KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Dude where’s my social capital?

with 7 comments


One of the things you often take for granted, at least until you switch jobs or particularly organizations is the importance that social capital plays in your getting your work done.

Last year, after almost 15 years in UNICEF I moved to another UN agency with a a different set of rules, but also with different norms, customs and networks – with surprisingly little overlap between the two jobs in terms of the people I interact with.

On the positive side I was hired externally as a “knowledge management expert” which gave people a specific idea of what I might know, a “potential reputation” if you like, which was very different from the one I had in UNICEF where I still carried with me the idea of being young upstart, rather than any kind of expert.

But in UNICEF I had been around long enough to know how things work, to know who to call to get the information I needed, or even who to call to get things done that can’t get done easily if you do them the “official way”. I had a network of people who trusted me and who I trusted.

In my new job, although everyone was very welcoming and helpful, I suddenly found that I didn’t know how to do things, who to call, who were the experts who I could turn to for advice (and what people’s hidden agendas might be). And similarly it wasn’t obvious that when I had an idea that I would know who to share it with, whether people would listen or take me seriously or see me as a potential source of knowledge. What’s more I need to work with people across the UN system not just in one agency. UN co-ordination and knowledge sharing are two areas where social capital is particularly important as in both you need to pull together information and expertise from diverse and distributed groups, and while phone directories and resource databases can help, they are not enough.

So what do I mean by social capital? I’m sure there are many sociological and economic definitions out there, but for me it’s that intangible (but real) combination of your reputation and your networks that you can count on to help you out when you need something which could be as diverse as getting advice, or getting someone to write you a recommendation, or even to trust you to take a chance on your idea, or help you out when you are in a crisis.

Here are a few thoughts on social capital in the workplace based on my reflections on my recent move:

  • Social capital is an important asset in getting our work done, yet one that is under acknowledged and undervalued by individuals and organizations alike. And while we all unconsciously do things to build social capital, we could probably be a lot better at it if we thought about it a bit more systematically.
  • On an individual level it’s always important to maintain your social capital, but you need to pay attention to it especially when you are in a new position. Everyone does this differently – but there are a few important and simple things you can do when starting a new job such as making a particular effort to get to know your supervisor and supervisees (as their trust and advice will be critical to your success), go around and introduce yourself to everyone in the office as soon as possible, find out who your major work contacts will be and meet them for coffee/lunch – not just for a formal briefing, get to know the admin staff – they are often underappreciated and yet can be invaluable in helping you navigate complex bureaucratic systems. Last of all – make an extra effort to be positive and friendly, even if you are not by nature social, since first impressions count for a lot. And on the less social side – it’s very important to be helpful, and be willing to give much more help to the work of others than you expect to get in return. Lastly is to show your expertise and what you have to offer professionally, somewhat paradoxically by respecting and soliciting the advice of others and admitting what you don’t know, not assuming that you can apply your expertise in the new context without listening, yet also showing how you have particular skills and ideas which can be helpful, precisely because you are new.
  • Organizations can and should do much more do to help their staff function better by supporting them to develop their social capital. This starts with hiring people with both good inherent social capital in their field of expertise (good reputation and connections) as well as good skills and competencies in developing this in themselves in the first place. Once someone is hired the organization can do a lot to help socialize them into the organization through little things such as ensuring new staff are introduced, encourage them time to take time to network before jumping into content, help set them up with “buddies” or “mentors” to help them learn the system, give them opportunities to use and show their particular skills, provide opportunities for them to participate in meetings or join cross functional teams. It’s also important to give them opportunities to interact in social occasions – even simple things like inviting them for lunch or a coffee. A couple of good practices from my new office are that my boss made me write a mind-map about myself when I first joined, and set aside time to have a discussion about me as a person rather than just in my job role. We also have monthly “get togethers” which are social events held immediately after our all monthly all staff meetings. On a larger scale encouraging participation in communities of practice or other types of networks, whether virtual or face to face, give staff members an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and also build their reputation at the same time.

Many of the things that individuals and organizations can do to help build social capital are quite small, but they also need ongoing attention, and our workplaces could be much more effective, as well as being more pleasant places to work if we paid more attention to them.


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Posted in dumb ideas I had

7 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian. Harold Jarche posted a few days ago ( on the importance of maintaining and constantly expanding ones network, going as far to intimate that value of one’s network may even eclipse one’s skills (because knowledge developed by the latter will always be greater than that of an individual). Your post points to the importance of having a diverse network because, to quote Euan Semple, a manager’s authority is being replaced by the ability to influence. It is easier to influence with a diverse network supporting your online credibility.


    March 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm

  2. […] Read the original: Dude where’s my social capital? […]

  3. Thank You Ian for this post!
    I very much agree on the importance of having a good social start. Today a new team member joined us and in taking care of things to help him st up his new office I was thinking about when I have joined UNU more than 2 years ago and recalled the importance of the first team lunch together.
    Many of your suggestions will help me and my colleagues in our new team (since January) in building a social capital.

  4. Nice post and well said – social capital is under valued and yet crucial in getting the job done and the new organisation connected with interesting networks and individual agents (of change or else).

    I added your post to the KM4Dev consolidated wiki thread on ‘job handover’ (to which you had contributed as you probably recall):

    Ewen Le Borgne

    March 16, 2012 at 1:45 am

  5. You are SO right on this. The importance of this asset (SC) and the skills to gain it and deploy it are not well enough recognized, nor developed. If you pay attention, you see the positive effects of having it, and the huge cost of not.

    With respect to the ability to build the network that you need to get work done in a large bureaucracy, I think it can be broken down further into two distinct skills:

    1) the ability to network (which you have mostly described above – mostly these are interpersonal skills); and,
    2) the ability to strategically/operationally assess the bits of the institution that relate to your work – that is, the ability to quickly sort out who is who, and who does what, and who has what leverage, and where. This latter skill also helps you to understand where you fit in (what leverage you have, and can deploy, to what effect). I think these are more analytical skills – but they are not easily taught. In my work, I see some people that just naturally have this ability (often they are from high-context cultures – where people learn to read subtle signals).

    April Harding

    March 26, 2012 at 9:22 am

  6. I know I’m a bit late to join the party here but I can’t help sharing an observation.
    I’m noticing that you’re referring to Social Capital in the Bourdieuian individualistic sense, rather than as a collective asset, inspired from the works of Robert Putnam, James Coleman, and Gary Becker, as it has mostly been applied within policy and ‘development’.


    April 18, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    • Yes that’s right, I was writing more from the point of view of why social capital is important for individuals to cultivate since your own personal social capital is closely tied to your ability to do effective knowledge management, or any kind of “knowledge work” for that matter.

      Of course the knowledge that is shared as a result of social contacts and one’s own social capital is also a collective asset.

      Ian Thorpe

      April 18, 2012 at 7:53 pm

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