In the midst of a recession and budget cuts, why are so many of us discussing culture change and online social networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other consumer technology for that matter? Here’s why.

These consumer-adopted technologies (and those consumers also happen to be your workforce) affect how groups of individuals share and communicate knowledge, and how we share and communicate information among ourselves. These technologies have increased the power of the individual, and extended communities and communication across previously impervious boundaries. At a time of business uncertainty, they are opening the door to the possibility of reinventing how we implement change, how we learn, and how we nurture our corporate cultures. This can add a productivity dimension that until now has been unimaginable.

Consider the power of your workforce that can result when every individual has a voice, and is connected in a Web that transcends your internal structures, hierarchy, and even company boundaries.

Technologies developed for consumer consumption continue to tweak and pull at the business community — a recent example is Second Life. Most new information and communication technology application advances do not focus on business productivity. Most new technologies increase immediacy and community – to enable close “relationships” among a far larger group of people than ever before. A look at improving business through this new lens of immediacy and community may be closer to culture shock than culture change.

Applying new consumer technologies to business is not easy. Consumer applications have the values of individuality, and freedom of access and speech – the individual is firmly at the center of all decisions about the information broadcast and received. This is not exactly an environment that we’d find in business. Some who have looked at Facebook,, to critique and explore the most popular social media application (now with over 300-million active users), have concluded that it simply supports narcissistic pleasure. Well, that may be something that does fit in well with business.

One of the core functions of online social media is to construct your network of “relationships.”  Many Facebook users have worked hard to build networks of hundreds, if not thousands, of contacts. However, “Dunbar’s number” defines the acknowledged limit of how many people you can have a stable social relationship with, and that happens to be about 150 people. Critics will say that anything beyond that is … narcissism.

If Dunbar’s number has validity – we may argue about the actual number – and the average user on Facebook already has 130 friends, then it may be that social media isn’t about relationships but about something far deeper. And what that is may be hard to see, until we look at social media in business.

A voice and a change in power structure

At Web 2.0 conferences you will hear a lot of discussion on how to participate as a company in public social media. This discussion is decidedly about managing the company’s brand, and beginning to explore moving the PR, marketing, advertising, and what might look like spam activities into these networks. The same discussion happened with e-mail and Websites, but the next commercial channel grab is in social media. Thankfully, there seem to be enough warnings in the business environment against going with a traditional communication approach to the masses. Current advice is to be more respectful of the customer, and to spend more energy listening to the channel than shaping it. Experts caution everyone to avoid what we would traditionally call corporate, or PR, speak, along with its frequent faux sincerity.

It started at the business-customer interface. Online forums (probably the simplest form of a social network) on products or companies created disparate groups of enthusiasts (and detractors), who came together to have their voices heard and to debate about complaints, product issues, reviews, and experiences. These have become a rich knowledge base of practical information, though it may require some sifting to get an answer to a specific concern.

This is a powerful shift. In the past, when the best you could do is call customer service, or write a letter to the CEO, it was just the power of one. These forums multiplied that power into the thousands. Companies began to listen to the “blogosphere,” visited forums where customers were discussing their products, and opened up their own discussion forums where customers could come with their issues. In some cases, companies designated an employee moderator to help out in these discussions. No longer is a company in total control of the customer communications channel; there is a new balance.

Within a corporation, applications of social network technology won’t be about “friends,” as it currently is in the consumer world. Instead these applications will aim at creating a community among all those who have elected to work for and advance the mission and goals of your firm. The balance of power in management-employee communication channels will be a direct result of your employees gaining a powerful mass voice. This is the culture shock that awaits business early adopters of social media technologies for internal business use.

Unless you are ready to reconsider, and possibly redesign, your management and business processes and structure, and to explore transformed approaches to business growth and productivity, tread carefully into the online social media realm. Not unlike a democracy, opinion on mission, values, behavior, strategies, and tactics will be up for discussion. That already happens today, of course, but it happens in fairly closed groups. This technology enables a more open, company-wide discussion, and, like a democracy, it probably will be messy. But – could possible advances in business productivity turn social media into a competitive advantage?

The possibilities

It already appears that the simplest applications to deliver tangible value could be the planned outcome of what now happens in public social networks. These outcomes include some new and traditional HR/Learning challenges approached in new ways.

  1. Peer Learning. Much preferred by next-generation employees as a balance to traditional mentor/teacher-based learning; a social media application opens the door to get questions quickly asked and answered. What could be better than to have direct input from someone who has faced, or is currently facing, a similar situation – right here and now – on-the-job? You can get more than answers (which may also be available in a current learning library or course). You can also interactively discuss it until the situation makes sense to you for your own application. This pedagogic solution however, will almost certainly be out of the reach of LMS functions – how much upset will that cause?
  2. Knowledge Management (in reality, Knowledge Access). At least 20 years have passed since the knowledge management dilemma was to have been solved. We do keep getting better at it, but it continues to fall apart in its maintenance and update complexity. Some still find that best access to knowledge is to call someone, who will know something. A social network can extend the reach, increase the immediacy, and reduce the mean time to reach a result, compared to the original telephone and e-mail approaches. Once a social network site has been active for a period of time, it becomes the de facto repository of current and applicable knowledge. There is still great opportunity to have meaningless and false data there, so you must apply some kind of moderation architecture, (e.g. voting, facilitating, editing) to have assurance that the information you are reading is correct, up to date, and legal. It is interesting that the social network creates a platform for interactive problem solving, and a transparent knowledge database – no extra work required. Knowledge management and access can be seamlessly integrated into the fiber of work.
  3. Collegiality. What things are most valued in an offsite meeting? Managers tend to want to say “learning,” but participants tend to speak of “camaraderie,” an opportunity to socialize with colleagues, and to add a personal emotional context to work. Occasionally, participants mention “inspiration.” The opportunity to share and discuss business, and personal perceptions of the business tend to create a closer-knit community. Some of these relationships continue after the offsite meeting, and become part of personal real-life networks. Could an online social network obviate the need for off-sites? Readers who pay attention to time management and productivity will have already computed the numbers. They are considering whether a two-day annual offsite is actually equivalent to 5.76 minutes a day on a social network. (OK: 250 work days, and 2 twelve-hour offsite days.) While reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and travel cost are benefits, certainly company offsite meetings will not be eliminated, just somewhat reduced, with attendees strengthening and extending their personal ties in between events online.

These are the three simplest applications, but trying to apply a technology that was fundamentally designed for a different context has inherent issues. First, consumer technology applications must be modified to work in the business context, a somewhat more closed society. Second, we will probably delegate a decision to explore any of the three possible applications above to HR/Learning (or possibly IT). This is so because these applications sound pretty “soft.” And this may work well until the cultural change – the management-employee power shift – comes to the surface. Third, this is new territory, and we should carefully pilot it in a model group of closed-ended, cross-functional, and hierarchical users, designed and measured for specific business results. Fourth, if not designed specifically to deliver business value in your culture, to skeptics it may appear, and may become, another application that takes precious time and minds away from the focus on the business work at hand.

With these technologies we are tinkering with the core of how a company actually works – beyond its systems and processes. Such efforts are most dangerous when the changes are simply dropped into the existing context of business process and culture. Using these tools will appear to take time from heads-down productive work. What must be proven is a step-change increase both in the value of the work actually getting accomplished, and in the resolution of issues, long before they become bigger problems.

The name and some of the underlying structure of this technology will have to change before its implementation can be acceptable in corporations – it cannot be just a social event.

More dramatic possibilities for business productivity

Continuing the previous list of possibilities, here are steps, in increasing order of complexity, which only a senior executive team can lead. That team must be fully aware of the design, the value, the risks, and risk mitigation. Leadership by HR, L&D, or IT will almost guarantee a self-inflicted career change. Senior business leaders MUST take responsibility. Social media is a disruptive technology, not yet fully understood (as the Web was not fully understood for commerce at first), that will affect how we accomplish business in the future.

  1. Business change. Change management suffers from being a second cousin to project management. Projects continue to fail at an extraordinary rate, despite years of project manager training, certification, methodologies, and etc. Most research tends to point to people issues in, and around, a project. These issues involve trust, experience, confidence, and an inability to deliver bad news. A possible social network application is to insert such a tool directly into the project execution process. Rather than treating change management under the principles of project management, allow a peer, cross-functional, cross-hierarchical discussion to begin. I admit that this amounts to a clear loss of control of both internal and external project communication, and that this is absolutely against the grain of all project management. However, consider that “the grain” of project management has been delivering failed projects 65-85% of the time, depending on whose research you read. The goal is to increase problem discussion, identify the roadblock issues, initiate a solution discussion, and begin to gain trust and confidence in the changes that management desires and the project needs. Get emerging project issues on the table and under discussion early, so that later you don’t have to, as so many projects do, “declare success and move on.” Of course, within an open discussion network, you can identify people who are aggressively opposing the project or strategic change. How you handle this issue will determine whether open discussion of different points of view builds organizational trust, or derails projects with dissension.
  2. Hive-mind / Collective Intelligence. A hyper-hybrid of peer learning and knowledge access where thousands of social media participants can work to solve complex problems. I encourage you to Google “I love bees,” and its experiment with collective intelligence to solve complex problems involving thousands of people. Sure, it was a marketing gimmick, designed as an alternate reality game, but once there is a network of employees wired together in an open culture, we could explore new ways to solve the problems of strategy and tactics by tapping the collective intelligence of the whole organization.
  3. Employee – Partner – Customer networks. Less radical than collective intelligence, but more dangerous because the social media network loosely flows through corporate boundaries to directly bring the voice of the customer and supplier into the daily operation of your organization. Being a two-way conversation, it could increase the efficiency of the total system. While we’d all cheer the possibility of tying a customer closer to us, there is danger that sensitive information could potentially make its way to the competition through intertwined networks. Technology and innovative design may yet come up with a formal secure solution, but the essence of this network already exists in public social networks; from professional groups and conferences (in real life,) to LinkedIn, Facebook, and even Twitter, where information may already be passing inadvertently across corporate boundaries.
  4. The Killer App. There isn’t one – yet. But it we will discover or create it. Its characteristic will be support for the business process. In fact, it may become the business process, one that would not be possible to execute otherwise in a productive and cost-effective way. This will be the source of the real value of online social networks for business. To make this discovery will require a peer collaboration of a diverse and broad set of next-generation technologists, sociologists, management, and business experts. It will be a group that probably hasn’t worked together much as true peers in the past, thinking beyond conventional ideas about organization, structure, boundaries, management, and leadership.

Barriers to consider

There is enough evidence of value that early adopters and visionaries will proceed with experiments; but they are experienced in mitigating unanticipated risks and issues during implementation. Early adopters also work in cultures where prudent risk, even if it fails, is rewarded. Learning comes in many forms. In taking this kind of risk, the reward of learning often comes attached to other consequences.

The role of HR and learning

Because these solutions are tied up in the intangibles of a firm (the “soft” areas), the responsibility in most companies will undoubtedly try to land on the desk of either HR or L&D. But because online social media can create a monumental shift in communications and power within the firm, it’s not at all obvious that HR or Learning should accept this responsibility. A business leader must lay a foundation to create a cross-functional approach focused on delivering a specific, measurable, “business” (i.e., not “learning”) value. This may not be easy. Most firms have the “hard” systems basics down – management structures, business processes, technology, and physical infrastructure. But the “soft” aspects of business and talent are a bit more esoteric, and we generally remove them from discussion of direct business value. There is increasing evidence that culture is precisely where we can find competitive advantage. Business processes integrated with culture create best practices that cannot be copied, which is why simply bringing in external best practices doesn’t always work. With the advent of social network tools, “soft” culture shifts and “hard” business change will become inseparable; but today, organizational responsibility for talent and business results are separate – and at times at odds.

Restricted use of technology

Now, about 15 years into the use of the Web and Web applications for business, many firms restrict access to the Internet, e-mail servers, social media, instant messaging, particular Websites, and in some cases even Google. In many firms, ignoring these company rules leads to termination. The two reasons for these rules are worry about security (loss of sensitive information, or vulnerability to external attacks), and concern for productivity (doing something other than being focused on your work-at-hand costs the firm money). From a “soft” perspective, the underlying issue is a lack of trust of employees. These restrictions have encouraged tech-savvy employees to work more from home. Employees with well-developed social networks routinely use them to poll peers on issues, questions, and access to knowledge. But to use their networks, they must work from home in order to access the world of knowledge as they see fit. Besides, the technology at home may be better too.

Transparency in business

Imagine open communication, contrasting dialog, and honest assessments of business direction and individuals. Yes, this sounds too good to be true. Numerous organizational development movements have striven in the past to achieve just that. With online social network technologies, a strong push toward that environment may actually be unavoidable. While it’s unclear whether we can predict the cultural reactions, a poorly facilitated implementation could generate several negative possibilities. For example:

  1. Open critique and discussion of leadership, peers, mission, values, products, and direction can create a rich place to Google for lawsuits for product liability, anti-trust, harassment, discrimination … and we thought keeping e-mail clean was hard!
  2. The opportunity to enhance 360º performance evaluations could better support the, “why you’re not getting the raise you expected,” message.
  3. Support for evolution of a democracy in business means opportunities to bring about some revolutionary spirit. Most business management today runs on a philosophy based in military hierarchy – control, focus, efficiency, and execution. Democratic debate is messy, takes a lot of time, diverts energy and focus from short-term value activity, and challenges the leadership – constantly. Could this mean that business leaders will evolve into politicians?
  4. The freedom to take time out of the workday to read, consider, respond, and create social media entries and commentary. I wonder when and how some of my Facebook friends get any work done. If all of us were that intense – would the world stop?
  5. The more narcissistic among us will dominate the medium, not that this doesn’t already happen in real life. In social media it’s just more invasive and pervasive.
  6. Any attempts by management to control messaging or shaping of the new environment may be treated cynically, eroding trust.

Critical success factors

Regardless of the risk and barriers, it is important to proceed to explore the business benefits of this new portfolio of technologies. The way that business is accomplished will inevitably shift as a result. Expect new business models, and a new approach to business management. The only question is how the changes will manifest in any particular firm, and whether they can turn into a competitive advantage.

While social media have the capability to cross every traditional boundary in business, initial limitations on their reach are advisable. For now, focus exploration internally on areas that require close cross-functional coordination. Carefully measure the business-value impact of a barrier-free, open, communication channel.

Successful implementations require a culture of increasing trust. Discussions of trust and culture may get muddied in organizational development ideology, but increasing trust would permit a pilot in social media, and should produce upticks in “hard” productivity and employee satisfaction measures.

The concept of lifetime employment at a firm has virtually disappeared. Even though, in this economy, we are in an employment seller’s market, corporations will have to have greater respect for individuals and their networks. Primarily due to Internet applications, including social networks, employees know more about what is going on in other firms, in greater detail than ever before. Think of your employees as treating their employment with you as their current project. Their real long-term loyalty is to themselves, their source of stability is outside your firm, and their network is the enabler.

An interesting analog to consider: corporations used networks to blast through the physical boundaries of the world’s countries. Employees are using social networks to blast through corporate boundaries. How did countries react?

Where to start?

Perhaps the best place to begin is where there already is a cultural challenge, such as a merger. A portion of the firm may just need to be heard — perhaps where people are feeling powerless, such as in manufacturing in a marketing-driven organization. Or there may be a place where gaining some mutual respect would increase productivity and cooperation.

Being mindful of all the unintended consequences, a good place to explore early applications would be in peer learning, and the subsequent growth of a searchable database of knowledge. At least, in the beginning, there would need to be some control in place to moderate, and to edit, really faulty or illegal information. It will be necessary to learn to manage with a new conscious balance of control and freedom.

What technology to use? For internal use, it would be necessary to use one of the publicly-available technology platforms, licensed for internal use, and perhaps modified to fit your technology infrastructure and run inside the firewall. For piloting purposes, using the commercially available public platforms may well be feasible with some restrictions, security, and technology access provisions.

The promise of social media in business in slowly becoming clearer, but it is surrounded by risk. It is a culture change enabled not by “hard” analysis of business redesign, a merger, or an acquisition. It is a culture change driven by the personally integrated technologies of the next-generation workforce. What is missing, but required, is a solid business case, presentable to the executive team, board, and shareholders.

Social networking in business may not happen in its current consumer form, but it will happen. The value of integrated knowledge management (knowledge access), the ability to elicit almost instant contribution of multiple minds, including a possible seamless integration with partners and customers, is too seductive. This change is inevitable; the question is how gracefully we will complete the transformation.