Why culture inhibits social media success in big business


There was some great discussion last week at the Web 2.0 conference on “Why social media fails and how to fix it”. The panel included Charlene Li, Peter Kim and Jeremiah Owyang all noted thought leaders in this area.

The component that stood out for me was the inhibitor of organizational culture. We do a lot of work in this area and it comes up time and time again in relation to many changes that affect companies and large companies particularly struggle to change quickly because of embedded cultural traits.

Gary Hamel adds a different dimension to this conversation in a great post on the WSJ Management Web 2.0 called “The Facebook Generation Vs Fortune 500” where he outlines the differences between the online culture of generation f (and I think X and Y) and the traditional corporate culture which are almost polar opposites. I think this goes some way to explaining the cultural resistance, to summarize some of the best ones:

  • Ideas compete equally
  • Contribution trumps credentials
  • Hierarchies develop are not dictated
  • Leaders serve rather than preside
  • Tasks are chosen, not assigned.
  • Groups are self-defining and organizing.
  • Resources get attracted, not allocated.
  • Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.
  • Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed.
  • Intrinsic rewards matter most.

If you combine Gary’s observations with the inherent values of the social web which are being reinforced as key influencers (See Eric Brantner on social media etiquette and Chris Brogan on Etiquette in the Age of Social Media ) propose ways to approach social media you end up with values like:

Transparency, Share and Collaborate, Respect others, Always add value…. or even better put them into practice like Tony from Zappos has done here.

Many of these values seem to disappear in the politics of large organizations. I see social media as a real change agent that forces management to reflect on the way they treat employees, customers and suppliers. Are they holding customer’s hostage? or are they trying to create value for them?

Its not all bad for big business, in fact we think its great for big business and some of the greatest corporates are embracing social media, see this presentation by Adam Christiensen of IBM because ultimately social media will help organizations become more innovative.

What do you think, will corporate cultures be positively changed by social media? How?

4 responses to “Why culture inhibits social media success in big business

  1. My two cents on the corporate cultures and social media. . .I think those companies who have an “open” culture will easily embrace it. Any company that does not share information in general–even with staff–will not use this except in a traditional pr sort of way. In other words, they will hand off the responsbility to a third party who will report back. An interesting study would be to measure corporations’ customer service with their use of social media. To me, the best application of using social media is to improve the relationship with customers.

    • Thanks for the comment Michele, it would be interesting to see if this correlation between customer service and social media use exists, I would hypothesize there is a link, the next question would be if these companies are also more profitable as a result….
      I think you are right that it is a very effective customer service tool but it seems like there are so many more applications emerging, particularly in relation to gaining deeper customer insights for new product development etc.

  2. Chris & Michelle, you’re post and comment have got me thinking. Here’s my 2.0 cents…

    Social media, in theory, practice, and implication, aligns with the ten values of Gen F cataloged by Hamel. Companies that align with Gen F values will, as a group, outperform other companies. Gen Fer’s are working their way into the world of business and will eventually have their hands at the controls. Those companies that resist the new way that Gen Fs do business (see the ten values) will suffer. Those that embrace it will succeed.

    Its not just a matter of changing times either. Gen F values can actually translate into huge financial success. W.L. Gore (know for their Gore-Tex brand) has pelted its competition with a 50 year storm of profit and growth, all built on this value set.

    Social media can be very useful in and of itself. However, I propose that it is part of a bigger picture, its acceptance or dismissal being symptomatic of a larger question: Is this organization ready for business 2.0

  3. Thanks for sharing you thoughts Lucas, certainly interesting times to be in business. I am intrigued to see how this trend impacts large companies’ culture over time.