Corporate culture and adoption of social media

I have quite vivid memories of Sunday mornings as a child, being upset that there were few cartoons on Australian free-to-air television, and too many American Christian evangelists trying to convert the world by the power of the idiot box.

With all the hype about new media and social business, it’s an easy task for evangelists to tell you that you need social media tools in your organisation. Unfortunately, much of the talk still seems to be more about dogma and less about actually educating people about what to do and what to watch out for. An important factor that is often overlooked regarding adoption is corporate culture — and it can have a dramatic impact on whether your steps into social business or government 2.0 endeavours will be successful.

Looking at corporate culture

Just like our own personalities, there are lots of different facets to an organisation. And like personality you can also measure corporate culture. I’m not talking about the pop-psychology of modern management tests like Myres Briggs, I’m talking about Geert Hofstede’s work in the area of organisational psychology.

Power-Distance is one of the factors that Hofstede found that helps us understand why our organisations do the things they do. For organisations that are described as being high in Power-Distance, subordinates acknowledge and accept that power is a reflection of formal hierarchy. The higher a culture is in Power-Distance, the stronger an organisation’s hierarchy. Organisations low in Power-Distance usually have very flat or no hierarchies. Importantly, the scale does not reflect an objective difference in power distribution but rather the way people perceive power differences. These structures are also typically reinforced by Taylorist management practices.

Factors affecting adoption of social media

The book The Emergence of the Relationship Economy looks at a wide range of factors in the adoption of social media, including culture. In bringing together a number of studies, chapter nine deals specifically with the issue of culture.

The book notes that cultures who have very high Power-Distance scores also have low adoption of social computing tools. What organisations are likely to be high Power-Distance cultures? Many government agencies, defence and security organisations, and manufacturing companies could be described in this way.

The suggestion is that even if you want to roll-out social computing tools within your organisation, or even outside the walls to engage your stakeholders and clients, it may not be successful if your organisation if its culture is high on Power-Distance. This sort of culture can kill your plans for implementing social computing because no one will want to adopt these practices.

Be ready for slow change

What’s the solution? An organisation’s culture is like its personality — and that means its long lasting and slow to change. Fortunately, we can turn to other theories and practices from organisational and social psychology to help. We do know that influencing change relies on group dynamics and the ‘norming and forming’ processes. In essence, it’s the story of if your friend jumps off the bridge — would you do it as well? Theories of group dynamics actually suggest the answer is likely to be ‘yes’. Teams often have special tasks that isolate them enough from the broader organisational hierarchy that they have their own social structure and practices, making them the perfect place to start introducing change.

If you can slowly amass enough support, particularly in the low-hierarchy team environment (one that is therefore more likely to adopt social media tools) you can begin to introduce social computing behaviours and interactions, using these tools, as a group norm, and as a group norm, the group will eventually adopt the behaviour and reinforce that ‘this is the way we do stuff’.

Evangelism is great for raising awareness, engendering strong emotions of excitement about the opportunities social media can bring to an organisation, but people should be aware of the factors that will help you get where you want to go. For those of your lucky enough to be in high Power-Distance cultures there’s lots of strategy to arm yourselves with, and lots to learn, but this will place control of the situation back to you, and understanding your organisation’s culture is one of the best places to start.