Lou Gerstner, pictured opposite, used to be the Chairman and CEO of IBM. In his excellent book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” there are many great lessons for anyone in business. I came across recently, however, one particularly poignant quote related to the use of social collaboration in business. We all recognise the need for the right culture to prevail in the organisation, but Mr Gerstner says:
I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game — it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.
This quote pulled me up a bit because it is brutally true. In the same way as organisations don’t have feelings, or attitudes, so too is the fact that the people in the organisation ARE the company. Thus, to be successful, an organisation needs to cultivate the kind of culture it wants. It’s more complicated than that though. There is a marketing culture – the brand the company wants to put forward and an internal culture which is the environment we make for each other when working there. Too often we find the marketing and internal cultures are quite different from each other. As a consumer we’re disappointed when we “believe” the messaging by a company only to be disappointed when contact with its staff fails to live up to the expectations their marketing culture had led you to absorb.
In any organisation, the culture of the organisation, as Mr Gerstner says, comes from the people. I am sure most organisations look like this:
Marketing’s branding of your culture might well be pointing one way, but is the culture of your innovation or customer service functions pointing the same way? While it’s probably impossible to achieve, the utopian dream of culture is that we are all going in the one direction:
Cost cutting, productivity programs, motivational speakers and all the other techniques you see these days about aligning corporate culture often fail. In many cases its because of a number of issues:
- No understanding of what the current culture is.
- Unclear corporate direction – what do we stand for?
- What does the organisation value? Profits, people, products, share price?
- Poor communication – in both directions.
When talking to potential customers about the use of “social” as an added dimension to their organisation I am often told that they have an intranet and so therefore don’t need anything else. What an intranet does for most organisations is to give the different parts of the company, but mostly HR and Marketing, a place to announce things. They are not generally designed to engage people. The traditional intranet, therefore, often is the manifestation of the marketing culture – the propaganda the organisation would have you believe. Nowadays, in my opinion, this is a recipe for disaster.
The best employees in your organisation probably treat your intranet with disdain. It’s probably considered to be some relic of the 1990s when it was all the rage to have one. The best employees get to understand what it’s like to be in your organisation based on their interactions with other people. If you want to make those interactions better, to make them rewarding and to address people’s need for self-actualisation (according to Maslow), then you need to cut the propaganda and make it easy for employees to find each other, to work with them, and then share the results and rewards from doing so.
Using a collaborative social network to flatten the organisation structure, where senior staff routinely interact with people well away from them in the organisation chart, is one of the best ways to start dealing with the culture. Have you ever seen the reality TV programs where the boss of some big organisation goes undercover to see what it’s really like to work in their company? Introducing a social network in your organisation where this becomes possible across all the areas you operate in is a great first step.
Giving people the opportunity to work together in communities of interest, centres of excellence, whatever you want to call them, as one strategy, is an excellent way to recognise and reward their abilities. Building a culture where it’s OK to discuss sensitive topics about the company in a public (within the company) area is a very healthy approach to ensuring that people are not disillusioned.
Could your company build a culture where a senior executive who does an “all hands” call stays on the phone for a prolonged period to answer ALL questions which are put to them? The call ends when there are no more questions?
Of course, this is where the challenge to any organisation lies. Culture change almost always needs to come from the top of the organisation. If your senior management doesn’t recognise the need, or doesn’t want it to happen, two things will happen:
- Your marketing culture will continue to be completely different to your internal culture
- Your best employees will leave and probably go to your competitors.