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The Cultural Imperative For A Social Business

By in Tips & Guides on April 18, 2011

HandsAlthough effective collaboration has always been a cornerstone of a successful business, one could say that the unrelenting speed and sophistication of the social consumer web is making it more so. The changing dynamics of the marketplace expose broken processes and are forcing employees to work together better, in order to provide an unprecedented level of customized experience for customers. To be externally social, an organization must problem-solve, exchange information and collaborate across departmental lines.

How does one become social internally? Just launch an internal social network like Yammer of course, and wait for magic to happen? Not so fast! No matter how intuitive a platform is to use, roll out or administer, this effort has to land on the fertile ground of the right culture. Culture is the hardest element of success, because it’s 1) hard to define, 2) takes a long time to change, and 3) there are serious disincentives to changing it. With any kind of internal social networking, you are effectively changing behavior from everyone working inside a silo to a more open, transparent and collaborative environment. And as we all know, every time you attempt to change behavior, you run into resistance. The better you can anticipate resistance and channel it into positive energy, the higher the chances of success.

What is the “right” culture, and is there such a thing?

While there isn’t one right culture, just as culture is tough to compare across organizations, there are certain common elements of organizations that do well with these types of initiatives. Charlene Li sums it up best: “be open, be transparent, be authentic”. While this is easier said than done, and there are as many definitions to “authenticity” and “transparency” as there are people who define them, here are some key things:

  1. Transparency and openness require the braveness of “opening up the kimono”, not when convenient, but all the time. It involves letting people know what’s happening and why, with advance notice, providing a channel to share feedback, and closing the feedback loop – in the open. Companies that are truly transparent, are usually transparent inside and outside. When I was young and worked in very top-down organizations, announcements and organizational changes were delivered without sharing any reason and without a forum to ask questions / contribute ideas. This made me feel like I had no control of my life, and my opinion didn’t matter – so I left…   In an open culture, on the other hand, managers are and their subordinates feel like they are in the same boat, on the same team. This type of openness has to be vertical as well as lateral.
  2. Knowledge hoarding is replaced by sharing. Traditionally, our educational systems have emphasized becoming a specialist. We have hoarded our knowledge in fear that if we shared what we knew, we will become more replaceable. In his bestseller “A Whole New Mind”, Daniel Pink states that globalization, automation and abundance brought forth by technological advances, have greatly affected what’s defendable as a competitive advantage. Rote memorization and textbook knowledge is no longer enough, especially since Internet has made knowledge more accessible. A true competitive advantage is the ability to learn, synthesize, share it back to the group and drive change. Check out this great video by Steven Johnson that describes what’s possible when functional silos come down.
  3. Authenticity rules the day. Because internal and external social mindset expose inconsistencies between what you say and what you do — if there are any — you really need to examine your value system as an organization and establish processes to ensure that everything you do is consistent with this value system. Does your value system support your mission? Do you know what your mission is? If you define and commit to these values as an organization, decisions will actually become easier, as you ask yourself each time “is this consistent with our values?” Of course, every employee has to be empowered to act to support these values, without going through red tape. To use the textbook example of Zappos, that’s exactly what makes them successful: every action they take maps back to their mission of providing unparalleled service for their customers.
  4. Organization is flat. Finally, as a result of the above points, a new type of flat and collaborative organization starts to emerge. Senior management engages in a dialogue with employees. Middle management gets out of the way and enables team cohesiveness instead of mandating actions. Employees are able to communicate and collaborate across silos.

What are the barriers to this kind of culture?

The above sounds great, doesn’t it? Is this achievable, or is it a Utopian rhetoric? Why aren’t more companies like that in real life? I’d say that many are trying, but it takes a lot to get 100% there. There are some serious barriers to this type of culture, some of which are:

  • Command and control mindset: Traditionally, corporations have been structured with tightly managed controls at the top, which were passed down through levels of management, down to the people who actually performed the work. Tasks to be done, as well as the processes by which these tasks had to be done, were mandated from the top. This is starting to change drastically, as teams are now acting as fluid organisms vs. machines. Check out this fantastic post by Dave Grey on this matter.
  • Functional silos: Perpetuated by functional isolation and years of specialization, many organizations ended up with functional silos. Of course, departments still need to exist in order to divide up the work and avoid a “free for all” situation. After all, marketing should be marketing, sales should be selling, the product team should be defining the product and engineers should be building it. However, all these groups don’t exist in a vacuum; the decisions that each group makes affect all other groups. Thus, cross-functional collaboration is absolutely key to exchanging ideas, doing a better job, making better decisions and avoiding work duplication.
  • Rigid hierarchies: Scarcity of information pre-Internet, combined with specialization, has contributed to knowledge hoarding. At times, this asymmetry of information, and not the right leadership skills, allowed people to rise up the corporate ladder. Hierarchies were developed to preserve this status quo. However, things are changing rapidly, and democratization of information is definitely putting the emphasis back on leadership style, and not access to information, as a competitive advantage.
  • Wrong things are measured: There’s a saying: “what gets measured, gets done.” No matter how grand your vision and strategy are, if people aren’t incentivized to take certain steps, their behavior isn’t going to change. Focus on short-term results is understandable, as Wall Street puts a lot of pressure on organizations to perform in the short-term. However, we need to make sure we are also incentivizing behaviors that will help us succeed in the long-term, and measuring their effect.

What do you think? What have been some barriers to a more open culture that you have come across? How did you get over these barriers?

Check out part 2 of this post, dealing with steps you can take to improve your culture.

Image source: lumaxart

18 Responses to The Cultural Imperative For A Social Business

  1. Maria Ogneva says:

    Thank you, Jack! Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Great post! I like the element that the wrong things are measured. It is not an element I would have thought about when thinking about organisational culture.

    On the one hand, you need an open culture to work with social media. On the other hand, you may use social media to shift the culture a little bit. Is there a bottomline? It is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. See this blogpost also: http://joitskehulsebosch.blogspot.com/2009/04/can-you-shift-your-organisational.html

    • Maria says:

      Hi Joitske! Thanks for sharing your post! That’s a really interesting question, and I bet there are as many answers as there are people :) I think that it goes both ways, and culture and social can actually strengthen each other simultaneously. It can be a sort of a symbiotic relationship that way. I think there needs to be at least some appreciation for wanting to be more open and collaborative, even if it’s not a fully bought-in organization. So they dip their toe in the water, and start to realize some of the benefits of being more open. Then the organization wants to do more social stuff, and then they get better at it because people start to believe in it more. The better the culture gets, the stronger the social execution, the better results, the better the culture.

      I think it absolutely goes both ways.

      I also like your point about doing social from so many different angles. When the company’s approach to social matures, it actually will become a cross-sectional discipline vs. a bunch of disjointed efforts. Different angles are absolutely necessary, and social leadership must understand what these angles are.

  3. Bobby Brown says:

    The barrier I am getting is that upper level management refuses to use any form of social media. This causes other managers to not use it as well.

  4. pcooper says:

    Fascinating. I work as a healthcare consultant, the software vendor I work with combines formal classroom training with projects and tests. We, who have gone through the process, have often said that most of the learning comes from doing the test projects, and being involved in the business project after the training. Much of the most successful enduser knowledge comes from “practicing in the playground” an environment where the user can practice what they learned in class; however, management, and regulatory agencies need to know who when to class and did they pass a competency? The challenge is combining the informal learning with the highly regulated environment.

  5. Maria Ogneva says:

    Hi Joitske! Thanks for sharing your post! That’s a really interesting question, and I bet there are as many answers as there are people :) I think that it goes both ways, and culture and social can actually strengthen each other simultaneously. It can be a sort of a symbiotic relationship that way. I think there needs to be at least some appreciation for wanting to be more open and collaborative, even if it’s not a fully bought-in organization. So they dip their toe in the water, and start to realize some of the benefits of being more open. Then the organization wants to do more social stuff, and then they get better at it because people start to believe in it more. The better the culture gets, the stronger the social execution, the better results, the better the culture.

    I think it absolutely goes both ways.

    I also like your point about doing social from so many different angles. When the company’s approach to social matures, it actually will become a cross-sectional discipline vs. a bunch of disjointed efforts. Different angles are absolutely necessary, and social leadership must understand what these angles are.

  6. Maria Ogneva says:

    That can be very frustrating. I wrote a follow-up post to this one, and in that post one of my recommendation is to help your management see things from the outside. See if you can bring in someone whom they respect to talk about what your industry is doing with regards to social. I hate to say it, but sometimes it takes the desire to not be left out — if all your competitors are doing it, can you afford not to? Also, if your customers are looking for you there, asking for your help, can you not be there? Of course, you need to show that this is in fact true. Do they feel this way about internal social networking to? There are serious benefits to sharing information across your organization, as we see from our customers all the time.

    Whatever social tools you are using, culture is really key, and many feel paralyzed by fear of losing some control. What’s important to realize, though, is that by not participating you are actually losing more control than if you jumped in and got involved.

  7. Maria Ogneva says:

    Really interesting point. I think with social tools, which tend to be easy to use, it’s more the behavioral approach that makes the difference vs. technical competency. It’s about the best practices that help you use the tools to get the results you need. That type of expertise you can only get from doing. Of course, there needs to be a forum for sharing and developing best practices, but most will come from doing.

    Thanks for your comment!

  8. Simply superb post. Love it. The future of social success inside the enterprise hinges on getting what you’ve suggested right. A+

    • Maria says:

      Thank you, Susan! Means a lot coming from you!

      The cultural problems are tough to resolve, and it will take a while. At the end of the day, we’ll get there!

      - Maria

  9. [...] and Human Resources Managers should be involved to help manage the technical, organizational, and cultural change that will be fueling your organization forward. These are the Sailors keeping the ship on [...]

  10. Hyoun Park says:

    Great post, but I’m wondering how Yammer sees the step before cultural change. Our research goes into detail on the culture, but based on about 600 organizations surveyed over the past year, we’ve found that the key initiators for creating a better culture are in:
    1) aligning corporate goals to collaboration (which our top 20% Best-in-Class companies were over twice as likely to do as all other companies) and then
    2) aligning individual and line-of-business goals to social business communities and tools (which a majority of Best-in-Class companies identified compared to only a quarter of our bottom 30%, which we call Laggard, respondents).

    Once both of these occur, the business case for creating the open culture becomes much clearer as people realize how social tools help them to create better products, improve service interactions, clear up project management confusion, and create collaborative content.

    And then open behavior and knowledge sharing become important. We’ve found that although Best-in-Class organizations are twice as likely to have formal efforts to defy a “command and control” structure compared to Laggards, less than 40% of Best-in-Class companies actually have this effort in place. But the Aberdeen audience would argue that until the initial processes of both strategic and tactical alignment occur, cultural change at the enterprise level is a Sisyphean task.

    • Maria says:

      We see cultural change as an evolutionary process. There has to be a certain degree of the “right” culture already present. If your culture isn’t collaborative and is hierarchical, it’s going to take longer to effect widespread change — not impossible but will take time. However, you can start in a tactical way, with a business unit as you suggested, adopt a more collaborative process there, and demonstrate to the rest of the company the results that came from it. Execs do like seeing results, so if you can tie cost savings or increased revenues to your initiatives, you will have an easier time getting the ear of someone in the C-suite.

  11. Mike says:

    Lets start with a hand shake and a smile

  12. [...] are there to enable, speed up and bring to the forefront what’s already there; if your culture doesn’t allow for the inherent values of social and collaboration, no tool will help you. [...]

  13. [...] the adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast;” indeed your company’s culture can be the single biggest facilitator or detractor from your initiatives. Our CEO David Sacks said this in a customer Q&A session with our customer community, when [...]

  14. [...] social does necessitate a shift in thinking and being; it’s a cultural imperative (check out this post I wrote about it). You need to get used to talking back to your customers, you need to allow them [...]

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