Don't let your organization's culture stifle enterprise social media

Silos and hierarchies represent power over information -- power that's best relinquished with measure and wisdom. Discover how this relates to enterprise social media.

When organizations start expanding collaboration with enterprise social media tools, they are embarking on an organization-changing adventure. Companies of all sizes are finding information and expert sources they didn't know they had, and they're learning just how much useful information, analytics, and insights have been bound up in email and document repositories. The volumes of these sequestered business resources are often greatest in organizations where there hasn't been a culture of open communication and where information has a very short shelf life. But some of the heaviest concentrations hide within organizations where there hasn't been a culture of freely exchanging information.

Imagine a silo-based company with gatekeepers thoroughly entrenched at the entrances to the silos, parsing out incoming information selectively and adjusting outgoing information restrictively. According to Maria Ogneva (the former Head of Community at Yammer) in a May 2012 interview with Sprout Insights, information hoarding is often prevalent because knowledge is power, and people have traditionally been reluctant to share power. Now, remove the gatekeepers and let the data flow. The result can be wild combinations of too much information, too much of the wrong kinds of information, and too little of the right information. This can lead to people feeling overwhelmed, disenfranchised, and maybe even threatened. That's why those close to enterprise social media products suggest a measured approach and one that builds on successes.

"There's that old saying -- actions speak louder than words. If you want employees to recognize the power and potential of social and if you want the business to plug into the full knowledge of its most valuable asset, your workforce, you need to show them," said Heidi Ambler, director, IBM Social Business (pictured at left). "This may require launching your social business transformation in a pilot program or starting in small groups within the organization to show success. Starting small can help with training employees to use the tools effectively and more efficiently. They see how easy it is to share insights and information, [and] they begin to see benefits immediately."

Ambler points to LeasePlan, a vehicle leasing and fleet management company, as an example of an organization that stepped gently into enterprise social media. The company's leadership identified a group of early adopters and started a pilot program to test the waters of social business. Ninety-four percent of the pilot participants said they wanted to continue the project when it was completed.

Because of the pilot program's success, LeasePlan launched IBM Connections, a social software program, across the organization's 40 subsidiaries, in 30 countries, reaching more than 6,000 employees. Ambler says that today, LeasePlan is using IBM Connections for knowledge retention, optimizing workflow, increasing innovation, and transforming traditional business processes. Nearly 800 communities have been formed, 400 blogs, and over 800 forums, all of which are helping the organization decrease the amount of emails sent and received, while making it easy for the workforce to easily find expertise. Much of that is saving employees valuable time.


Much like public social media, enterprise solutions offer timelines where people share information and see interchanges between others. This is a screenshot of IBM Connections. (Image credit: IBM | See an enlarged view of the image.)


The IBM Connections dashboard provides access to all the functions. (Image credit: IBM | See an enlarged view of the image.)


A key aspect of any enterprise social solution is to have plenty of accommodation for mobile devices. Take a look at this IBM Connections screen. (Image credit: IBM | See an enlarged view of the image.)


The IBM Connections product includes a Communities tab where users can set up their communities fashioned around their interests, and can keep in touch with what's going on in other communities. (Image credit: IBM | See an enlarged view of the image.)

There is quite a bit of talk about how the increased collaboration arising from enterprise social media can lead to a flattening of hierarchies because it encourages a more circular engagement across all layers of the organization. According to Stephen Dale, managing director of Collabor8now, writing in SocialMedia Today, "command and control" types of organizations could face challenges in getting people to share enough so that information flows freely. The cultural shift required in some companies may require lengthy adoptions, while others can move more quickly. Interestingly though, success depends upon certain aspects of the very hierarchies all that new collaboration intends to flatten.

"The success of a social business is highly dependent upon executive leadership and corporate strategy," explains Ambler. "Enterprise social networking tools like IBM Connections, are helping to break down the barriers of traditional hierarchical systems. They're helping to build more collaborative, open corporate cultures where employees from the executives to those in the field are empowered to share expertise and insights to help their colleagues drive better decision making, speed innovation, and create smarter global workforces that can improve customer service. In the end, information silos are broken down because employees are able to openly engage on relevant topics, which helps to achieve faster, smarter outcomes."

Ambler points out that one component of success is for organizations to create guidelines that provide helpful, practical advice for employees while supporting the organization's business values and its hierarchical structure. For example, IBM created social computing guidelines that provide guidance on social activity both inside the company and externally on public platforms. The guidelines set standards for social activity and encourage employees to contribute with the utmost respect for others and their company.

But the question then becomes, if you're going to create guidelines, aren't you going right back to stifling communication? Emily Miles, in a paper co-authored with William Trott, writes that improving collaboration still requires some "insisting" while also beginning to share power (PDF of the paper). In her words, "We need to let go of power wisely."

Also read on TechRepublic