Getting execs to trust social media

While the mistrust of social media is still prevalent in the upper echelons of management, it's the issue of finding the right implementation strategy that has most organisations stumped.

The other day I asked an executive about social media and received a rather curt but not entirely surprising response. “Why would I allow the inmates to run the facility?” was what the executive said and the blunt reaction highlights the scepticism still prevalent in upper echelons of management

Their mistrust isn't entirely unjustified, particularly when advocates describe social media technology as creative, collaborative, dynamic, open ended, innovative etc.  All words that to an executive in tight economic times sound like technology inspired chaos.

Executives see the energy, creativity, size, attention and engagement social media receives and they want those same things inside their organisations. They recognise that while every organisation is social, not all organisations are social organisations. Attempts, pilots and experiments based on a ‘provide and pray’ approach to bring Facebook in house largely fail to achieve meaningful business results. Instead, social media appears to be a distraction drawing people away from meaningful work.

How do I know? Because frequently executives ask about the productivity impact of social media and see it as a reason to reinforce control rather than reinvest in collaboration.

A social organisation means business, so the real question for social media advocates and executives is not ‘to be or not to be social’ but rather:

What are the right structures for social media in the organisation?

In researching our book, The Social Organisation, we found a simple and compelling answer to this question. The answer starts by recognising that structure builds executive understanding and support, not because it gives them a way to control things, rather because it lets them know that things can be controlled if they get out of hand.

Social media needs ‘just enough’ structure to be successful.  Structure for the enterprise not the social media community.  You want the organisation to be comfortable with social media based collaboration without creating unnecessary constraints on the community itself.  The idea of ‘just enough’ structure differentiates social media and mass collaboration from just another corporate task force.  Having just enough structure requires answering these questions:

  • What will the community do?
  • Who is responsible for the community?
  • How do executives measure community progress and success?

Social organisations, those that are able to readily and repeatedly deploy social media based mass collaboration to create business results answer these questions in a particular way.

What will the community do? 

Collaboration open at both ends describes a free for all. Purpose gives a community a starting purpose without predefining its end. Purpose is what draws people together into a community.  It defines a community and leads members to contribute their knowledge, experience and ideas.  It also provides a context for executives structuring what the community is about and its areas of concern and focus.

Who is responsible for the community?  

Describing a community as self-organising group with shared responsibility tells executives that no one is responsible and they need someone to talk to.  Each collaborative community has an identified sponsor, the person or persons who connect the community with the company’s formal structures.

Sponsors lead through guiding the community in three critical areas:  participation with the community, progress against its purpose and performance in the broader organisation. Sponsors who periodically report on community innovations, ideas and results give executives confidence and their support.

How do executives measure community progress and success? 

Every activity is an investment with an expected return.  Measuring the cost of collaboration is not an answer.  Sponsors use purpose to assess and report progress.  A good purpose provides traceability between the social benefits of collaboration and the business impact of new ideas, connections and capabilities.  Reporting on these connections and overall progress against purpose answers this question.

The combination of a compelling purpose, guiding sponsorship and results based progress reports creates just enough structure within the enterprise without imposing too much structure on the collaborative community.

A final note on executive support for social media concerns executive participation in the collaborative process. While social media advocates would like to say that executive contributions stifle creativity, engagement and innovation, properly structured executive engagement in social media accelerates adoption and collaboration.

Relationship leverage is one of the ways in which people collaborate and one particularly important for executives. Leaders, like Bill Marriott, have used executive blogs to engage the organisation in discussions around major issues, solicit feedback and improve communications. Executive blogs coupled with their prompt response to feedback and questions can set the collaborative tone for organisations by modelling appropriate social media behaviours. Companies including Marriott, SUPERVALU and Seagate have used relationship leverage as a means to engage executives in the collaborative process and demonstrate to the entire organisation that leaders value collaboration and the conversation.

If your organisation has provided social media technology and prayed for results or received limited executive support consider that the issue is not with social media but with the structure surrounding it.  Providing just enough structure offers an approach to building executive support.

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs.