Culture or Technology in Business 2.0
One of the unusual things about social media in the business context is the dramatic way it impacts on business culture. Dennis Howlett wrote a long and interesting piece on his Zdnet blog about the Enterprsie 2.0 debate, or lack thereof. It is one that is intertwined with much of what I do, using blogs and wikis to build internal communication networks. Dennis writes:
I don’t need to recrunch the ’social’ thing but it is an important factor that in my mind amply illustrates the lack of intellectual rigor around solution creation. It is good to see that in the discourse even my sharpest critics have acknowledged the emphasis and use of ’social’ as a dreadful mistake.
I think the ‘social’ thing has become such an issue because it is one that very few technologists are able to get to grips with. There are notable exceptions, Dennis and Stowe Boyd amongst others.
In the Business 2.0 context the word ‘social’ has become burdened with a whole set of meaning that has little to do with the ‘social’ (small ‘s’) or ‘Social‘ aspects of business, but it is still an essential part of the debate, as Dennis goes on to say:
Last Friday I met a pal of mine who is in the business of implementing change. He argued that people don’t like change. It is too disruptive for many. Think about all those contradictory stats that talk about dis-satisfaction with technology but then the same people would not change what they have. Familiarity is comforting. At a time when many people are more concerned about job security than shiny new toys, it should be no surprise that implementing an E2.0 project will have a slim chance of success without the sponsorship and active participation of top management.
Finally, and here I am putting on my social psychologist’s hat. The nature-nurture debate that has rumbled on for more than 50 years among socpsych types shows no signs of abating. These key concepts have a place in our understanding of what can work but are largely ignored in the discourse.
The traditional nature/nurture debate Dennis mentions has formed the basis of many an undergraduate essay over the years – “Are you a product of your genes, or of your environment? Discuss”. However, it has been overtaken by the more careful study of epigenetics – understanding the way that the environment interacts with our genes, enabling and disabling them. Conversely, our genetic make-up also influences our environment in a transactional sequence that changes it as it changes us,
An irritable baby that never sleeps is eventually going to have tired, irritable parents. How those irritable parents go on to interact with the baby and nurture it may shape which of its genes become activated or deactivated, so shaping its development.
And so, back to social computing, Web 2.0 and social media in business. When Dennis’ friend cites the importance of “the sponsorship and active participation of top management” it is worth thinking about why that is so important. The reason usually isn’t the obvious. Management sponsorship is a form of social proof that taps into the social dimension of business – culture.
Business culture can help or hinder the adoption of social/2.0 technologies, but the technologies are disruptive to the traditional power-bases and communication structures within the business. The two things dance an intertwined-transactional dance.
Social software changes the cutlure, but culture also changes the way that the software is used. For me that creates a demand for careful ‘social’ design, to get the technologies adopted, and then careful change-management to pick up the pace and realise the full benefits of creating a more dynamic and innovative business culture. A place where ideas emerge, are captured and nurtured, and delivered to customers.
Lastly, back to a comment in Dennis’ post that caused a wry smile as I sat reading it: “cult-ure” versus “culture”. Some businesses have very, very strong cultures. They resist change because they are as much cult as company. When the cult is working it is amazingly powerful – it preserves the culture even with rapid growth, and smashes through any obstacles in the way. I think you know the kinds of business we are talking about. But, and this is a big but, when the market changes, and the cult does not, the business heads for the rocks. Traditional change programs almost inevitably fail, because organisational resistance to change is high, but even in these toughest of environments, I believe that ‘social’ tools can and do create change.
The traditional IT and management paradigm is that we are a collection of individuals using IT tools. That frame misses the most powerful forces that business leaders have at their finger tips: the social. A business is a community, and sometimes multiple communities, that communicate and interact with each other (both intra- and inter-). That interaction is increasingly dominated by technology-mediated communication, and that communication (or collaboration) technology is much less neutral than people think. It’s not just habit forming, it can be culture forming too.
I think you’ve nailed it Benjamin. It’s not about one or the other. It’ about using the techologies that will take an organisation in the direction it already wants to go.
Of course, other things may be relevant too – management, leadership, HR, OD etc. As I said at the SMiB conference, social media may be first violin buy it’s not the whole orchestra.
Thank you, Jon, My concern (or rather challenge) with it not being one or the other, is that it means we really need to understand how the two interact.
Throwing a wiki into a business is going to be no more effective than throwing a change program into a “cult-ure” – but I’d like to find a middle ground between where I often find myself today: “every business is different” and the “here is a template” crowd.
I am in broad agreement with your final paragraph, Benjamin, it is simply not a simple question of either / or. At their essence, all businesses bring people and ‘stuff’ together in an organised way to (profitably) deliver a service or product to a market.
Pre IT (Immersive Technology – a concept distinction I am working with at the moment), the culture of a business was largely determined by the Leader of that business or, at least, of that business unit. Even down to the dress code (IBM white shirt blue suit)
Post IT, culture is partially and increasingly influenced by technology. I hear this all the time around the email culture, concall culture, and increasingly – the social media culture of the business.
I KNOW that technology is not neutral – it does directly impact the overall culture of a business to a greater or lesser extent. I suspect that the more Immersive that technology is, the greater will be its impact on the culture.
Thanks for the opportunity to think about this here.
I do think that culture of a company is primarily influenced by the size of the company (in employees/active co-workers) and the proximity those employees have to one another. Secondarily the culture is influenced by the types of communications tools it uses, not just technology or application but also context. Any tools, especially those that initiate or transform communications, must take this into account prior to forming any strategy (let alone any tactics or aligning the company any specific tools).
I would have to say though that you could take this a step further and offer a solution to your paradox based upon McLuhan’s principles….
On another note: When reading through my commentary that your most “Related Post” is about Dunbar (size of companies);-)
For me, your statement “I think the ’social’ thing is such an issue because it is one that very few technologists are able to get to grips with.” is the crux of your excellent post.
I am a systems thinker and conceptually have never been able to separate the technical and social dimensions of work, and am increasingly aware of the importance of the spatial dimension. I wrote a blog post recently about the pervasiveness of Taylorist thinking within the IT, HR and FM functions.
A key feature of Taylorism is specialiastion, breaking down and repeating tasks to gain ‘efficiency’. Thinking about it a bit more, the pervasiveness of Taylorist thinking has been most pernicious in influencing how organisations are structured in the first place, with specialist functions resulting in destructive, stunted silo thinking and functional turf wars.
I think social technologies are so significant because they have the potential to eliminate separation – separation of funtions and separation of people from the technologies they use. Those of us who use social tools find that they are an extension of who we are, what we want to do and with whom.
Social has become associated, burdened as you say, with detrimental connotations ( time-wasting, subversive behaviour, dissent). Use of the word is therefore criticised and derided. But organisations by their very nature are social – networks of people working together to make or prevent things from happening – and that is just the way it is. The fact that social is so overwhelmingly negatively perceived says more about the mental models of the perceivers than social dynamics, which of course are equally creative given the right operating environment.
And so to culture and ‘cult-ure’. The multiple cultures that exist within an organisation are influenced by local and meta environments – physical, information and management. The topic is obviously vast and mult-dimensional. For another post!
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Many thanks Anne Marie – perhaps a time for business to put a bit more emphasis back on generalists and on systems thinkers.