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.