Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Balancing Technology and Culture During a Social Business Implementation

by Daniel Siddle

What started life as a short post on user adoption seems to have turned into the monster blog prose you see before you.  If the length scares you then jump to the end for the summary version!

If you’re going to tackle the long version then let’s begin…

The topic of corporate culture and social computing has been done to death but still seems to rumble on as an undercurrent for many blog posts.  Views range from the suggestion that corporate culture needs to be right for social computing to succeed all the way through to suggestions that social computing can act as a catalyst for cultural change.  Of course its never as clear as either of those academic stances and when you listen to people in workshops saying, “it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people,” in the same breath as, “the platform has to be perfect,” it becomes very apparent very quickly that there is confusion over where the optimum balance lies.

No doubt the academic debate will continue but sometimes it’s good to stop talking and start doing.  Which leads to the question… What is the right balance and how do you achieve it?

Let me start by saying the final aim of any social business program shouldn’t be to find balance between technology and culture.  The final aim of a social business program should be to excel at both culture and technology, relative to your aims.  The balance you need to find is in the early stages, as you’re growing your network or community.  If you have an excellent culture and fail to match it with excellent technology then you stand to underwhelm people and have them turn away.  If you have poor culture but excellent, deeply functional, technology then you’ll probably end up with a very shiny toy that no-one uses.  In that sense the art of balance in a social business implementation is to be able to quickly understand the culture of an organisation and marry the technology to it.  That way you’ll be able to achieve a balance between the two components of social business in the early stages of implementation and it will be easier to accelerate the program towards success.

In a practical sense what does that mean?  Let’s start with a scenario which includes what I consider the ideal culture for social business and then we’ll flip it round.

In my mind the culture for social business success is something many companies strive to achieve already.  It’s a culture where people feel free to voice opinions.  Where opinions are respectfully considered and responded to.  Where people are at ease crossing organisational and hierarchical boundaries to achieve their aims.  You’ll find it in a vibrant working environment where people are happy to chat socially before a meeting but who settle into a meeting quickly and efficiently.  A good indicator for excellent culture can usually be seen when someone pulls rank.  It’ll be done with minimal fuss, calmly and quickly and with little discourse or wrangle from other employees.  It’ll happen this way because the person laying down the law will be respected and they’ll be respected based on evidence that has been visible to most, if not all, employees.  The only downside to trying to observe this indicator is that you won’t be able to do so very often since the teams you observe will work well enough together to self-govern.

Of course this situation doesn’t often exist in reality but it gives you something to aim for!

When approaching a team or an organisation like the one outlined above some people would be tempted to just slap a huge great shiny social platform, something like IBM Connections or Jive SBS, down and just let them get on with it.  That’s a risky strategy and definitely one that, in my mind, would rely too heavily on the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality.  Even in teams like this people still need to be introduced to new ways of doing things and to new software.  That introduction is likely to come in the form of small workflow improvements and efficiency gains.  For instance, where employees have been using a heavyweight content management system to control document versioning and produce final versions of things like SOPs etc you may introduce them to a wiki for collaborative authoring where the wiki has in-built functionality to produce a signed, sealed and delivered document at the end of the process.  Where people have been used to heavy administration around meetings you could introduce them to something like meeting workspaces in SharePoint.  The point of this introductory stage is to get people comfortable with the new technology.  Once people are comfortable with the technology then you’ll need to be prepared to move quickly since the chances are that in this team you’ll already have achieved a nice balance.  You’ll need to shift into a mode where you can start turning on large swathes of functionality.  You’ll need to switch into a mode where you can start saying things like, “Here’s the new functionality to help you with this workflow, oh, and by the way, because we’ve turned on that it also enables you to do this, this and this other cool stuff.”  You’ll still need to stick around and do some hand-holding when people make mistakes but generally people will start to discover ways of doing things by themselves and all you’ll need to do is provide guidance and grease the wheels a little.

Now let’s flip the situation.

You walk into a workshop or meeting room and the atmosphere is tense.  No-one speaks except for when it’s to agree with the most senior person in the room.  You start talking to the group, asking why they’re at the meeting and you get responses like, “Oh my boss told me to come.”  You give your presentation and everyone shifts around uncomfortably because you have no bullet points on your slides and they are forced to actually look at you and listen to what you’re saying.  The first question following your presentation is, “What I want to know is what’s the ROI of this?” The second, “Could you run us through the permission model and how you’d prevent access to sensitive documents?”  Both perfectly valid questions but taking them so early shows that you’re dealing with a risk averse culture.  The attention people pay to their Blackberries as you answer them shows how much they care.  As you wrap up the meeting the boss says thanks and mentions they’re looking forward to working on the project.  The rest of the meeting room take this is their cue to start over-egging their praise and mentioning how, “this visionary technology represents a paradigm shift in how they do business and they’ll look forward to collating the key performance metrics to demonstrate the up-scale in social capital.”  As you leave you remember that you were there by invitation so you know at least one person has got your back.

Of course that’s a melodramatic way of describing a culture that doesn’t lend itself to social media but it gets the point across.

Approaching the group above you are forced to focus on improving the culture otherwise you’ll never achieve anything resembling a successful social business implementation.  Some people would be tempted to focus purely on showing the efficiency gains that can be achieved using a social approach to business.  It’s something that you’ll need to do but you’ll also need to remember that efficiency gains don’t mean much otherwise this organisation would already be using their already existing tools in a much more efficient way.  There’s many ways to start an implementation of this nature.  Whether you look for influential groups to work with first or whether you start from the top and work down, it’s a personal and a project choice.  The fundamental similarity in any approach should be, in my mind, to strip away all things that prevent people from taking a long hard look at themselves.  In a technolo
gical sense it means taking your social offering and nailing the user experience.  Rather than focussing on social elements the focus should be on simplicity, another trait of Web2/E2.0/Social computing.  Using a simple and crude example lets say you work in a research driven organisation and you want people to share more of their research. Currently in most organisations people would have the option of calling a meeting, putting documents in a document management system, emailing people etc etc.  In a company with a good culture they’d see the benefit of sharing and make the best of the tools they have.  In a poor culture, one where there is fear or dislike of sharing, it’s easy for people to use the drawbacks of the technology or process as an excuse not to share.  “It’s too cumbersome to upload a document,” “It’s too difficult to find a time when everyone is available for a meeting.” In this case an answer would be to set-up a blog platform.  Make the blog platform easy to use.  Make the process of posting to the blog wonderfully simple.  Those people who didn’t share simple because the ways of sharing in the past weren’t good enough will now be able to share.  Those who used technology as an excuse will still not share.  This is where user adoption gets tough. You need to enter a phase akin to nurturing embers into a blazing fire.  You need to find the good examples of sharing and publicly reward them.  You need to encourage and guide people who are fearful of sharing their ideas with a wider audience.  Most of all you need to be patient.

So after the mammoth post let’s cut to the chase with a graph and a summary.

user adoption curve.jpg

Basically, two components come together to make a successful social business, culture and technology:

  • if you have a good culture and good technology you’ll be able to adopt a social approach to business fairly quickly and you’ll be pretty successful doing so.
  • if you have a poor culture but good technology then you’ll need to work through some difficult issues before you’ll see the benefits of social business.  The technology will help remove excuses but you’ll need a good implementation strategy to see any real success.
  • if you have poor culture and poor technology then you’re going to struggle.  A good implementation strategy will help you gain some success but it will never be as good as you want it to be.
  • finally if your culture sucks, your technology sucks and there’s no-one capable of leading a good implementation then you’re probably best of using you Web2.0 skills to get yourself another job.

That’s it, I’m done.  I think I’ve even bored myself.  So much for, “let’s stop talking and start doing!”

2 Responses to Balancing Technology and Culture During a Social Business Implementation

  1. By Capping IT Off on August 10, 2009 at 6:15 am

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  2. By Andrea Rubei on March 24, 2010 at 11:40 am

    BroadVision is an E-business platform vendor that has gone through this cultural change for 2 reasons:
    1. Re-designing our 1.0 e-Business offering
    2. Re-designing our 1.0 corporate culture
    On 2) we went through many of the challenges you describe in your blog.
    Furthermore, in selling our new Social Software platform, we encounter many customers that are somewhere between the two extremes you describe.
    I’d like to add some thoughts on what we have found to be working both for us as well as for our customers:
    We have developed 7 key habits that summarize the requirements for a good approach to ESN:
    1. Mandate: Clear vision; CEO/senior management commitment
    2. Strategy: Attainable strategic plan; well aligned goals
    3. Expectation: Set low expectation; recurring self-assessment/polls
    4. Contribution: Anchor communities/tenants/content; editorial calendar
    5. Participation: Track activity/participation; encourage creative use
    6. Competition: Points; MVP/dream team awards; celebrate success
    7. Perseverance: Keep at it: learn by doing; continuous improvements
    The Dream Team competition is especially worthy of some attention, as it is an excellent showcase for team collaboration. We divided our global workforce in 20 teams dispersed globally. We created a community for each team and we asked them to create a very simple plan on a specific topic. The community workplace was going to be the collaboration space. Each community would decide how to best use that space and combine old tools (emails, conference calls etc) with the new 2.0 tools.
    At the end of the competition, we used a poll mechanism to allow everyone to vote (once) for their favorite plan according to some parameters.
    The top 5 entered the final where a judging panel composed by the top management would award the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. Despite the fact that there were some real prizes that each team could win, the actual competition pushed (almost) everyone to get into the game.
    The end result was that (almost) everyone became familiar with the new environment and the company received some very creative ideas on new solutions.
    This was obviously possible in a 300 employee company (although highly dispersed geographically).
    In a 20.000 employees company, this would probably have to start at departmental level with some modification, but it is a fun way to let people get closer to these new ways of collaborating.
    The activity points metric shown on the homepage of the internal network based on the activity level of each community is something that kept the competition alive and kicking!
    I would be happy to exchange more ideas on this.