The Importance of Social Capital
IN MY WORK IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE I HEAR VERY REGULAR REFERENCES TO SOCIAL CAPITAL; AS IN, “WE NEED TO BUILD MORE SOCIAL CAPITAL”.
I chose the topic of my masters thesis after coming across a large body of research indicating that not only does social capital contribute to individual and community health and wellbeing (improved education, more resilient and productive economy, reduced crime, etc.), research suggests that a reasonably high degree of social capital is an essential prerequisite for functional organizations and any form of collective action.
Author Margaret Heffernan points out that “social capital is the secret ingredient that makes some teams better than others. Conversely, a lack of Social Capital encumbers daily life, limiting social and economic opportunities…” (Rose-Ackerman, 2001)
Sounds important, doesn’t it?
YET IN SPITE OF THIS, SOCIAL CAPITAL IS GENERALLY NOT WELL UNDERSTOOD AND IT GOES UN-MEASURED BY ORGANIZATIONS AND COMMUNITIES, THUS MAKING THE CHALLENGE OF INTENTIONALLY BUILDING SOCIAL CAPITAL AND MONITORING IT OVER TIME DIFFICULT.
Research suggests that Social Capital generates significant benefits by reducing the costs of conducting day-to-day affairs and of doing business, facilitating the spread of knowledge and innovation, and promoting cooperative and/or socially-minded behavior in situations where narrow self-interest alone is unlikely to generate good outcomes for society (Productivity Commission, 2003).
MEASURING SOCIAL CAPITAL – INTRODUCING THE NEW SOCIAL CAPITAL ASSESSMENT TOOL
Different authors have different definitions of social capital but in general, it’s probably fair to say that all of the definitions more or less converge on the notion that social capital consists of
- trust (having to do with an individual’s willingness to take a risk or be vulnerable – or simply participate – based on a belief in other’s trustworthiness),
- norms (related to values), and
- networks (the flow of knowledge and information, and the number and quality of social connections).
The Athena Group’s Social Capital Assessment tool was designed to enable an organization to survey and assess their baseline and ongoing levels of trust and social capital.
We used a Likert scale to map respondents opinions along the spectrum of strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree. We added categories for abstain and object to provide for a more nuanced set of results. Examples of questions found in the assessment include:
- People in my organization demonstrate a willingness to invest time and energy in support of the organization’s goals?
- People in my organization feel that their voices are being heard and that their opinions are valued?
- Everyone in my organization is clear about how decisions are made?
- Everyone in my organization is clear when and how their input will impact decision-making?
- Substantial face-to-face interactions occur across departments or organizational units?
The result of a Social Capital Assessment is a Social Capital Profile, which provides a multi-layered, qualitative picture intended to assist in identifying promising areas to better facilitate the flow of knowledge, information and resources available to them. It aims to support creation of beneficial norms of working and communication while helping to build trust within an organization or network.
The survey can be easily customized and administered to a specific organization, a unit within an organization, or a multi-stakeholder network. The questions are intuitive and it typically take an individual no more than 15-20 minutes to fill out.
Please contact us if you are interested in proactively identifying gaps in social capital in your world and taking active steps to increase your potential for effective collective action.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Horton is a leadership and strategy coach and organizational change professional with 25 years of experience working with the public, private, non-profit, and higher education sectors. He sees his work as helping leaders navigate complexity and change, lead with clarity, and achieve internal alignment and coherence. Paul specializes in using dialogue-based, participatory approaches to engage diverse perspectives, build social capital, and improve organizational outcomes. He is skilled at facilitating meetings where there is a high degree difference or divisiveness, and tha t generate personal insights and uncover innovative possibilities for moving forward. Paul is a principle member of The Athena Group.