I recently read an article by Michael Brito called Social Business: Culture Eats Strategy For Lunch in which Michael builds on an interview of a senior IBM social evangelist. The gist, as you may have been able to deduce from the article title, is that a business will not be able to become a social business without first experiencing culture change.
According to Michael, some early signs that a company is evolving is senior leadership using social tools to communicate. I agree whole-heartedly. If I were to envision the chart showing how a company evolves, it would look like this:
The Y Axis shows the seniority level of the people using social tools internally at the company.
The X Axis shows the relative % of the company using social tools internally at the company.
The whole thing assumes time passes from left to right.
In other words, the use of social tools internally usually starts out with low seniority people, typically younger people, who use the tools to communicate with their friends and think the same tools might make their work lives better. As they begin to build internal communication communities at work, more people join in, including some more senior people. This groundswell usually involves free tools like Yammer, shared Evernote files, Facebook Groups, Twitter Aliases and Wikis.
Eventually, enough of a community forms that someone tells the senior VPs and C-levels that something is going on. Here is the key inflection point that determines if culture change is going to happen or not. At this point, the senior folks either join in, tacitly blessing the new communities and sparking a change in how every employee works, or they don’t join in, tacitly disapproving of the new communities and dooming the new community to stagnation in size.
As you can see, the chart suggests that once some senior folks get involved, the % of the company joining is continues to grow along with the seniority levels of those in the community. I’ve witnessed this inflection several times over the last 7 years.
The first experience was one of frustration as senior execs failed to get engaged. Despite several uprisings of new communities, nothing ever really took off, and I eventually left for more social pastures. They may have gotten better since then.
The second experience was different in that we were much smaller, yet there was still push-back about joining various communities within the company that came to be for specific types of communications. In the latter case, the community actually took a more aggressive stance, demanding that the senior folks get in there. It worked and now the company has a thriving communication culture internally. Even though I am not with the company anymore, I still maintain contact with these folks through some of those same internal tools.
The reason I have focused on internal communication communities is because that is where it all starts. If a company’s employees can work together in a more social way comfortably, then inevitably they start to communicate with partners and customers in a more social way. Another important aspect is the fact that these communities rise up from lower level people. These folks are more willing to experiment with various tools and processes to see what works. By growing up through the company, a certain amount of refinement takes place naturally before senior executives get involved. I think of it as rehearsal. When the community has been through a certain amount of rehearsal, it functions more smoothly and increases the chances of a good first experience for the senior folks, which can lead to the culture change spike. I firlmy believe that the spike is imperative for a company to become a social business.