Whether we like it or not – and whether we are prepared or not – our businesses are becoming more networked and connected. Our colleagues and teams are no longer co-located but spread across locations, states and even countries. Welcome to the true, global virtual workforce.

We can send email, use collaboration technologies and even video conference – but the technology has shifted significantly even in the last few years – and these now feel out-dated. Leaders can no longer rely on the technologies that have helped make many of us successful – we are increasingly turning to short and instant messaging for instant connection, activity streams for up-to-the-moment reports and big data for real time results and decision support.

But leadership has never only been about technology. It is also – essentially – about people and performance.

Where these new innovations have proven themselves has been in the area of performance. We are seeing gains in our competitive position, responsiveness to changing customer and stakeholder demands and in our ability to communicate, engage and motivate teams across the globe.

However, leaders have, in general, been reticent to grapple with the human dimension of technology. And this is where social media comes into play.

Taking a cue from leading management author, Gary Hamel, I have suggested previously that hackers are our future heroes, and that elements of hacker culture may help spur new forms of innovation and competitive advantage. But we should also be looking at some of the other transformations that are taking place. Hamel suggests that there are a whole series of behaviors that are fertile ground for business transformation – and I would argue that it is incumbent on leaders not only watch and learn, but to participate. To engage. And vitally, to learn.

And there is no greater crucible than the great melting pot of Facebook for even the most reticent leaders to begin that process.

After you sign up for Facebook, where should you start? What should you look for? I’d say, look for leaders. Look for leadership wherever it may appear. Let’s start with some of the behaviors that Hamel suggests are visible and worth noting:

  • New ideas and trends: look not just at your own range of first level connections. Look at the streams and conversations across the broader network. Read the feeds of your friends. Observe how ideas appear, gain traction and dissipate. Watch for those that gain credence and begin to spread. What makes one better than another? What is shared and what withers on the Facebook vine?
  • Contribution over hierarchy: how does reputation work in a flat network? Look for signs of networking, generosity and sharing. Think about the underlying exchange – who benefits, what is shared and what is counted? How is this different from the workings of the best of your corporate teams? Why?
  • Self-designing and self-organizing: have you seen a new group form? Have you seen people start to collaborate, to build on ideas and to move from ideas to action? Are there events that start to connect people and places? What is the driving force behind these? Is it a single person or is it a group? Ask yourself how some of these principles can be applied at work. Indeed, could these activities be considered work?

Leaders putting the social in social media

There is another dimension to social media – and to Facebook in particular – that can be revealing for leaders. And it is to do with the “social” part of social media.

Whenever someone makes a status update, shares a photo, becomes a fan of a page or downloads an app, this is revealed in their stream. And with instant chat now fully integrated, there is an ever-increasing merger between our professional and personal lives; or what I call the life continuum. But this merging is revealing a much more human dimension to our work relationships. It brings us closer together more quickly. It allows us to share and see snapshots of our lives that can open conversations, spark interests and shared passions, even connect us over the vast distance of geographies. It’s what is known as “ambient intimacy” – a way of creating, building and maintaining relationships even where time and space would ordinarily prevent it.

Now, while it’s easy to think that social media is a time suck – or a waste of our working time but it is essential that leaders begin scratching below the surface of social media to discover business value. Not so long ago, executives would question the productivity of their teams who frequently use social networking sites. Some organizations went so far as to restrict access – and some continue this practice. But as a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute study revealed, social networks and social networking with a business focus can unleash significant value – from general knowledge work to industry and role specific tasks – it is estimated that $900 billion – $1.3 trillion in value can be unlocked. And in a competitive market, we need every dollar of value that we can create, and we should take every opportunity to tap the creativity, innovation and passions of our workers, teams, partners and ecosystem stakeholders.

Clearly it’s time for leaders to get social. What are you waiting for – permission?

Nina Nets It Out: Of course, the enterprise use of Facebook is going to raise more questions than answers. But in this new future of work, leaders will need to be making decisions, acting upon advice as well as data and insight, and charting a future in a world where change is not only the norm – but taking place at an ever increasing pace. Facebook may not be your future – but it is already impacting our future leaders. Our challenge is in understanding  how we can shape, and are shaped by, these transformations and acting accordingly.

Caution: Future World and Local Leaders at Work and PlayCreative Commons License Wesley Fryer via Compfight