Got Culture? Use It To Drive A Successful Social Business - InformationWeek
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Rachel Happe
Rachel Happe
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Got Culture? Use It To Drive A Successful Social Business

Cultural change will likely be a long-term outcome of a social initiative, but it shouldn't be the goal.

Highly functioning communities often look like well-oiled social mechanisms that make business better for everyone--the kumbaya of social business. But when you scratch below the surface of those highly functioning communities, you find a constant, writhing tension among a variety of cultural expectations and behaviors.

In the best communities, that tension drives creativity, collaboration, and innovation. But in communities that fail, it's often because the cultural context wasn't understood, respected, and accounted for in the community strategy. A beautifully laid out strategy will always fall victim to its cultural context, so it's imperative to incorporate that cultural context rather than ignore it.

Cultural sensitivity and planning, however, is a messy business and has gotten a bad rap because it's associated with hours of mandated HR videos or "sensitivity training." Culture change, similarly, has often been used in conjunction with reorganizing and "rightsizing," and you can almost hear the collective groans of employees when they hear those words.

The terms we use to discuss and describe culture are awkward and insufficient. Social strategists and community managers can help an organization articulate its culture and use it to make social initiatives successful. But it's not a straightforward task, particularly in a large company with many overlapping cultures associated with different locations and work groups.

Figuring out culture isn't easy. Here are three simple approaches that can help people developing a social strategy unravel their organization's cultural puzzle:

1. Use evocative images to spur a detailed discussion of cultural norms and expectations. For example, an image of a race car may lead to a discussion of a company's operating strength, or it may help articulate the aspirational nature of the culture.

2. Use specific examples of online behaviors and statements to discover what's culturally unacceptable, uncomfortable, neutral, and positive. For instance, ask a diverse group of employees how they feel about someone using the corporate account to congratulate a customer on a new baby/marriage/grandchild. In some cultures, that wouldn't give anyone pause; in others, the idea is incompatible with how they communicate.

3. Express the same context in different ways, using different tones and wording to determine tone vs. content comfort. For example, "Wrapping up a meeting and headed out to an important doctor's appointment--please wish me luck" vs. "Thankfully the last meeting of the day before I head off to a mammogram. I'm nervous" vs. "Wrapping up a meeting and headed out to make sure I'm still cancer free after three years" may elicit different reactions despite the similar content. These reactions can help define an organization's cultural boundaries.

Out of these exercises, cultural boundaries start to emerge. The topics, tone, and dynamics that aren't OK create the "no social" zone--at least in the near term. Typically, a clear idea of what's culturally acceptable also emerges. What's left is a smaller grey area that can be slowly tested and more carefully managed.

These sorts of cultural exercises make it easy to see which strategies won't work and which will. They also help community managers develop guidelines that may prohibit certain topics entirely, and create content and engagement plans that encourage more culturally ideal interactions.

It's easy to go into a social business initiative thinking that cultural change is one of the necessary goals, because social software has changed the culture of the intranet. But that's a risky assumption.

Instead, focus on a successful business goal first--one that incorporates cultural boundaries--so that it's embraced, not shunned, by your organization's cultural zeitgeist. Culture change will likely be a long-term outcome of a social initiative, but it shouldn't be a goal, especially if your organization is change-resistant.

Rachel Happe (@rhappe) is a co-founder and principal at the Community Roundtable, a peer network for social media, community, and social business leaders. You can reach her at or 617-271-4574.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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Deb Donston-Miller
Deb Donston-Miller,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/19/2011 | 1:17:54 AM
re: Got Culture? Use It To Drive A Successful Social Business
I think communicating and testing social boundaries is very important. It's dangerous to assume that everyone in an organization will be comfortable with and understand the nature of social networking in general and how social networking can and should impact your organization and its industry. I agree that explicit examples of what's OK and what's not, as well as a discussions around why, will be key for companies that are exploring and expanding their social presence.

Deb Donston-Miller
Contributing Editor, The BrainYard
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