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.
If you know me, you know one thing. I love food. I really love food. And tacos are generally the focus of my unhealthy food preoccupation. Almost a decade ago I moved to the East coast and out of sheer self preservation, I started what has become a never ending quest to find the perfect taco.
Now that my day job is centered around social media at IBM, I’m realizing the process of searching for, learning about and sharing great tacos has given me better training in the dynamics of social media than anything else I could have done.
Following are some lessons I’ve learned about communities and social media, all thanks to the humble taco.
- Go where the communities are already congregated on the topic. When I really want to have a conversation about where to find the best food, I don’t start them on this blog. I ALWAYS go to Chowhound.com first. (and trust me, the thousands of contributions I’ve made there over the past eight years are a testament to spending WAY too much time in community efforts). While my blog might attract a few people (me, my wife, my mom, etc.), thousands are already congregated on Chowhound talking about where to find the best food. My goal is to find great food. My blog isn’t where that happens. I write my blog merely as a means to aggregate my random contributions online, but for real insight, I go to where the community already exists, where the conversations are already lively and the information sharing is the most helpful.
Lesson: If you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Someone else has likely already built it. Go there first.
- Want value? Add value. The quality of what you get from a community is directly correlated to the value of your contributions into the community. This is self explanatory, but suffice to say that the quality of taco recommendations I got increased the more I gave recommendations to the community. Building a level of trust and credibility is paramount to affecting other people’s behavior – including what they offer you, and what they do as a result of what you offer them.
Lesson: If you want to win friends and influence people, you’ve got to add value to the community. And “value” is defined by the community, not you.
- Listen, learn, follow. The great thing about communities is that you are never the smartest or most informed person in the community (if you are, I’d question either your community or your humility). Of all the great tacos I’ve found in NYC, Westchester or Fairfield counties over the past eight years, I’ve rarely been the first to discover them. Usually, someone else has already been there and reported about it. Those tips are often hard to find but through carefully listening, then following those tips, I’ve found some GREAT tacos. Listening preceded finding great tacos. Plus, I was able to see some of the dumb mistakes members made that alienated the rest of the community. Taking a listening-first approach helped me avoid many of those mistakes.
Lesson: Listen first and you’ll learn things you didn’t even know you were there to learn about. You’ll also understand the explicit and implicit behavioral rules of the community.
- Closed loop. I’ve found the more I close the feedback loop, the more valuable feedback I end up getting. Finding tacos requires a lot of probing, asking and discovering. As I’ve taken people’s recommendations to try a certain taqueria, reporting back on those experiences often generates more discussion than the original query. Plus, it has the added benefit of assuring community members their contributions are considered and valued.
Lesson: Companies would do well to create a more closed feedback loop, illustrating how community contributions are having an effect.
- It’s a long-term commitment. If I’d measured the value of the tacos I ate as a direct result of my participation in food communities after the first few months, I’m not sure I would have stuck around any longer. But, I took a long-term view – let’s be honest, food is a lifelong effort – and stuck to it. Over time, I found incredible value from the community (i.e., I eat better now than ever before).
Lesson: Community focused efforts by companies are often short term in nature. And even when the mission is long term, if the measurements are short term, momentum quickly fades and companies drop their efforts.
- It’s not just about blogging. Blogging might be the poster child of Web 2.0, but blogs have not been that helpful in helping me find great tacos. Frankly, the best tools I’ve found in discovering food has been old-school message boards. That’s what chowhound originally was, and, in reality, still is. But that’s where people can share the most information and communities can get the best contribution. After all, forums are the original wiki.
Lesson: Companies often take a myopic view with social media and focus on the Web 2.0 tool du jour. But sometimes the best solutions are the most boring. Find what works given the intent of the mission.
- Avoid any place that sells “hard shell tacos”. OK, I’m not sure how this relates, but let’s be honest, Taco Bell sucks and if you eat there, what you do with anything else in your life really won’t matter that much.
Lesson: Got some great food tips? Share them.
Now I’m hungry.
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.
Nothing keeps me grounded like speaking engagements. Yesterday I spoke to a group of business professionals in upstate New York at the Rochester eBusiness Association’s “Blogging for Business” forum. I’ll spare the blow-by-blow verbose recap, but here are the slides from the event:
Here are a few take aways:
- I love meeting with people to learn about their experiences and challenges in implementing social media in their enterprises. Every company has unique challenges they face – even those in the same industry. And in the end, it all comes down to culture.
- At the same time, I’m not as stimulated meeting with people whose sole job is talking to people about social media (or, as I call them, the “social media blowhards”). I prefer to speak with fellow corporate folks doing the hard work of implementing this stuff.
- It is clear that many people’s initial perception of IBM is still of a stodgy, boring company. After my presentation, several people remarked to me that they were surprised that IBM was so progressive, and that IBM was a different company than they’d thought. To me, this this reaffirms the premise that IBM’s brand is best communicated by the individual IBMers, since their interactions with others have more influence over perceptions than any formal form of communications (media coverage, advertising, etc.).
- While I personally might see some of IBM’s deficiencies in social media, it is very reaffirming to know we are out in the lead amongst our peers and the general business population in driving social media within the company.
- Many here (and pretty much everywhere I speak) have commented on IBM’s unique culture as a reason for our success in social media. This is true, but we’ve also done a lot over the past decade to create that culture of innovation. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. This is worth a few posts all in itself.