Culture, the Great Influencer on Corporate Social Media Adoption

I’ve helped dozens of companies define their social media strategy based on research. Often, we conduct custom research efforts to evaluate first if their customers are using these tools (technographics) then we often talk with many stakeholders to find out their thoughts on social media.

Sadly, in some cases, brands that had active customer bases using social technologies were not ready to participate themselves due to culture. Whether is paralysis, legal, or a cultural influence from management, or even location (I did a tour in Japan to find out how social media is growing there).

One example that comes to mind is a financial company I worked with, they are one of the ones that have an incredible amount of money –and a lot at risk as their customers were on the verge of self-connecting to each other without their account teams involved. Despite the clear business need to ‘fish where the fish were’ we advised them not to participate as their internal culture was not ready, there were too many roadblocks.

Recently, after a presentation I gave at the Ominture Summit last week, I was able to meet the marketing manager at Apple who’s responsible for social media. While I’ll respect the privacy of our conversation, I know the impacts of culture on deployment.

What about big companies? Yes, they are a unique beast, and typically organize in what I call 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 company.

What other companies really live and breathe social computing throughout their DNA? Facebook, Google, Microsoft, SUN, and of course any social media vendor.

Love to hear your thoughts on these questions that many struggle with:

1) Does culture impact adoption of social technologies within a corporation?
2) Even if customers are using social technologies, and the culture is not ready, how will you convince the powers that be?
3) How do you change a top down culture to a bottom up?

38 Replies to “Culture, the Great Influencer on Corporate Social Media Adoption”

  1. I think culture plays a huge part in the adoption of social media in a company. To be really successful you need a positive internal culture that encourages personality and independence, as well as excellence on behalf of the company. Zappos is a good example. Geoff Livingston had a good post a few weeks back on how to get social media approved by your boss:
    In regards to number 3, if it’s a big company you may be stuck- it takes a revolution of networks and people at the bottom interested in doing the work to turn something into a bottom up culture.

  2. Hi Jerehiah:

    1. Culture is a HUGE part of a company’s ability and willingness to adopt social technologies.

    2. Can you really point me to any big marketer whose customers are not using social technologies? We have done work in everything from Osteoporosis to Video Gaming – and I think this is a moot question. If you have customers they are using social technologies – just like they are using the telephone.

    3. We recently recommended that one of the world’s largest marketers reach out to their fans in a direct and human way. (Which is NOT done in their industry – at all.) This reco had to go all the way to the C level for approval. It was approved and the program went forward with stunning results. It can be done.

    Tom O’Brien
    MotiveQuest LLC

  3. The sorry state of the economy is going to fuel the use of Social Media as a marketing technique.
    When the bottom line is affected, executives listen. You can’t beat Social Media’s ROI.

  4. Jeremiah,

    I can’t tell you what a relevant conversation this is. In fact, I think it’s *the* conversation when it comes to addressing issues like ROI, scale, and guidelines on employee communication.

    It’s my belief personally that social media is as much of a catalyst for internal change as it is external communication, and I don’t think the latter can really happen effectively until the former is addressed. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still gonna be a messy beast.

    Risk assessment is critically necessary for adoption of any strategy, but there’s a fine line between assessment and making excuses in the midst of analysis paralysis. I’m beginning to wonder if the real evolution in social media will be from the companies that can start with the right mindset in the first place, forcing the juggernauts to either evolve or be rendered irrelevant. Can we only convince the powers that be by showing them not just success stories, but the consequences being suffered by the cultures that don’t adapt?

    I’m not a zealot. I know that social media isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s not going away either. I’m not sure the answers to your questions yet, but I’m sure watching very closely.

    Amber Naslund

  5. In my analysis of how social media is impacting the world (and the more established systems), the overarching theme seems to be giving power back to an organic and authentic voice — which by its very role, creates an interesting challenge for larger companies. It forces more established systems to evolve or fall behind.

    Much of my background has been in the non-profit sector which today has many similarities to corporations so I see similar challenges – where these established organizations are trying to identify the best way to incorporate practices that maximize reaching their audience and increasing donations while grappling with current culture and even know-how issues.

    Corporate culture can impact whether social media is embraced. I think companies have an opportunity to be inspired by ‘change’ rather than challenged negatively by it. A company steeped in history and ‘set ideas’ has an important choice to make. At the end of the day, I think any convincing that has to happen will be backed by the numbers. The changes resulting from social media are happening – whether a company chooses to embrace it or not.

    Through social media we’re seeing how people are really interested in more authenticity and dialogue. This is a power shift for the larger companies (and smaller) to their customers…but it’s really an amazing opportunity for the companies who embrace this change to really evolve their products/services into what their customer base is asking for – developing longer lasting relationships and stronger brand loyalists.

  6. At the CEA Industry Panel last fall, I was lucky enough to talk with folks from Dell and Comcast about how “community” worked in their organizations. We discussed how at their companies, community apps and evangelism is tied really to one divison or org within the company, but at Microsoft (for better or worse) community efforts are decentralized and spread across the company. Interesting things DO come out of both configurations but I believe its the decentralized nature along with Microsoft’s corporate culture that led us to be pioneers in the employee blogging space 5 years ago and have a strong employee blogging base still. Just some food for thought as you look at the relationship between social media/community approaches and organizations. Cheers!

  7. Hi

    Many of us think this is “the” core topic when it comes to corporate social media proficiency.

    Indeed, most of our efforts internally were focused on engineering this cultural change.

    It’s all about people, when you get right down to it.

    — Chuck

  8. I wrote on this issue in Dec., but from the perspective of Enterprise 2.0, not external-facing social media. Here’s a relevant quote.

    “Enterprise 2.0 — like it’s mother, Web 2.0 — is more of a philosophy than a thing (i.e. software). It is a way of being for an organization. Until established companies adopting social software understand that, they are likely to fail in those efforts.”

    Weighing in on your questions specifically:

    1. Yes, culture is the strongest determinant of success or failure in adoption of any technology, but especially social software.

    2. Best way to demonstrate would be an actual story about how the company’s culture impeded response to external market stimuli gathered via social software. Include the missed opportunity cost or actual cost of the incident. If a real anecdote is not available, create a hypothetical, but believable, scenario featuring the company’s employees and customers/partners as the characters.

    3. Culture change is so very difficult. Even successful efforts take at least 5-7 years minimum. But to sum it up, the change is driven by leadership and risk-taking. And leadership doesn’t mean just CXOs. Any employee can be a leader and influencer. Clarity and consistent repetition of messages re: new values, goals, and processes is the key.

  9. Hey Jeremiah,

    I will try to answer these based on my observations as an employee, and now the person now in charge of increasing adoption of social media.

    For us culture has played a huge part in the adoption or lack of for social media. In a strange way it is almost like our culture had the mindset of the products we developed. Internally we have always used content management & collaboration tools for sharing and capturing knowledge.

    Now that we are building solutions that are more social in nature, many are exploring how these tools apply in business context. As part of the exploration we have had widespread adoption of Yammer across groups who never worked together. The activity levels here are awesome and were all bottom up.

    Another example demonstrating the shift in culture is the internal blog I started less than a month ago has had over 5k visits with dozens of comments and our SVP of marketing™s internal blog has had over 15k view since its inception. I am also seeing more and more employees starting to use twitter as well.

    I am lucky because our social media program has top down support, but I still need to convince the powers that be that my role is having an impact. On my internal blog I have post series that I call twitscoop, where I share stories and examples of how our social media efforts are having a direct impact on our customers.

    These post help reinforce the value of our social media activity while providing anecdotes our sales teams can use on how these tools create new opportunities to learn and engage.

    For us the accelerator of adoption was top down support from executives. I wrote a post describing how executive support activated the groundswell of employees who were already using social networking tools and encouraged those who were not to begin experimenting.

    Hope this was useful,

  10. Amen Jeremiah,
    1. Culture is ground zero in terms of moving the enterprise to adopt social technologies. It changes the ground rules for communication flow ( power). As such it is like the famous anthropology case where they gave the steel axe to someone low in the hierarchy of a stone age tribe. All hell broke loose.
    2. There needs to be a dialogue between leadership and bottom up change agents. More on that here . Which leads to your question number 3
    3. I believe that as long as you have the economic justification for a corporation you will need some form of top-down leadership. It is just that the leadership is modeled more after influence and “soft power” than old school command and control.

  11. Nice post, Jeremiah.

    Re: How do you change a top down culture to a bottom up?

    I think most corp’s have many people engaging on social media already – and perhaps an interesting approach to catalyzing the shift to “bottom up” is to secure executive-level buy-in first. Not in the sense that someone at the top should mandate that people do this stuff and then micro-manage the manner of participation, but the executive level should “remove the shackles” that some of the “bottom” employees are feeling in regards to participation.

    One way to shift to “bottom up” is, I think, encouragement (from the top) that social media is acceptable and VALUED in the company – and then just let it happen from there. I think a lot of folks forget that bottom-up doesn’t necessarily mean that the top is uninvolved, rather, the top is being asked to make a change from dictating culture/behavior to encouraging the corp. culture as it is and as it wants to be – according to the inherent qualities and values of the (huge number of) people at the bottom.

  12. As an ex-IBM’r that used social media in various ways in my life I come from the old school Internet where Bulletin boards and Chat-rooms were created,adopted and shared. It was these places where the best of the best came to create the Internet most users still do not understand.
    IBM created their own internal social media tool and it WAS A TOTAL PIECE OF JUNK.

    I never used Google or Social Media for IBM related work as I know better from a security standpoint and Intellectual Property standpoint. I did use them to to stay in touch with my family and friends and the Charities I performed concerts for and felt safe until my coworkers began to invade my personal space and life and found me to be a well liked popular person locally with thousands of friends and fans especially the children I raised money to pay for their cancer treatments.

    IBM still dumped me and thousands of others in a record profit year retaining the less skilled while tossing the creative highly skilled people. I saw a complete lack of intelliegence in how they let go of people they just paid to get their masters degree and had stellar work performance.

    The real culture at IBM is like this so consider this before you hear a recruiter at your college touting IBM’s benefits. They screwed us over on our retirement and pension, ruined the culture internally by giving and taking away right down to the fact we had to basically buy our own pencils and paper because of budgets, require us to participate in education while removing the budget cancelling the classes.

    When my wife died I was scolded for taking off to attend to her memorial service, 2 months later when my daughter was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor IBM again stuck a knife in my back by scolding me and writing me up for taking my daughter on her MAKE-A-WISH trip. Thats out right GODLESS and they should be run out of America for treating people that way.

    IBM’s Corporate Culture of Nepitism, Diversity, OutSourcing to gain third world opportunities for the almightly dollar. I hope they choke on their greed while opening up the door for individuals like myself to step into their place. I will show their customers there is great value in dealing with Christian value based companies that have America in their heart and best interests.

    For starters my customer service can speak the LOCAL LANGUAGE FLUENTLY because they are Americans. No pressing one for Spanish, two for all other languages including English at a USA based company.

    Blogging Against IBM Till Hell Freezes Over.

  13. Nice post! 1) Does culture impact adoption of social technologies within a corporation?
    I think it does. I see people and companies easily adopting social media and others just don’t seem to get it. Yes culture does impact adoption. But I don’t think it can stop it. It will happen, and eventually change organizational culture.
    2) Even if customers are using social technologies, and the culture is not ready, how will you convince the powers that be?
    In the company I work for it helped and helps to just start using social media, and show and tell. Let decision makers (and people you think will quickly catch on) see what’s being done by other companies (competitors) and what is being said about your company and products.
    3) How do you change a top down culture to a bottom up?
    You might not believe it, but I work in a bottom up company and would like it to be more top down… Bottom up companies can be slow changers. And they can consist of many people that aren’t social and open.

  14. Jimmy, I’m sorry that you’ve experienced such dramatically negative experiences at IBM. Some of the experiences you describe are very pretty deplorable. While I can only speak from my own experiences, I’m very glad that the culture you describe is not corporate wide (nor, candidly, does it resemble anything I’ve ever encountered). When I’ve had very personal family issues to attend to, my management bent over backwards to help and provided me with lots of flexibility.

    Now, as it relates to our own use of social media internally and externally, our employee’s use of it, and the tools we use to accomplish this… that I DO know a lot about. Your comment about it being, “junk” doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’d love to hear your perspective. Probably not worth hijacking Jeremiah’s thread here though. Feel free to reach out via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn…

  15. I’ve dealt with his in CPG corps, start-ups, and most recently in one of our largest cultural non-profits. Some succeeded (start up) some didn’t (CPG) and some we’re working through a longer term process (non-profit). As a strategy I think you have to a) understand the audiences, as JO points out, b) get the CEO to understand it at least in terms of benefits, and support it to all reports c) get an exec sponsor from the “fast followers” in the org d) use the “cutting edge” people in a focused team that uses pilot programs to build early success, trumpet the success.

  16. I think the IBM thread brings up several interesting points. I myself experienced the challenges of being entrepreneurial minded in several corporate settings for 13 years. While I did not experience the pressure of not being able to care for my family when I needed to, I did witness the corporate mindset of hiring (and firing) and also not rewarding people who actually produced. At my last gig, I spent 7 years there, went through an acquisition after being there only 9 months and had 6 different managers while working. I wasn’t evaluated on productivity, but rather on how well I went along with what my manager said. In the last six months, I watched a decision to spend $275,000 on a project that didn’t have a plan or deliverables identified. I was baffled at the waste when I presented a plan to deliver the project for $150,000 in 12 months. I left the company 2 years ago. I saw a former co-worker a month ago and they were still trying to get the project completed.

    So the benefit of social media tools to corporate is to really understand what is going on in the business from the people who are actually doing the work. This is difficult to deal with if the leadership is focused on a hierarchical top-down flow and not willing to let the social media tools help them understand what is really going on. It requires an openness to change that I myself have not experienced in a corporate setting.

    Lastly, while the tools are great for communication, a DM on Twitter with a personal phone call to follow up and then a lunch meeting in person would not be a bad idea. If this former employee has experienced this type of treatment, there are many others just collecting a paycheck who are still there, experiencing the same.

  17. I can agree with the ex IBM-er and others who have shared their experience with corporate culture. I worked at a regional bank for several years. I saw them systematically get rid of all of their senior staff. They made our lives so difficult that most of us left on our own. They then hired mostly young married guys with young families – ones that had to work to support the family and made ridiculous demands on their time. I even saw them threaten to fire a 30-year plus employee when he took 2 weeks off after his son was murdered. All in the name of greed, as this particular bank was controlled by one family. I do not want to name this bank, as they do a fair amount of suing of other folks.

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