Does social computing help professional social networks ? An experiment on web 2.0 to promote quality of working life.

Emmanuel Martin


There can be many positive effects of social computing, and the use of so-called ‘social media’. For example, it can be used beyond socialising to seek advice and professional development as well as offering new business uses. It creates a collective intelligence across society through interactive collaboration across fast communication networks.” (Ethicomp 2011 Call for papers)

Beyond ”seeking new business uses”, social media is more and more used by companies to build professional communities. Connecting the employees to online social networks is supposed to help them share more information, more quickly and effectively, to tackle business issues. Members of these online communities can have the same job or, on the contrary, different jobs but a common professional concern. In this case, creating a social media (to help the employees interact) tends to mingle with interesting them to a common concern. Then what is the exact role of the media : a sheer instrument, or an embodiment of social relations ? Based on the account of an ongoing web 2.0 project inside a large energy company, this paper discusses the “positive effects of social computing” on two levels : does a web 2.0 device provide any benefit to an existing social network ? Does the implementation of such devices transform the way employees work together ? As a participant observer in this project, I provide ethnographic data on its development, using Latour & Callon’s “actor-network” theory to explain the making of a new collective actor (Latour, 1991 ; Callon, 1986).

Quality of Working Life is a corporate policy which has been developed since 2007 at EDF ; it is meant to address urgent issues of working conditions and work-related mental health. It relies on a few basic creeds, such as the need of a decentralized approach (solutions are to be found inside each business unit) and the need to make different occupations work together on the improvement of working conditions (managers, human resources, doctors, union representatives, health and safety departments and so on). Before quality of working life became a corporate policy, some of these employees have been willingly “enrolled” in informal networks, designed to discuss (sometimes confidentially) and deal with sensitive work-related issues. The process relies on the involvement of key actors in networks which cross usual boundaries (between departments, fields of expertise, and positions inside the company’s hierarchy). However these networks are not institutionalized. Therefore the QWL approach turns out to be both strong and weak because of its non-prescriptive and practical nature, very similar in its effects to new public management devices such as benchmarking (Didier, 2010).

An online social network is currently designed and implemented to help this new professional community share information and best practices, and capitalize knowledge. It requires the involvement of both top management and future users, and arouses questions, enthusiasm and/or doubts from the stakeholders. The observation of agents of the “real” network coping with a new online instrument (albeit designed to help them work together) reveals how complex the effects of social computing on collaborative work can be. Those are neither mere consequences of the technical device’s specifications, nor strictly determined by organizational strategies (Crozier & Friedberg, 1977). They can be understood as a series of enrolments and counter-enrolments : a construction of interests among actors that do not have once and for all the same strategy and the same preferences (Callon & Law, 1982). Developing a specific social media changes the way people work together on QWL, not on account of the media itself, but because it is enshrined in an existing social (and organizational) context which, in turns, models the media.

The second question remains unanswered at this stage of the project’s evolution : do people working on the improvement of quality of working life really benefit from their new technical environment ? Does it create any kind of “collective intelligence” ? I intend to investigate this last question by observing the online interactions between users from may 2011 (the moment the media will be opened) to june 2011.


Callon Michel (1986), “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay.” p. 196-233 in Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, edited by John Law. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Callon Michel & John Law (1982), “On interests and their transformation : enrolments an counter-enrolments”, Social studies of science, 12, p. 615-625.

Crozier Michel & Erhard Friedberg (1977), L’acteur et le système. Paris : Le Seuil. Didier Emmanuel (2010), “Benchmarking. L’utilisation du chiffre dans la gestion de l’Etat”, Mouvements, 63, p. 155-161.

Latour Bruno (1991), Nous n’avons jamais été modernes. Essai d’anthropologie symétriqueI. Paris : La Découverte.