Corporate revolution?

Rightly or wrongly, social media has been cast in a leading role in many of the stories that have made 2011 such a tumultuous year, politically and socially. The Arab Spring, and more specifically the uprising in Egypt, was reported to have been coordinated and documented on Facebook. Meanwhile, BlackBerry’s instant messaging service, BBM, was one of the scapegoats offered for the riots in the UK, as some looters had used it to plan attacks on shops and other premises.

There has been considerable debate about whether social media was just a tool for these various social outbursts, or somehow a catalyst or even an instigator. Luminaries to have waded in include popular business writer Malcolm Gladwell, who argued that participating in social media is too ‘low risk’ to constitute a meaningful protest.

Meanwhile, certain enterprise software vendors continue to hone their pitch that social media-type tools are the future of internal collaboration. Notable examples are middleware vendor Tibco, an unlikely candidate to release a consumer-style technology but which nevertheless launched its Twitter-like social collaboration tool tibbr earlier this year; SAP, whose StreamWork ‘collaborative decision-making’ application has features that resemble Facebook’s activity streams; and Salesforce.com, whose social messaging tool Chatter is a free add-on for users of its CRM application.

It was Salesforce.com’s CEO, Marc Benioff, who rather glibly drew these two trends together at the company’s recent Dreamforce conference, warning executives that they could face a ‘Corporate Spring’ unless they grasp the social ‘revolution’ that is unfolding in the enterprise. “Either CEOs will make their companies social, or customers and employees will depose them like Muammar Gaddafi,” Benioff said.

Benioff is both notorious and gifted for exploiting the zeitgeist to flog CRM software, but is there anything to the argument? Could the mere adoption of social collaboration tools challenge the organisational integrity of a business? And if so, how does one ensure that disruption results in new, more participatory forms of leadership, as one hopes for the Arab Spring, and not broken glass, loss of livelihood and frightened civilians, as in the case of the UK riots?

The anti-hierarchy

Charles Armstrong, CEO of social analytics provider Trampoline Systems, firmly believes that social collaboration tools imbue a new kind of organisational structure. “The technologies that humans create are crystallisations about the societies around them,” he says. “This is more true of collaboration tools than anything else. They are full of implicit assumptions about how people work together, and how collaboration is structured.

“Established enterprise collaboration technologies, like email, instant messaging and CRM systems, are built with an implicit assumption that you have a divisional corporation, with very strongly structured chains of command and responsibility, and very central control over things that are happening.

“Social tools reflect a somewhat different set of cultural and social ideas,” he continues. “They are much less hierarchical and have less presumption about who needs to share information with whom. And they push the authority much lower down the organisation.”

But can the introduction of new social tools disrupt the existing corporate structure? That is unlikely, according to Gartner’s collaboration expert, Tom Austin.

Collaboration projects, including those pegged on social tools, are notoriously prone to failure. One of the key reasons for this is that organisations rarely define success (67% of IT professionals involved in social projects surveyed by Gartner admitted that they had not agreed success criteria with the business) but another problem is cultural resistance.

Austin believes that resistance to new collaboration tools is a function of the hierarchical structure of the organisation, and he has coined ‘Austin’s Law’: “Internal resistance to social and collaboration support initiatives grows as an exponential function of the number of employees, where the exponent is the number of hierarchy levels in the organisation.”

In other words, Austin’s view is that, rather than social collaboration tools disrupting hierarchical organisational structures, those structures are likely to prevent social tools from taking root.

It is a view shared by IDC analyst Alys Woodward. “Social collaboration works well in relatively flat hierarchies, and where there’s a culture of being able to say when you don’t like something,” she says. “But in other companies, you might be reluctant to say ‘I don’t think this project is working’ when the CEO might be reading it.”

Introducing tools that can support frank and open discussion into an organisational culture that is not used to it can be disastrous, she adds. “One organisation had to turn its social collaboration system off, because people were using it to have big, detailed arguments, but the organisation had no way of resolving them.”

One might argue that this organisation was experiencing what Benioff described as a Corporate Spring. But one might also point out that the company in question’s chosen solution was to switch off the social collaboration, not roll out more.

Next>> How GE Energy Managerment uses Chatter, and the risk of generational divide

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For GE’s Energy Management division, the use of social collaboration has so far been rather less revolutionary. “We’re mostly using Chatter in small groups, where we have a few topics that we want to discuss or share information on,” explains Luke de Cock, information management innovation leader at the company.

For example, a team of product managers, engineers and IT staff who are working on electric cars may use Chatter to share links and internal documents to spark discussion. Previously, this activity would have taken place via email, but de Cock says that Chatter is less restricted than email groups, and makes it easier for someone to join and follow the conversation.

However, this link sharing is the extent of the collaboration that takes place on Chatter. “It’s good to make a connection, but once a connection has been made and we start an idea, we’ll take it into our other more formal collaboration tools. You still need to organise things, and have a plan for what you are going to do.”

De Cock’s concern with social collaboration tools is that they might promulgate ‘group think’ and received wisdom. “A group can be more stupid than the individuals,” he says.

He suggests that by focusing on discussions and relationships, social collaboration tools might distract decision- makers away from evidence in the form of data. “But that can happen with emails and meetings,” he adds, and social collaboration may be valuable in that it exposes irrational decision-making.

Divided culture

A more plausible outcome than outright corporate revolution is the possibility of social collaboration driving a wedge between those who use it and those who do not.

This is a risk with any collaboration system. When Euan Semple, now a collaboration consultant, introduced web-based collaboration tools at his former employer, the BBC, it created something of a cultural divide. “In any meeting, half the people had been online and were au faitwith the conversations, so would arrive with an understanding of the context and would be current with the issues,” he recalls. “The other half didn’t have a clue, and we’d have to wait while they caught up.”

Trampoline Systems’ Armstrong says this risk is especially high with social software. “I’ve seen businesses introduce social tools that have created schisms. You get very rapid adoption by younger employees, but older employees who are less familiar with social networking websites lag behind.”

This can do more harm than good, he says. “If you create segregation, it can affect morale and create new resentment among more senior employees,” Armstrong contends. “And it’s those people you want using the tools, so that their knowledge can be shared.”

According to Semple, internal social collaboration is something that many executives are currently trying to figure out. “There’s an uncomfortable situation at the moment where I think executives are aware that it’s something they ought to be doing, but they aren’t quite sure what it is.”

So far, their track record has been poor, he says. “Watching corporates attempt social media at the moment is like watching your dad dancing at a disco – fair play to them for having a go, but you really wish they’d stop.” Like Armstrong, he believes that the non-hierarchical nature of social collaboration is at odds with the way that many organisations view themselves, but he believes that culture will trump the disruptive power of the software.

“Traditionally, corporations have thought of themselves as a small group at the top, and the rest of the organisation that lines up behind them and does what they are told,” Semple says. “This has never really been true. Really, a corporation is a bunch of people who happen to turn up at the same place and the same time who willingly engage in something together. You can use whatever platforms you like, but if you still have the wrong mindset then nothing is going to change.”

Nevertheless, he says, senior executives can encourage and participate in social collaboration, while still achieving their own objectives. The first step is actually to use some kind of social media, either personally or professionally, Semple argues.

And the key to doing it well, he says, is to be authentic. “Try to answer questions and be open about things that you’re not sure about. It’s not rocket science, but we have professionalised talking to each other to such a degree that people have forgotten how to do it.”

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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