Even though they may have moved past the idea that it’s a passing fad, leaders of organizations that aren’t early adopters are still trying to figure out whether, when and how they should join the "social media game."
I’m often asked what organizations are the best candidates for social media initiatives. Sometimes people are looking for me to validate their decision not to get started with social media - or they’re hoping I’ll tell them that it doesn’t apply to them (yet), that the demands of social media make it beyond their reach, or that the level of commitment they’ll have to make is not significant. But just as often the question reflects legitimate confusion over who needs to be paying attention and taking action. I find that people make erroneous assumptions about the applicability of social media to their organizations, assumptions that can cause them to delay taking any action, or to take actions that ultimately aren’t in their best interests.
In previous parts of the primer, I’ve defined terms and provided historical context (part 1), provided an overview of the potential intra-organizational impact of social media (part 2), and identified four mental shifts organizational leaders must make to move ahead with social media (part 3). Before moving on to address considerations such as risk management, resource allocation, and rules of engagement, it seems appropriate to pause to consider the organizational and workforce characteristics that should be considered in deciding whether and how to move forward with social media initiatives. These characteristics fall into three categories: factors that matter less than you think, factors that matter more than you think, and the factor that matters most of all.
UPDATE: Book Coming Soon...
Rather than continuing to develop the Primer in parts, I've decided to concentrate my efforts on creating a book (click here for details). In addition to writing new material, I plan to consolidate and edit the existing Primer parts, as well as other related posts (e.g., this piece on Twitter “worst practices” and this piece on Social Screening). To stay current about the book’s development and release later this year, please join SMinOrgs on one of its platforms (see links in the left column), subscribe to the blog, and/or add your name to the mailing list (see links in the right column).
Factors that Matter Less Than You Think
Organizational Type and Focus. Virtually everyone is aware of the potential value of social media in the for-profit sector, particularly in terms of how consumer-oriented companies interact with customers regarding their products and services (i.e., Business-to-Consumer, or BtoC, applications). Recently the discussion has expanded to include how social media technologies can be used in a Business-to-Business or BtoB context. Though valuable, the attention given to the BtoC and BtoB applications of social media limit our focus in several ways:
- Given social media’s emphasis on community and dialogue (and in some cases, multi-logue), thinking in terms of “business TO consumer” or “business TO business” reflects antiquated ideas about communication. In the social media era, organizations can no longer simply focus on creating and delivering messages through channels that treat the recipients as audience members rather than conversation partners.
- Organizations in the non-profit and public sectors can leverage the new technologies also, as demonstrated by the efforts of organizations such as the American Red Cross, Akron Children's Hospital, the United States Air Force, and William & Mary.
- As I discussed in part 2 of the primer, customer-focused applications are a subset of the ways in which social media technologies can be leveraged in organizations. Social media can also enhance internal communication/collaboration, as well as communications on an organization’s boundaries (e.g., with former students/employees through alumni networks and with key clients on specific projects).
As we move forward in our discussions about the potential impact of social media, rather than limiting our perspective to BtoC or BtoB, we should expand our view of social media applications to be OwithI, OwithO, and even IwithI (i.e., Organization with Individual(s), Organization with Organization(s), and Individual with Individual(s)). In other words, organizations of all types can leverage social media to maximize the effectiveness of their interactions with individuals who are both internal and external stakeholders, as well as with other organizations. They can also enhance the ability of individuals within their organizations to interact more effectively with each other.
Organization Size. Can an organization be too small to leverage social media? No. Social media is not just for large organizations, with lots of employees, customers or other stakeholders. What matters more than size is the physical location of individuals, as well as how workplace boundaries are defined and maintained. If all members of an organization work in the same physical location, with the same work hours, and spend very little work time outside of the workplace, they can probably function very effectively without leveraging social media – or even digital technology for that matter. When people are geographically dispersed, work on different schedules and in different locations, however, social media technologies enable them to stay connected and work more efficiently and effectively to produce quality results. That’s true whether the organization has 2 members or 2,000 members.
Organization Age. From a change perspective, it may be easier for younger organizations to leverage social media technologies, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or even overwhelmingly difficult for older organizations to incorporate them. If the benefits of change are perceived to outweigh the costs of making the change, organizations and their employees will make the necessary investments and sacrifices. The U.S. Department of State, for example, has created an Office of Innovative Engagement to help the nearly 300 year-old bureaucracy leverage social media in pursuit of its diplomatic mission (see article entitled "Digital Diplomacy" here).
Financial Resources. Given the low financial investment needed for many social media tools and platforms, small organizations can leverage new digital technologies as easily as large organizations – maybe even more easily. In addition to services that can be obtained for free (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TypePad and Ning), there are many organizations that provide web-based business applications and services at low monthly costs (e.g., 37Signals, Huddle). Cost is therefore not an obstacle to overcome.
Financial barriers may be low, but that doesn’t mean the total investment in social media is low. Capacity matters a lot – more than most organizational leaders realize and are willing to commit to, it seems. The engines of social media are fueled by the time, effort, and expertise of human beings. Even in an era of trying to do more with less, organizations need to allocate human resources to their social media initiatives and give them the space and support they need to be successful. There are no shortcuts here. The issue is so important, in fact, that I’ll focus on it in a future issue of the primer.
Workforce Characteristics. I hear people use demographic arguments as reasons for not engaging in social media regularly:
- I’m too old to learn this stuff
- I’m not a digital native, so it’s much harder for me
- Our blue-collar workers won’t use the technology
- Our employees aren’t sophisticated enough to leverage the tools
Forgive me for saying so, and with all due respect, but “Blah, blah, blah.” I am not a digital native, and I seem to have acclimated just fine, as have my septuagenarian parents, many of my peers, lots of blue-collar workers and folks with all kinds of education levels.* People are exploring and using these technologies in their personal lives with increasing frequency, and they have begun to expect to interact with others in similar ways at work. As I discussed in part 3 of the primer, for most organizations it’s not a question of IF they will start to use social media, but WHEN. Eventually, everyone will be using these technologies in one way or another. The current characteristics of an organization’s stakeholders may mean they’ll be later adopters, but they will adopt. And given the speed at which the technologies are spreading, the sooner organizations start preparing for that day, the better.
What matters more than workforce characteristics is access to technology. Organizations can provide access to relevant social media platforms through kiosks or work stations in break rooms and other central areas. Employees can also access them from home, which for communications that have a whole family focus (e.g., benefits administration, disease management and wellness programs), can be more important than workplace access.
Technological sophistication is also important. Employees need to understand how the technologies and platforms work so they can use them in the most efficient and effective manner possible. If an organization’s workers are not technologically sophisticated, the interfaces need to be simple and user friendly, and/or the organization needs to provide the necessary training.
*To get a sense of social media’s demographic realities, check out these sources:
- Brian Solis's State of Social Media around the World
- Pingdom's reports on age demographics and gender demographics
- Examples of how “blue-collar” groups are leveraging social media
Factors that Matter More Than You Think
Though people tend to focus on organizational demographics in their efforts to assess whether and how to move forward with social media initiatives, they tend to underestimate the cultural values that determine whether these initiatives are appropriate and how successful they’ll be. Here are some of the values that should drive organizational leaders’ decisions about leveraging social media.
• Accessing information and resources quickly and easily
• Responding to questions and issues in a timely manner
• Carrying out job duties with fewer disruptions and slow downs
• Individual, group, and organizational effectiveness
• Producing higher quality work
• Providing better service for both internal and external “customers”
• Creating and using higher quality information and resources
• Accessing subject matter experts and other resources when facing new challenges
• Enhanced communication and collaboration within and across groups, as well as with external stakeholders
• Productivity and financial performance
• Producing more output for the same input
• Increasing revenues
• Decreasing expenses
• Continuous improvement
• Openness to change
• Willingness to experiment
Human Capital and Communication Values
• Employee engagement
• Open, two-way communication
• Talent management
• Honesty and transparency
For examples of how these values get manifested through social media technologies, see parts 2 and 3 of the primer:
These values are obviously not unique to social media, and that’s part of the point. Leveraging social media should be part and parcel of an organization’s sound management principles. As new tools for doing old things, they should be integrated into the work an organization is already doing rather than being viewed as separate initiatives.
Most organizational leaders would agree that all these values are important. But as with any initiative, the leaders have to be able to enact these values, not just espouse them. In other words, they have to be prepared to walk their talk. If they’re not, the impact in a social media context will be much more severe than it would be if these technologies were not in play. The public and viral nature of social media exposes weaknesses, failures, and hypocrisies much more clearly and rapidly than may have been the case in the past.
The fact that the stakes are much higher in the digital age doesn’t mean organizational leaders should hesitate to move forward. As I discussed in part 3 of the primer, they don’t have the luxury of that particular vote. The vulnerability exists with or without their active engagement, so it’s in their best interests to prepare themselves and their organizations for the shifts in power and control that social media has enabled. The sooner they embrace these values on social media terms, the more successful they’ll be.
The Factor that Matters Most of All
The single factor that trumps all others, and the factor that must be considered first, is an organization’s strategic goals and objectives. I'm not talking about generic, “no duh” objectives like “We want more customers” or “We want to make more money.” Those are givens. What organizational leaders have to do is unpack those ideas and identify in more specific terms what they mean in the context of factors such as their organizational mission, their values, key stakeholders, and the competitive landscape in which they operate (even non-profits compete).
Currently, social media tactics are being over-emphasized relative to strategy. I’ll address the challenges that a tactical approach creates and provide guidelines for taking a more strategic approach to social media initiatives in future issues of the primer. For now, as always, I welcome your feedback on the ideas I’ve shared so far.