The challenge of social tools in ‘old’ industries

At a recent Webinar hosted by the Enterprise 2.0 conference, I talked about my experience applying social tools in a pharmaceutical, manufacturing environment (that of Teva Canada). A number of questions were asked about the challenges these tools face with the ‘incumbent’ culture. The pharmaceutical industry is known for its conservative environment and bringing to the workplace the new habits of the social enterprise has numerous challenges. My experience can be summarized as follows:

  1. In a typical functional organization of significant size, there is overwhelming consensus that an open, collaborative community is a healthy way of overcoming the obstacles of groups ‘hidden’ in corporate ghettos (a.k.a. silos) and the frustrations from fragmented processes and lack of speed in getting issues resolved
  2. At the core of the enterprise where the ‘rubber hits the road’ and things get done, there are groups that are highly prone to collaborate – they are the early adopters
  3. Around that core, there are more peripheral groups who can afford to continue tucked in their cocoons because they are not in the ‘heat’ of the action. These include Finance, Legal, sometimes IT and, unfortunately, Senior Executives. The farther away from the core, the more likely they are of ‘ducking’ adoption of an open community environment
  4. Invariably, groups with highly specialized skills offer resistance. It appears that collaboration is viewed as a nuisance to their self-sufficiency.
  5. Baby boomers who have mature careers and have been successful in the past have a lot of trouble jumping into new tools and new habits. Going past email and the Blackberry can be a challenge. Senior Managers who are accustomed to structured meetings, who learned in the 80’s and 90’s to conduct a ‘proper meeting’ with agendas, minutes, action items and follow-up protocols, have a really hard time adopting social networking. This stands to reason – managing through calendars and meetings is a slow, inefficient way of running a business where reality is slowed down and issues are batched and queued into scattered points in time. Collaborative communities, on the other hand, work in “now mode”- it’s happening now, deal with it now! Moving from one culture to another can be as difficult as going from an agricultural society to the industrial era; or, in this case, from driving a VW Beetle to driving a Ferrari – for some, it’s overwhelming!
  6. Naturally, Gen Xers and Gen Yers are the easiest to adopt highly dynamic communities interacting with life in real-time. For people who “get” social, they are also the most fun to work with.
If you have been around Social Enterprise concepts for a while, even if you have just read about it and didn’t actual experience it, none of the above points should surprise you. Changing a culture of functional silos, large meetings, and slow decision-making, can be excruciatingly frustrating. I draw comfort from the fact that at the core, where the real action happens, it’s not too hard; and from the fact that the overwhelming majority of people we hire today and in the years ahead are Gen Yers. As that demographic penetrates the workforce, these forms of resistance will quickly become a non-factor.
As I sometimes say: extinction sometimes is a choice. And those who choose not to change, will perish – as inevitably as Pony Express did with the Telegraph; horses with cars; sea-travel with air-travel; the old IBM with Microsoft; Britannica with Wikipedia; the palmtop with the smart phone; old Newspapers with the blogosphere; and the old entertainment industry is gradually fading away to make room for personalized entertainment of the Netflix, iTunes and Spotify of this world.

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