team, but a deficit model based on anonymously allowing people to pass judgement on others. People feel down hearted, done to and duped.

The Deloitte report on Global Human Capital Trends 2016, with over 7000 HR and business leader respondents sites that 77% of the organisations surveyed were currently or had recently restructured. Only 19% of all organisations believed they had the ‘right culture’.   There seems to something very wrong with the way we are doing things.

One of the flaws of a human capital only approach is that continuing to shuffle the deckchairs on the Titanic will not save a business or organisation that is focused only on human capital and does nothing to enhance and strengthen the social capital of the people who work there.  Seeing the workforce as a commodity to move into a more ‘optimised’ framework for the bottom line is a myopic and short term approach doomed to become yet another failed change process.  People get jaded and cynical on the next wave of ‘change’. ‘Here’s another 'restructure' and a 'restack', but we will still be doing the work the same way, just with a different team title and a different boss.’ 

Process and results driven change programs solve nothing if they fail to create the environment needed to bring people together to do what they do, in a better way. Human capital rearranged in itself will never evolve to a greater collective outcome. If we see the people who work in organisations as property to be moved and developed like single houses and hotels on a Monopoly board we will never realise their potential.

Organisational change that is focussed on increasing collective impact and collaboration on the work requires us to work together for an aligned purpose.

And there is that word: TOGETHER. We do better together. We see the world with a larger lens when we bring our thoughts and perspectives to the table and discuss them together. We come up with greater and more inspired ideas when we tease them apart as a collective and find solutions. It’s the step from human capital to social capital. 

Social capital is the ‘space’ between people. It is the connection, trust and reciprocity that builds between people when they interact through their work and informal contact. I like to think of fine silk threads connecting us to people we interact with. As we move through our work, we create more and more of these fine threads between ourselves and others. For some people, the connection is thin and fine, perhaps fleeting, yet still a connection. For others, this thread is strong and robust. In an organisation the more silk threads connecting people and teams together, the more capacity to move from silos to collaboration. It becomes like a spiders’ web - providing a gentle yet steel like interconnection that not only moves the work forward, it enriches the well being and morale of the people that are a part of it.

Some organisations have a strong fabric of threads within. Relationships are purposeful and the work is an important focus of the interactions. Interconnection between teams creates an environment where strategies and initiatives have collective impact rather than isolated achievement. Organisations that are skilled at nurturing social capital set the bar high for relationships with their clients and stakeholders as well. The threads extend outward, to collaborative and partnership relationships - doing with rather than doing to. 

Unfortunately for some organisations, the silk threads are hard to find. Teams work with their heads down and make little or no effort to connect with each other, or people outside of their area. Their work is isolating and isolated from the collective purpose of the organisation. Social capital cannot be built by individuals. It is the concept of connection, the collective and a spirit of reciprocity.

Some simple ideas for building the social capital in your teams or organisation:

  1. Ritual -  what are the rituals you have when connecting with one another?  Our rituals reflect our culture. They are the symbolic behaviours that build or destroy connection and trust.  A client, when leading a new organisation, started by simply getting people to be more welcoming to each other each day -  smiling and saying hello (they hadn’t been doing that!).  She realised that if there was to be any change occur on the work as a team, the team needed to build their social capital first.  Her first goal as the leader:  ‘create a welcoming culture’.   Modelling this behaviour herself and with the leadership team was her first step.  Two years in, they are able to do important transformational work, due to the strength of the social capital.
  2. Purpose - provide real opportunities for people to work together on authentic projects, bringing together a collective of skills to achieve success. This creates an environment where different skill sets are critical to success and allows people to understand the diversity of multi-disciplinary skills in the team (s) and the need to tap into them.
  3. Interconnections - what are the natural interconnections of the work, either within the team or between teams?   Create the environment where people can share their insights, ideas and aspirations for how these interconnections could be leveraged to increase the outcomes you are all after.  Then ACT on them.

How strong are your silken threads?

Tracey Ezard: Engage; Collaborate; Act