Culture first, then ESN, not the other way round

powerfulcommunicationIt’s probably fair to say that enterprise social networks have largely failed to deliver the changes to how organizations operate that many social business advocates hoped for.

Whilst I suspect much of that was an excessive amount of expectation rather than any real failings in the technology, but there remains a sense that it’s a technology searching for a purpose.

One of the traditional use cases for an ESN is to enhance communication within an organization.  A recent paper from INSEAD’s Pawel Korzynski highlights the kind of cultural groundwork that needs to be done before such an investment can bear fruit.

The study asked directors and senior managers at Fortune 500 companies to evaluate how successful their organizations communicated in areas such as understanding the business, its values and how newcomers were integrated into the business.

In addition, they were asked how many hours each week they spent on social networking platforms, be they internal or external, together with the kind of people they spoke to on them, and the kind of activities they undertook.

Last, but not least, they were asked about the culture of their organization.  Was it largely open or closed?

The importance of culture

The results revealed that communications via online channels was a whole lot more effective when there were processes in place to support it, such as a code of conduct.

More important than this procedural support however is the willingness to have a constant dialog with employees, with knowledge and ideas flowing up and down the organization.

I mentioned in The 8 Step Guide to Building a Social Workplace the importance of transparent information flow, with things such as peer to peer performance reviews, internal idea marketplaces and reciprocity circles encouraging and underlining the importance of candid communication.

Couple this with a generally supportive style of leadership as opposed to a more directive style and you’re in with a decent chance.

Many of these things can be done without investing in an enterprise social network, and the paper highlights how performing this initial groundwork is likely to ensure a successful launch of any technology based solution.

One other myth that the report put to bed was regarding the time spent online.  It’s often believed that your senior leaders need to be living and breathing social media for their organization to be ‘social’.

Instead, the paper reveals that quality contributions are far more valuable than a large quantity, as is knowing when face to face is a better option than online.

The web will undoubtedly influence the way we operate as organizations, but the paper provides a further reminder that before we start investing in technology, there are some very real people issues that need to be considered first of all.



2 thoughts on “Culture first, then ESN, not the other way round

  1. But be careful to call it a culture issue – and to make assumptions on what the Culture problem is. If we blanketly say the culture needs to be more open simply because people don't participate in an ESN, a key point has been missed. Business is business and in business we must perform.

    Could personal performance be tied to ESN use? Sure. But does that roll up to Business performance? If not, then the use case for the ESN is misguided and the culture was right in the first place.

    Taken another way — What are the goals of the ESN. Going to the specific team and use case, how can enterprise social software alleviate friction and improve performance in every day business communication and collaboration activities? See "Structuring for Emergence" —… — and With that problem solved, then we can ask what the cultural or structural barriers are.

    Mostly, the barriers are structural e.g. the boss that just wants his reports sent in email rather than simply reviewed on-line or needs a list of issues in a spreadsheet instead of in a table on line. See "Why Use Excel" –

    In cases, there are problems that look like culture because some people choose not to share information online. That is sometimes technophobia and sometimes its actually of an underperformed that should be removed anyway. At a particular customer I saw this process result in a weeding out and guess what: they're growing like never before.

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