Skip to main content

The four Cs of workplace social software

Whilst researching my book on social software in the workplace, four primary elements emerged. In this blog post, I present the four Cs of workplace social software, which I hope will serve as a useful framework for CEOs, CIOs, CKOs, and corporate communications departments, providing them with a method to determine their organisational culture’s fit with different kinds of social software. It also provides the basis for developing a focused strategy for social software in the workplace.

The four Cs of workplace social software

Social software cannot just be imposed on the workforce and expected to work. Its success is dependent as much on the culture that is prevalent in the organisation, as the features and functionality of the software itself. When I studied some of the earliest case studies from across the world, I identified four major categories where social software could create organisational value: communication, cooperation, collaboration, and connection.


In organisations there are different types of communication flow, including formal (prescribed and regulated), downward, upward, horizontal and networked, but the communication type most relevant to the application of social software is informal. In his article Informal Social Communication, Leon Festinger (1950) summarised the three motivators behind informal communication:

  1. People need to share with each other and agree on important opinions and attitudes in order to feel that they belong together in the group.
  2. People need to share with superiors and others their hopes and ambitions in satisfaction of needs of achievement, affiliation and power.
  3. People need to express emotions such as joy, anger, hostility and the like as a means of “blowing off steam”.


Cooperative social software is primarily that which supports informal working where there are no pre-defined goals, where each individual contributor retains authority over their contribution, where information is shared as needed, and where the software takes on the job of assembling data in order to show the combined picture. It almost always relies on a network effect to deliver maximum value to the organisation as well as to the individual. In other words, the value of the system to each employee increases as more employees use it, thus increasing the overall value to their company.

The value to an individual from software that depends on these network effects can be both direct and indirect. Direct value results from the individual’s own use of the software, whereas indirect value results from others’ use of the software in a manner that benefits others. It should come as no surprise then that sharing is one of the cornerstones of cooperative social software.


Collaborative social software is distinct from cooperative social software in that it supports the engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve a specific problem, with shared commitment and goals. A wiki is a good example of social software that focuses on collaboration – companies using wikis have reported most success when giving participants a specific focus for their collaboration, such as meeting/conference agendas and policy documents.


Social software that connects employees refers primarily to direct, contiguous interaction. Communication is still a key element but it is distributed over time, between multiple individuals and even across different systems. Cooperation and collaboration systems depend on direct interaction between people, whereas connection tools rely as much on connecting employees with the leadership, mission and strategy, and other organisational content, as well as other employees.

A simple framework

There is clearly some overlap between these categories, most notably in the case of cooperation and collaboration: the former focuses on helping individuals work towards a common product, where the knowledge gained from the process is not the goal, whereas the latter focuses on deriving value from the knowledge gained from the process of constructing something. Yet both share the same objective of enabling a group of individuals to produce something better than that which could have been produced alone.

In the context of social software, collaboration and connection generally require a more formal environment than communications and cooperation, because they often depend on employees to do things in a relatively structured manner. Similarly, collaboration and cooperation often require a higher level of interaction than connection and communication, because of the inherent focus on groups rather than individuals.


For example, a company with predominantly formal organisational structures and a culture of group interaction with benefit most from social software that enables collaboration. Conversely, an organisation with an informal structure and a culture that rewards individual effort may prefer to invest in social software to support communication. This framework can help any company decide where to focus their time and effort for most benefit, rather than being led by vendors trying to sell their own solutions without any understanding of the organisational structure or culture into which it will be introduced.

This approach can also be used to support organisational change. For example, if a company is trying to encourage a shift from individual effort to group problem solving, but within the confines of a relatively informal culture, then it should focus on cooperative social software that requires more interaction.

Applying it to your organisation

Using this approach, it is possible to identify the preferred social software footprint for any organisation. The examples below show the social software footprints for three different organisations:

  1. Very informal, collaborative culture
  2. Very formal, highly collaborative culture
  3. Informal and formal, more focus on individual effort but some group problem solving



Organisations are waking up to the opportunities that social software brings to the workplace: more engaged employees, increased productivity, more fruitful collaboration, and solving intranet/email fatigue just some of them. Yet they must resist the temptation to contact the top-rated vendors in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant, at least until they have fully understood firstly how different objectives must be met by different categories of solution, and secondly that the ultimate success of implementation will depend as much on organisational culture as the solution chosen.

The four elements presented in this article – communication, cooperation, collaboration, and connection – make up a workplace social software ecosystem, which can create the foundation for a strong strategy. The four Cs provide a hands-on, useful framework to assess and identify the right solutions, for the right purposes, for your organisational culture.