May 29, 2015

If Your Enterprise Social Network Is A Ghost Town It’s Probably Due To Your Corporate Culture

I was speaking at a conference recently, and a question was posed to me from someone in the audience near the tail end of the session.

We deployed our enterprise social network last year, but it’s a ghost town. No one is using it.

I knew what was about to come next, but I politely waited for the question to be asked anyhow.

Why won’t anyone post to it? I mean we spent gobs of money, and invested oodles of time … why aren’t our employees willing to post, or share, or contribute anything?

The convention center room I was stationed at looked like any other convention center room I’ve spoken at over the past decade. They’re windowless and the carpets look as though designers around the world have colluded with one another to see who can come up with the most bizarre patterns possible. I withdrew my gaze that was stuck on the purple, yellow and reddish-turquoise diamond patterned carpet to the audience, and return volleyed a few queries of my own.

Fantastic question. One I know thousands of other companies and organizations are struggling with at this very moment. Tell me, would you describe your culture as one that is open or closed? Do you and your employees operate in a culture of fear or is it a relatively harmonious and engaged environment? Is innovation and ideation a shared experience or left to a few?

You could tell by the body language of the audience member where those answers were going to lead.

We’re a financial services company. Nobody shares anything, and everyone is afraid to speak their mind.

It was a refreshing and honest answer. The fact of the matter is this story is far too repetitive. It’s happening across many organizations. In part, it’s why enterprise social networks haven’t fully become a crucial component to an organization’s operating practice. Quite frankly, that saddens me because although technology isn’t the answer, enterprise social networks can do so much good for an organization’s culture and engagement.

Consultant Jane McConnell of NetStrategyJMC, has been researching enterprise social networks (ESN) for the past decade. Her latest report — based on surveys from employees in 26 countries representing 280 organizations — also suggests both leadership and culture are affecting the adoption of ESN. Of the nine dimensions to her Digital Workplace Framework research, culture and leadership (two of the nine) have not materially increased.

  • In the leadership dimension, for example, in the “majority” of organizations more than 80 percent of its leaders only provided vocal support and/or resources versus sustained commitment, conviction AND participation.
  • In the culture dimension, 75 percent of survey takers in the majority category didn’t feel as though they had the freedom to experiment or take initiative.

Charlene Li has also spent the better part of the last decade researching and writing about aspects of ESN and open leadership in general. Founder and CEO of Altimeter Group and the author of five books, in a recent column on Harvard Business Review, Charlene surfaced data that suggests less than half of the ESN deployed have ‘many’ employees using them regularly. Like me, Charlene is a crusader for a more open and collaborative culture. In her piece, she makes a point that I wholeheartedly endorse:

Our research shows that leadership participation is crucial for collaboration. Leaders know they should engage with employees, especially via digital and social channels. But they don’t, and they offer a string of common excuses such as “I don’t have enough time” or “Nobody cares what I had for lunch.” More than anything else, they fear that engaging will close the power distance between them and their employees, thereby lessening their ability to command and control.

Why use the enterprise social network if it’s going to eradicate my ability to lead … or so the theory goes of many a leader.

But that’s not what grows an organization, nor is it a way in which we should be operating our organizations in the first place.

McConnell writes in her research paper, “Digital workplace maturity is significantly higher in organizations with a culture of trust: there is a strong sense of purpose, decision-making is distributed and people are free to experiment and take initiatives.”

Indeed, part of McConnell’s research corroborates Li’s investigative analysis. McConnell writes, “The digital workplace tipping point comes when well over half of senior management understand the value of the digital workplace, participate and demonstrate sustained commitment.” As is far too common in many organizations, however, senior leaders might provide vocal support but demonstrating active participation and open behaviours (like writing a blog post or posting a video of themselves) just doesn’t regularly happen. We might call it, “lipstick on a pig.”

Sadly, because senior leaders have not yet instituted the correct open and collaborative behaviours inside the organization, they too do not understand the potential good an enterprise social network can create when it comes to improved business processes, ideation, innovation or customer service.

Over at TELUS — a Canadian telecommunications company, and my place of work — a member of our C-Suite regularly publishes short, self-made videos from a webcam on his laptop to highlight successes in the month, recognize individual employees, or simply to share his thoughts. There is a Senior Vice-President who publishes a bi-weekly video friendly ‘rant’, to solicit feedback on his thoughts or ideas from his team. Another Vice-President uses an internal blog to solicit feedback on an important business unit initiative related to customer service.

These are examples of senior leaders using the TELUS enterprise social networks, but the company didn’t simply dump a bunch of technologies on its 43,000 employees and hope everyone would start collaborating.

Over a number of years, a series of organizational-wide behaviour and culture change programs (and models) were introduced including leadership, engagement, recognition, community, learning, career, performance and collaboration. These were used in unison as a way in which to address our number one priority … putting Customers First.

Both Jane and Charlene – and their wonderful research – prove an organization needs senior level support for enterprise social networks to be successful.

But the real secret is hidden in an organization’s operating culture.

If the organization remains closed – if it’s a culture of fear – it doesn’t matter what fancy new features are found in the latest update from your ESN cloud provider.

What matters is if the enterprise social network might aid and abet your overarching culture change, one that is progressively more collaborative and cooperative.

I once asked Tony Bingham — CEO of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) — if he had come across any examples or stories where culture and technology seemed to blend nicely. He recalled a story about Booz Allen Hamilton, an American consulting firm with over 26,000 employees and $5.5 billion in revenues:

Walt McFarland, when at Booz Allen Hamilton, once told me that technology doesn’t make a difference if the culture doesn’t support collaboration. We had this discussion back when the idea of “social learning,” some call it “collaborative learning,” was really beginning to gain traction in the workplace learning profession. In an effort to better serve their clients, Booz Allen was using social technology tools to give their consultants the ability to reach across the organization and tap the knowledge of subject matter experts to solve complex problems. It’s important to note that at Booz Allen collaboration is a corporate value. Working together is built into the company’s DNA. In Walt’s terms the technology, or tools, ‘actualize the culture.’

I’ll keep answering those questions in the convention center rooms. I’m very happy to.

But one day, I hope the questions have more to do with ways in which to augment engaging and open cultures, versus asking why no one is using their enterprise social network.

Originally posted to Forbes.

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