Dangers of social groupthink: A case study in Enterprise 2.0, Social CRM and Social Business


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For sure, there’s a lot of Goodness in social media—in our personal lives and business. But also a lot of issues to be worked out. That’s why two years ago I established a Social Business category on CustomerThink, and last year launched SocialBusinessOne, a community dedicated to the topic.

One of the downsides of social media is that it can accelerate getting locked into a point of view. This is counter intuitive, because you might expect that social media would make it easier to get multiple points of view. It can, but it depends on the group dynamics and the willingness of each of us as individuals to consider alternate ideas.

Image Credit: philipcarter

These days it’s all too easy to find and join a group that supports a certain mindset. If critical thinking is not encouraged, then it’s not surprising to find a social network of your colleagues can becomes a sort of echo chamber fostering “groupthink,” a term coined by Yale psychologist Irving Janis nearly 40 years ago.

Groupthink means members of a group try to avoid conflict and reach consensus without critical analysis. It’s like everyone becomes a cheerleader for a POV. If someone in the group has doubts, they keep it to themselves to avoid criticism or risk exclusion from the group.

This is fine if your group is cheering for a sports team or maybe a political party. But groupthink can have nasty consequences, like the Challenger disaster and Bay of Pigs fiasco. Some think the recent financial meltdown is an example of groupthink, because in retrospect, how could so many smart people believe that repackaging bad mortgages would make them good investments? (Then again, maybe it was just greed.)

Trends in social thinking

For the past 2-3 years there has been a groundswell of commentary about Enterprise 2.0, Social CRM and Social Business. In each case, proponents say that it will change business as we know it, and the discussion is much along the lines of a group of teenagers arguing about “just how hot do we look today?” Not exactly critical analysis, which is one of the warning signs of groupthink.

So I thought it would interesting to see how the volume and sentiment of these terms has changed over the past couple of years. Thanks to Infegy for providing these charts using its Social Radar service, which mines content from 40+ million sources, including blogs and social networks like Twitter.

First let’s look at the overall trends of how often these terms are mentioned. I was surprised to find that Enterprise 2.0 has a longer history than the Social CRM. See, we’re learning something already! I’ve been locked into my own customer-centered world for the past 10 years, but I largely ignored a major trend to use social computing within the enterprise.

Source: Social Radar (Note: data for March 2011 is for half of month.)

But it’s also interesting to see the declining volume of Enterprise 2.0 conversations, while Social CRM is flat and Social Business is clearly on the rise. Skeptical? Then consider another source which shows the same thing: Google Trends.

I must confess I’m happy to see this, because I’ve always believed that the endgame for social media in business must include both employees and customers as part of an integrated strategy. Maybe it’s starting to happen, or it could just be a sign that the Enterprise 2.0 fan club is abandoning ship to hype Social Business instead.

Dr. Phil on social media

In any case, these trends don’t answer the question about how people feel about these terms. In the following charts you can see positive and negative sentiment on all three terms, for both the web at large and Twitter (on commonly used hashtags). Only posts that have some kind of sentiment (positive, negative, or mixed) are included in the analysis.

Source: Social Radar

In all three cases, the positive sentiment runs 80-85% and the negative around 15%. All three terms are fostering happy talk on the web and in social networks, with relatively rare negative commentary.

Reward thought diversity, not conformity

Of course, maybe it’s the case that social media only has upside. There’s no downside, only naysayers who don’t “get it.” Then again, if you’re interested in becoming a true Social Business success story and would like to avoid repeating the sins of CRM, make sure you include critical thinkers in your project teams.

Irving Janis recommends these steps as an antidote to groupthink:

  1. Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
  2. Higher-ups should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
  3. The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
  4. All effective alternatives should be examined.
  5. Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
  6. The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
  7. At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.

Critical thinking is more likely to happen within organizations with the right group leadership. On the web, because of vested interests and social pressures to go along, you’ll continue to read mostly positive commentary of the wonders of social media. But commentary is not the “truth,” it’s just what people are saying. Do you understand the difference?

Further reading:
* Social CRM: Strategy, Technology or Passing Fad?
* 2011: The year when 80% of Social CRM projects will #fail …
* The Emperor’s new Social CRM clothes
* Social CRM at a Crossroads: Where to Next?
* Enterprise 2.0 is beyond a crock. It’s dead


  1. Is the social media/ networking bunch just a lot of happy go-alongs? This is a great post and utilizes some tolls and thoughts which should be used more often. Thank you for this thought provoking subject.

  2. Hi Bob,
    Thanks for a thought provoking argument. You make a valid point that applies to all decision making and not just to social business. It also raises this question in my mind: is the positive sentiment based upon groupthink or collective wisdom? It seems to me that there is a difference between the ability to examine the potential benefits of social in the enterprise and conclude there are game-changing possibilities VS simply agreeing with everybody else because you don’t want to be excluded from a group. Perhaps the better analysis to do would be to look at how thinking on social media in the enterprise has evolved over the last four years. Regardless, your points on how to balance team roles to avoid groupthink are worth noting for all team leaders.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Nigel. All this analysis shows is the percentage of positive versus negative sentiment. It doesn’t explain why.

    However, in my 10+ years watching this industry I’ve seen numerous examples of people jumping on a bandwagon without a real examination of the opportunity, benefits and risks. CRM is the obvious example, but I’d say NPS is another.

    Bandwagons are fun. Thinking is hard work. I’m sure some people who bought real estate before the bubble burst wish they can not been swept up in the “wisdom” that you can’t lose money on the housing market.

    That said, my sense is that thinking is slowly maturing and we are moving towards a integrated “social business” future, which will have a more balanced connotation than the tech-centered Enterprise 2.0. and Social CRM.

  4. Hi Bob,

    I guess it is safe to say that we from Social CRM recommend Social CRM, we from Social Business recommend Social Business and we from E20 recommend E20 (and maybe a little of E20 disguised as Social Business..)

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the negative sentiments would mainly consist of arguments from “the other side”..

    The best way to think of it imo is to treat all you read as an opinion or hypothesis at best.. This may tend towards “likelihood” if the source is a trusted one.. It only becomes truth when you’ve experienced it yourself, and made sure it was not your bias that created the outcome 😉

    But I agree. It’s so much more easy to jump on the bandwagon..

  5. Just like CRM, ERP, SM…They are just tools. And when you ask anyone what they think of when they hear Social Networking or Social Media. You’ll get the standard response of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc.

    We spend much of our times in workshops helping attendees cross the chasm from labeling everything “social” or “2.0” to focusing on what is really happening and how to harness that energy; Collaboration. However, to attract the market’s attention we have to label our talks “Social”. Collaboration doesn’t capture the response as the word “social” does; at least today.

    This was a great post and the dynamics of operating successfully in this new world of work and living are certainly being worked out. That is why we still have to go through the three stages of the TRUTH in COLLABORATION i.e. Social business and living;

    First it is ridiculed
    Second it is violently opposed
    and Finally it becomes self-evident.

    And looking at the world today, I think we are at the 2nd stage.

  6. Good topic and nicely covered, Bob.

    An endemic problem with measuring up and down ticks in popularity here is that the baseline of potential audience has never been established. You could argue on the Social CRM side that the baseline is all available CRM practitioners. Hard to do for E2 and worse for Social Business because neither has done a respectable job of identifying a target market.

    Apologies to the pundits and analysts rushing to define new categories, but executives could care less about becoming a 2.0 version of the Enterprise, a Social Business or what every the next proclaimed incarnation. Executives are looking to improve workplace and process performance and are happy to be entertained by any promising approach and innovation in technology that can make a dent in the long list of todos.

    I’m willing to bet that if we had to establish baseline market sizes, the downtick for E20 or the uptick for Social Business would represent well under 1% of the total addressable market.

    All that said, your point about group think and possibly an echo chamber effect is totally valid.

  7. Bob, you’ve covered so much ground in this post, it’s hard to decide what to comment on. I’ll just look at a couple of things:

    1. The concept of “groupthink” in the social world is interesting–and a little surprising until you start thinking about it. In theory, the social world stimulates wide and diverse discussions, it’s one of the great promises of the social world. However, as I started pondering your ideas, the reality of much of the discussion ends up being very polite, positive reinforcement, and great agreement. When you look at most of the comments that come up on posts, they tend to be more aligned than not.

    On the rare occasion when someone starts to express an opposing or very different view, it’s often called “flaming” and the community jumps all over the offender, squashing different ideas. One can extend this over time and lots of social interactions and see that a trend to groupthink can develop.

    2. We tend to follow and comment on people who think in similar ways to us, it’s human nature. The degree to which we do this and not actively look for people with differing points of view limits our perspectives and personal growth. We need to leverage social media to explore vastly different ideas and engage in discussions. (This issue is not just a social media phenomenon.

    3. I like Irving Janis recommendations, but they appear to be more workable within an organization and not within the social world. Within organizations, it’s the leadership and culture they foster that can avoid groupthink. Leaders who actively seek different ideas, who recruit people who are not just “yes” people, who put together teams of diverse backgrounds, who do not hire in their own image can create a challenging culture that avoids group think. One of the best examples was the “contention management system” you and I both grew up under in our formative years.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  8. Nice post, Bob.

    I continue to be surprised that more enterprises have not experimented with prediction markets to mitigate groupthink, encourage diverse opinions on critical topics, and capture sentiment immediately and quantitatively…even anonymously.

    The degree of conformity is particularly high within internal communities, both formal and informal ones, whether community members are willing to admit it or not. Knowing this occurs, a strong leader should actively seeks potentially competing views, as Irving Janis suggests.

    If an organization is not getting this input through traditional modes of communication and collaboration, alternative methodologies for collaborative decision-making and collective intelligence might be worth closer analysis.

  9. I have to agree with you Sameer. I’m continually wary of “hype” and where it’s coming from. In the end, I listen to my customers and frankly, most of them are too busy to blog or hang out on twitter and other social media outlets. Are we hearing a shrill and vocal minority? If so, I don’t even think this is group think as much as it is marketing their “new” space.

  10. Mike, maybe some of it is self-promotional hype that the participants knowingly put into social media. But I’m not so sure about this. Every group has a few leaders and a lot more followers/believers. Followers don’t think it’s hype, they believe it’s true without considering other ideas.

    New research by Vanessa DiMauro and Don Bulmer (both active in this community) studied the role of social media in decision marketing and the dynamics of trust.

    One key conclusion: “Professionals are now using their social media peer groups and online communities as reliable in-puts into their decision-making.”

    Believing whatever you read in your social media peer group is like watching cable news and thinking it’s an objective source of fact-based news. Not everyone is so gullible, of course, but my sense is that un-critical followers are what gives a trend “legs” and so they are the ones that need to challenge themselves to join groups with contrary points of view, or invite those people into their in-group.

    More details on the study: Research Findings Highlight the Evolution of Social Business

  11. To me, leadership is different than just evangelizing and promoting an idea to the exclusion of all else. I’ve seen a lot of this over the years. Gurus claim they have “the” answer then start selling it.

    What I’ve found (through 10+ years of research and observation) is that there are many different ways to succeed in business. It’s not all about the product, the experience, the selling etc. etc. — it’s a unique combination of strategies and tactics put together by business leaders.

    I’m not going to hold my breadth and expect thought promoters to be open to conflicting ideas. But I’d expect true thought leaders to do so. And for those that aspire to be a leader in a social network, they should follow Janis’ recommendation and invite other points of view.

    The best groups are not mutual admiration societies. Group members challenge each other to be better, not just go along to get along. I think the same is true in social media groups.

  12. Sameer, thanks for your comments. However, you imply that small means unimportant, and I don’t agree with that.

    15 years ago CRM was just one of many terms being debated for what now is, well, CRM. There was no benchmark then, either. In retrospect, it was kind of important, don’t you think?

    These are early days in the social movement, and I believe the trends that are developing are important right now, regardless of relative size to the addressable market. Are we going to move towards an integrated “social business” vision or continue to have warring factions trying to win the buzzwars?

    It baffles me why there is no industry consortium to provide direction to the emerging social space. Instead we lurch from one buzzword to the next, and I fear it will end up in the same sorry state as CRM did. Social “whatever” will be viewed as a failed idea promoted by an industry interested mainly in selling technology.

    Once a course gets up some momentum, it will be very hard to change. Do you want to just be an observer, or create the future?

  13. Fair point, Bob. I did not mean to imply unimportant – Ive staked my career on the promise of these new ways of work, as you know 🙂

    CRM is not an appropriate analogy – Other than the SFA, CRM did not see a bunch of people rapidly jump from acronym to acronym – E20 to Social Business to XX. For better or worse, CRM the category stuck to a naming convention and grew.

    My point was not about the movement it self but about the attention to changing naming categories as opposed to business value around how we work.

    Theres value from these new ways of work, yes its still early, but it also faced the risk of fizzling out like KM and other previous incarnations of collaboration. Better to focus on showing performance acceleration.

    As Ive said many times, I dont care what the label is. And Im with you, more pontification on this will result in it remaining “an industry interested mainly in selling technology”, research, and professional services.

  14. Great point, Bob. Social media is just a tool, other methods can be used to avoid the bias problem. My concern is that social media groups can foster a belief that “everyone we know agrees with this, so it must be true.”

    Your point about anonymous commenting is interesting. Personally, I don’t like it because I think if people are willing to voice an opinion, they should be brave enough to put their name behind it.

    But sometimes (and for some people) it can be hard to go against the grain of the group majority. Anonymous input can ensure everyone has a voice without feeling pressure to conform.

  15. Hi Bob,
    On ‘groupthink’ – you are right that many groups and organizations face this issue. Part of this has to do with the fact that our minds are hard-wired to reinforce existing maps, models, traditions & rituals. Because of these cognitive biases, rationality is sometimes discarded in spite of new information that might contradict the existing pov. Or if you are looking at it from the flip side, we sometimes choose to “notice” only information that supports an established perception.

    One way for organizations to avoid this situation is to have a sand-box for their employees that brings in multi-disciplinary perspectives and a chance to throw-out ideas even if it might seem far-fetched.

    On the sentiment analysis, many firms still just use text-analytics to come out with sentiment scores and this can skew the results. Only recently have some started to leverage the more complex methodologies to understand the deeper meaning of what is being said. To take a simple example: John says, “SoCRM is good for me” might be classified as a positive sentiment from me towards SoCRM even though I am just echoing John.

    Enjoyed the read.


  16. Bravo Bob for the commentary. I agree and support Social CRM, Social Business and Enterprise 2.0. I’m an advocate however, the are a large majority of companies – major brands that have not jumped on the bandwagon yet and it pains me when I see things like “Social CRM/Enterprise 2.0/Social Business will hit mainstream in 2011.” Really? Did anyone read Geoffrey Moore’s book “Crossing the Chasm?”

    To me, there are executives who really want to understand a proven use case for Social CRM/Enterprise 2.0/Social Business and when you press a technology provider to share one, they can’t hence the skepticism. The companies I interact with are still trying to get their hands around CRM.

  17. Thanks, Art.

    In the online world conversations are dominated by the vocal few — the 1% that post, comment and Tweet a LOT. It’s not necessarily reflective of the world at large.

    Then participants in online groups tend to echo the “talking points” of the group believes, which builds in a further distortion of reality based on groupthink-based agreement.

    That said, trends have to start somewhere. I just think people should be aware that group they belong to may not have the only or even the best view on what lies ahead. New ideas should be questioned and tested before being blindly adopted.


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