Like to swim but afraid of the ocean? Taking an inside-out approach to social media

Photo courtesy of David Sifry via Flickr

My wife grew up a surfer. In high school, she’d ditch 4th period to head to the beach with her friend and her friend’s 9-foot longboard and surf the rest of the afternoon.

Some time during her senior year, she had an incident with a shark. Terrified, she paddled to shore as fast as she could. It turned out the shark was actually a playful dolphin circling underneath her board, but the result was the same. She never surfed again.

That doesn’t mean she is afraid of water or doesn’t love to swim. She’ll spend the entire summer in the pool. But when it comes to the big, deep blue ocean, she won’t go in past her waist.

Some people love to swim, but they are afraid of the ocean. Let me try and relate this to social media within the enterprise.

Those of us responsible in some way for driving adoption of social media within the enterprise face many of the same challenges. Foremost is overcoming the fear some employees – and companies – face when it comes to social media. Many harbor fear that Web 2.0 is a dangerous jungle with hazards lurking in every shadow. This fear can largely be overcome by providing a safer environment where people can learn, practice and experiment.

This has significant effect at the executive level too. As executives see social media work constructively inside the company, they begin to feel less need to control and more comfortable taking risks associated with new levels of openness and collaboration.

IBM’s approach – inside-out first

I wasn’t involved when IBM first dabbled its toes in the social media waters six years ago, so I can’t relate all of the discussions that went on at the time. But what I do know is this: the company made a deliberate decision to start our efforts inside the company first. We are a company of 380,000 employees, spread across the world, so it made sense for us to start our efforts inside the company – to find ways to connect more meaningfully across the world, to collaboration more effectively, and to flatten a massive organization.

(I’ll spare the lengthy discussion of what exactly we’ve been doing behind the firewall, but you can read about it here in Shel Israel’s interview with my colleague George Faulkner.)

This doesn’t mean that we haven’t done considerable work outside the firewall too. But our staring point was driving the adoption of social media inside the firewall first.

What has been the result? A culture within IBM familiar and comfortable with engaging in social media. As a whole, I think we are pretty advanced in our thinking of how to use these tools. We aren’t perfect, and I still see examples that make me cringe, but for the most part, the company is smart in its use of social media.

What does this mean for everyone else?

Adopting these tools and platforms behind the firewall first creates a safe environment where employees can safely learn the basics of social media without the fear of wading into the deep waters of a shark-infested ocean.

Employees will learn how to engage constructively with one another and behave in a way conducive to collaboration and openness. I can’t help but think many companies could avoid a lot of the embarrassing mistakes I see if employees had been able to experiment and learn behind the firewall first.

I realize that this approach doesn’t work for all companies. Perhaps their greatest needs are external and they need to address them immediately. IBM’s approach is IBM’s approach. But I can’t help but thinking that if more companies actively worked to create a safer environment within a company for employees to experiment and learn, they’d avoid many of the embarrassing mistakes that too often plague corporate use of social media.


2 Comments on “Like to swim but afraid of the ocean? Taking an inside-out approach to social media”

  1. Marsh Tanner says:

    Adam,

    I didn’t know you had a blog and I didn’t know my oldest daughter was ditching high school to go surfing. I guess we are never too old to learn something new.

    Dad

  2. adamclyde says:

    Oops. looks like I spilled the beans. Yikes. well, hopefully she’ll be spared punishment…


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