Read Full Paper

The advent of instant communication technologies has brought with it a promise of larger networks and easy access to more resources, but it is not always obvious how to obtain these benefits. People have online and offline networks, direct and indirect ties with each other. How can these be properly leveraged to improve job performance?

Xiaojun Zhang of HKUST and Viswanath Venkatesh have been looking at this question to address a gap in the research, which to date has not really addressed the impact of technology on social networks, and subsequently job performance, at the individual level.

They identified four types of ties between employees – offline direct ties (with no intermediary), offline indirect ties (at least one intermediary), online direct ties, and offline indirect ties – and studied these connections among 104 employees at a US telecommunications firm. The results were then compared with job performance ratings from their supervisors.

“As organisations rely more and more on ICTs for distributed work, they must leverage them effectively and maximise the benefits they can bring, such as enhancing job performance,” the authors said.

“Our research provides explanations regarding how the impact of ICTs on job performance is transferred via communications networks in that employees who have a large number of direct and indirect contacts in both online and offline networks are more capable of acquiring and leveraging useful resources to enhance their job performance.”

Specifically, they found employees with strong offline direct networks, and strong online direct and indirect networks, performed better. Their model, which also looked at how the different types of networks complemented each other, was able to explain 40 per cent of the variation in job performance.

They also outlined the benefits of the different types of network ties to show why it was important to look at them from a complementary perspective.

Offline direct ties, which include face-to-face contact, offer fast receipt of information, information integrity, strong ties, network homophily (similarity of people), and the transmission of contextual information. However, they entail a high maintenance cost in terms of sustaining relationships and have limited network reach. This is where online ties can help.

Online direct ties offer the same first three benefits of offline direct ties, plus the ability to overcome constraints of time and space (such as time zones and being located in different geographical locations), to transmit information to multiple people in parallel, and to document and retrieve information.

Offline and online indirect ties lack some of these advantages, but have their own attraction. They both have weaker ties between people, which tends to encourage innovation. They also have low maintenance cost, wide network reach and third-party surveillance (since people tend to perform better when someone is watching). Online indirect ties also have the benefits of overcoming time and space constraints, and being able to document and retrieve information.

The authors found the highest performance ratings were for employees with a large number of direct and indirect ties in either their offline or online networks, or for employees with a large number of direct or indirect ties in both their online and offline networks.

In light of this understanding, they advise organisations to consider the role of social networks in maximising the benefits of ICTs. “When employees develop their offline networks, they may want to expand their online networks as well because employees may not be able to resolve all problems using face-to-face meetings,” they said.

They also cautioned that online-only networks might be inadequate for understanding complex knowledge. “To truly realise the benefits of ICTs, employees need to develop both online and offline networks,” they said.

They advised firms to create and sustain both online and offline communication networks in the workplace, and identify employees with few ties to others who could be given extra support. Employees could use the insights of the research to target networks where they could expand their access to resources, and to get those resources quickly.