The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study)

My presentation from the Social Networking Conference in Miami yesterday:


I’ll be brief in this synopsis, since you can peruse through the slides yourself. But here’s the main point: That culture is, in my view, the most overlooked, underestimated factor determining whether social media succeeds or fails in a company. And when corporate culture and social media are pitted against each other, social media will always fail. Always.

Too often, people from company “A” will recognize great success that company “B” is having by doing XYZ with social media. So, logically, they decide to do the same at company A. But the results are dramatically different. Why? Because they didn’t account for the corporate culture variable which is inevitably different between the two companies.

This is also why it is so hard for any third-party vendor to really play a meaningful role in helping a company transform itself to be more collaborative and embrace these technologies. They don’t have that deep understanding of a corporation’s culture.

Now, all that said, that doesn’t mean that we can’t do a lot to influence culture to be more open, more collaborative and more receptive to social media. In fact, I believe that there is a lot that can be done to intentionally create a culture for collaboration. That’s really the heart of the IBM case study in the slides above.

So, to repeat the punchline of the presentation, any company’s use of social media needs to start with 1) the company’s core business model (what are you in the business of doing and with whom?) and 2) corporate culture. And when #2 is an impediment, take the long approach and find ways to stretch the culture to create a more collaborative environment.

54 Comments on “The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study)”

  1. gfaulkner says:

    I’ll add that if/when your organization decides to jump in, keep it internal for some time. Give the wide variety of interested participants a chance to play, learn, grow, build relationships, sort through the collective awareness needed before making some formal external push.

  2. You know I am a fan and I’ve enjoyed your presentation previously. Offer vote of support as tendency in times of uncertainty is to withdraw to behaviors that got us into the jam. Please maintain your enthusiasm for the promise of social media in the enterprise. Regards, cp

  3. shaku says:

    Really liked the presentation, Adam. Thanks for sharing.

  4. adamclyde says:

    George, I agree. That’s really the thrust of the “like to swim, but afraid of the ocean” thought. Some start external, others internal. But to your point, it gives folks a safe place to learn and experiment.

    Chris, very kind words, my friend! And Shaku, same… thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  5. […] a quote taken from one of his recent blog posts titled: "The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study)", where he introduces one of his latest slide decks that he has used to present at the Social […]

  6. Atul Rai says:

    couldnt agree with you more, Adam. Had been pondering this for some time now, had blogged about this, too … why is it that two companies, managing the same initiatives come up with different results …

    The things they do are probably either not the same, or they are done in ways which are basically different, which they believe best for themselves, but if we ask why, culture is the answer one could come up with. 🙂

    thanks, Atul.

  7. […] The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study) | Adam Christensen | 23 January 2009 and Elsua: The Knowledge Management Blog – Thinking Outside the Inbox | Luis Suarez | 23 January 2009 […]

  8. Never having worked at the senior-exec level, I’ve often thought that high-level outsiders pitching to Mahogany Row are like missionaries or explorers, usually with “enlightenment” tidily wrapped in their baggage.

    And some execs are too easily impressed by an outsider with an expensive briefcase or a great book review.

    With social media as with so many other things, advocates (evangelists?) tend to emphasize the process (“It’s a wiki!” “It’s Twitter!”) rather than the product (“salespeople can give marketing real-time feedback on the campaign for product XYZ”).

  9. […] to IBM employee and blogger Adam Christensen in his recent post, The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media, “[Corporate] culture is…the most overlooked, underestimated factor determining whether social […]

  10. Beth Kanter says:

    I’m curious about your points about how to balance a top-down mandates and completely grassroots adoption strategies? What works do you think? And, do you have a case study or step-by-step or some tips?

  11. […] the ‘Tire’, where adoption happens at the edges of the company. Let’s lean on IBM’s Adam Christensen who presented this slideshare of how big blue was able to filter social computing throughout the […]

  12. […] shared some insights that Wendy shared parallel what has worked in the corporate sector. (See this IBM Social Media/Corporate Culture Case Study). What’s important is a social media […]

  13. How did building a culture for participation start inside first. I’d love to know more but the slides really aren’t self-explanatory about exactly what happened. Having worked in three very large corporations, and seen the differences in their cultures, I believe your main thesis… just would love to know more.

  14. […] 27, 2009 · No Comments My prior post here has spurred some interesting conversations. Following Jeremiah Owyang’s post, I got a very […]

  15. Larry Irons says:

    There is no corporate culture, there are only social practices that incorporate communication patterns. To have a corporate culture you need core values, those do not exist in large organizations…EVER!

  16. adamclyde says:

    Larry… I’m a little confused by the statement that large organizations can’t have core values. How so? I’m assuming my confusion is rooted in a different semantics understanding and you’ve got a different kind of definition of core values than I’m aware. From my experience, at least at IBM, I would think many thousands of people would feel quite a connection to IBM’s core values, which are clearly defined. But while those are related to culture they aren’t necessarily the exact cause or result of them. Are they?

  17. Larry Irons says:

    Core values are common to members of a culture, at least in the way I understand the term from anthropology. Core values consist of attitudes and beliefs thought to uniquely pattern a culture. They are different from visionary statements or the other symbolism generated by corporate HR or other strategic leadership. Culture is not defined by the official documents of an organization.

    My point, though a little overstated perhaps, was that what we take as “core values”, especially in organizations like IBM, are really the result of social practices manifested through different communication patterns over time. Values, i.e. norms about how to manage our conduct, emerge from the process as patterns of communication become entrenched as social practices. Yet, I doubt seriously that those values cohere enough to refer to them as a culture. In fact, I suspect if you polled former IBM employees who were either severed, forced into early retirement, or left voluntarily, that you would find very different definitions of what you refer to as “a connection to IBM’s core values.” Unless you hold to the position that a corporate culture consists only of those who work in a corporation, rather than all the current and former stakeholders of the corporation, I think it very difficult to argue for the common, core values required to call it a culture.

    Admittedly, this position is not one that most organizational leadership would endorse. As a side point, I’d suggest that this is one of the reasons few strategies in large organizations ever come from the bottom up.

  18. adamclyde says:

    Larry, thanks for your points. Very interesting.

    It’s certainly true that not everyone feels the exact same about the company’s values (or anything else for that matter). And obviously people who have drawn the short end of the employment stick will often have a different perspective. But one thing to keep in mind is that the IBM values were crowdsourced by the company 5 years ago in an all employee three-day online brainstorm. From that discussion, which was striking in the level of candor employees displayed, came the three values we have today. Do all employees believe them equally? No, I’m sure they don’t. But I hope that in relation to traditional top-down documents, they have a little more grassroots credibility.

  19. Nice pres Adam. I said something similar recently in a meeting with my client (Microsoft) who is of course eager to leverage social media in any way it can.

    Larry, I feel you ‘re making a semantical argument. I will flag they’re some of my favourites however 🙂 I would argue (as you do) that culture emerges from value, and by that token if a culture is not what people say it is, then it is a warning sign a company’s values are not what they say they are.

    Aligning culture with social media though not just in a work-practices sense but in the bottom line (ie. “Yes, positive conversation you engender will count as much as a sale in your next review.”) is, for me, the key stumbling block companies like the IBMs and Microsofts of the world come across.

    I will say though it is exciting to work with them and help light the way.

    (For my own piece along these lines is here: Strategy | Intent | Persistence)

  20. leighdurst says:

    Thanks for sharing, Adam. I “get” Larry’s point but feel David caps it well by stating that this is a semantic argument. It’s great that in addition to IBM recognizing its need for a culture that embraces SM…in tandem with embracing the culture of SM itself — and sharing openly.

  21. Larry Irons says:

    Well, Leigh and David…I wonder how the 5,000 employees whose positions are reportedly getting transferred to India feel about the “semantic” nature of the point I made a few weeks ago regarding corporate culture…I didn’t pursue the point here at the time, but anyone who has ever studied Bayesian statistics and its relevance to linquistics knows that nothing is more real than semantic distinctions. Syntax bends to semantics over time.

    Andrew, I hope IBM continues to “crowdsource” the cultural sentiments of its corporate stakeholders…however, it really ought to include its entire culture, not just those who belong to a position in the org chart of IBM, or people like yourself, if you expect to reasonably portray the culture.

  22. Larry, I completely take your point, however I feel expecting an existing large company to behave in a manner that does not serve the market and shareholders is too altruistic for our times, even though I have a very dear hope I can perhaps find and be a part of that sort of enterprise (if you know where they are please send me their contact details!).

    Going back to your earlier point on strategies coming from the bottom-up, in enterprises as large as IBM, one must acc0unt (or at least hope) for pockets of differentiation. If I can use a client of mine, Microsoft, as an example, we’ve been working with particular business units to try and open them up a little more, the first example along those lines launched this week with

    Is this indicative of a wider cultural change at Microsoft? Of course not, but it is significant evidence of a desire to move in a new direction, and of a transformative culture within Microsoft eager to embrace conversation and open source technologies. There are still proponents of the walled-garden mentality (of which Steve Ballmer is the bandleader) and a generally more traditional and conservative culture pervades most of the organisation. My hope though is this sort of activity not only begins to change the way people external to the company think about Microsoft, but change the way their employees do and opens them up to being even more experimental; I really believe it is the only way they will manage to survive.

    As in Bayesian statistics’ prior/posterior where each system brings its own history to an interaction, and leaves with a new history based on that interaction, are you not even a little bit optimistic that each time a program such as Adam’s touches a new part of IBM’s culture, even a smallnotion of difference and change rubs off on the organisation?

    One of the last points in Adam’s deck was “If culture doesn’t align, start to create it” – surely that is the jumping off point for all of the above, and maybe eventually that road leads to a company with the courage to retain those 5,000 jobs in the next economic crisis.

    As a complete aside, regardless of what position anyone reading takes on this, I watched a talk yesterday from Umair Hauqe talking about a new kind of corporate value ste, I think you’d really enjoy it: (goes for an hour, well worth it!).

  23. […] statement and not rooted in the business model or organizational mission. And just as I said in a prior presentation that social media in conflict with corporate culture is doomed to failure, so too is any social […]

  24. Larry Irons says:


    Sorry about the delay in this response. Travel got in the way.

    I don’t disagree with any of your points. Organizations such as IBM and Microsoft are hugely complex, but if we want to address their “culture” it is necessary to include all of its stakeholders. Crowdsourcing current employees (another term for online surveys most of the time) is as suspect a method for determining a company’s cultural values as having HR distribute surveys and thinking the responses aren’t influenced by the questions.

    There are many very influential ex-IBM (as well as Microsoft) employees (I’m not one of them by the way) with valuable insights into the organization and those people are as much of the corporate “culture” as the people still working there. Some people leave companies for good reasons, not simply because they are severed. In fact, if you want to develop strategy for change in a corporate culture the most valuable resource for understanding the nature of the change required probably resides in the heads of former employees, especially those who left for career reasons.

    In my mind, we change what we refer to as “culture” through the formation of new social practices. So, to answer your question about Adam’s efforts, I’d say YES there is cause for optimism. However, it is a long slog and requires that all stakeholders are involved in efforts to “crowdsource” culture. Exectweets is a nice step.


  25. […] Conversely, CNN jumped up 10 spots thanks to the race to a million Twitter followers with Ashton Kutcher. IBM also jumped five spots thanks to increasing focus on social media. […]

  26. […] IBM also jumped four spots thanks to increasing focus on social media. […]

  27. […] also an IBM employee, who features a quite useful Slideshare presentation of a particular IBM case study regarding social media and corporate […]

  28. […] setting and implementing their strategies.  To this end, this post wants to serve as the ignition of a broader discussion that will surface cases like this one, where culture has been, if not studied, at least, taken into consideration […]

  29. […] The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study) « Adam Christensen […]

  30. […] This blog post is titled “The impact of corporate culture on social media (An IBM Case Study)” and includes the slides from a presentation at a conference. The blog post includes the following That culture is, in my view, the most overlooked, underestimated factor determining whether social media succeeds or fails in a company. And when corporate culture and social media are pitted against each other, social media will always fail. Always. […]

  31. […] internal social platforms have over 67k blog users, 53k social network members and 150k wiki users (source), this gives a sense of the potential for leaders to reach out and engage directly with […]

  32. Carlo Delumpa says:

    Larry, David and Adam, a huge thank-you to the discourse you have all shared. As a (newly) former HP employee of 14 years, I saw the same challenges with trying to move an ocean liner with a 5-HP (no pun intended) outboard motor. The points you all make resonate with me. I wanted to share a definition of “social business” that Michael Faucette of IDC wrote about recently, that it is”…cultural shift and transformation facilitated by technology”. No prescription on how cultural shift and transformation happens other than it’s *facilitated* by technology. My belief is that the people side of change is often what gets short-changed, but the most important aspect to get right in any technological r/evolution.

    Cheers, guys and I look forward to reading more of your excellent work!

  33. […] completely different business model and culture. It always ends awkwardly. I talked a lot about the impact of corporate culture on social media previously here on this blog. It’s worth revising that in the context of these lists to ask […]

  34. Great post Adam, even now 19 months later it is still very actual. Luis Suarez pointed me to your article in response to my question about social media inside an organization in my blogpost here

    Your opening “… culture is, … the most overlooked, underestimated factor determining whether social media succeeds or fails in a company.” is right on where I am looking for experiences. That element is quite often not highlighted in success stories.

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  36. […] internal social platforms have over 67k blog users, 53k social network members and 150k wiki users (source), this gives a sense of the potential for leaders to reach out and engage directly with […]

  37. […] one of the few firms that have let its corporate culture flow freely on the net. In a case study by Adam Christensen, he looked at how IBM used its internet and social media properties to create a more public persona […]

  38. […] IBM – Corporate Culture and Social Media – why the culture is so important for success […]

  39. […] Christensen, for example, in notes accompanying a slide deck on The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study) , wrote: …culture is, in my view, the most overlooked, underestimated factor determining […]

  40. […] the employees from the 2006 IBM Jam were funded and incubated by IBM. (source: socialmediaexaminer, and […]

  41. […] internal social platforms have over 67k blog users, 53k social network members and 150k wiki users (source), this gives a sense of the potential for leaders to reach out and engage directly with […]

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