Social Networks in the Enterprise – why is it so hard?…

The % of companies that report success implementing social media in Operations – i.e., at the core of the Enterprise – was the same in 2014 as in 2011 – about 30%. Why? Facebook is probably the information technology with the fastest and broadest penetration in our society – ever! It reached 50M people in just 3 years. It is now used daily by more people than the population of India. Why is it that something that was so easily accepted by our society is so hard to accept by business operations?

This question is puzzling to me but after several years of trying to implement social models in the workplace, I am starting to understand exactly why this the case. Following, I will share what I’ve learned in the hope this will help others achieve success in this area.


I should mention here that all my personal experiences using social models in the workplace have been in the Pharmaceutical industry. In this industry, all the organizations I know are organized in Functional Hierarchies – just as the majority of companies in what may be called ‘old industries’. Thus, please consider this context as I describe my experience.

A very key distinction

I have mentioned a number of times that a Functional Hierarchy is anti-collaboration, i.e., its characteristics make it unsuitable for people to collaborate intimately and dynamically in the workplace. There are specific reasons why this is so and those are the same reasons why Social Models are meeting with so much resistance. These reasons are not logical – every single time that I presented or held workshops on Social Models, the majority of people agreed with the advantages of Social Models. No, these reasons have nothing to do with logic.

There is one aspect of social models that many people don’t realize and that has surfaced clearly to me only in recent times.

  • In a social model, people work in communities. Communities are groups of individuals of diverse skill sets where the focus of the group is not functional (i.e., it’s not Marketing or Operations or Quality or Finance); instead, the focus of the group is a goal or objective or mission (e.g. maintain high service levels; keep cycle times short; remove obstacles from the Operation; etc).
  • People who are part of a community do their work in the community. In other words,
    • You don’t come to the community when you have questions and issues and then go back to your Department and your cubicle.
    • You are always in the community. That is where you work, within that community. You are never working alone, you are always working together with other people.

It is this aspect of “working in the community” that makes it so hard for social models to penetrate traditional functional hierarchies.

Silos and cubicles

In a Functional Hierarchy, people work in Departments (Silos) and therefore people work alone. It took me a while to figure this out but it’s true: within a Department where everybody has similar skill sets, there is little reason to collaborate. Sure, people can socialize and get along but do they work together on the same thing? Usually, within the same Department, individuals work in different events – different Customers, different Products, different Suppliers, different Material Types, etc. Thus, there is little reason to collaborate. Collaboration is needed across Departments – the other people working on the same Product or Customers or Supplier, etc.

This ‘isolation’ that characterizes work in a functional Silo is appealing to individuals because we are all ‘afflicted’ by the same ‘human defect’ – the Ego. The vast majority of the population is biased to self promotion and self preservation. It is therefore comforting to be able to think “this is what I do; this is my job; this is my Product or my Customers”. You go to your individual cubicle and you do your work.

There is a sense of control that comes from this individualistic setting that is both comforting and seductive. It is also less complicated than having to work with other people from other skill sets who think differently. It’s less ‘noisy’.

The #1 objection I hear when I conduct social model workshops is “how am I going to find time to go check the Feed [in a social media tool]?”. Every single time, every single company, there are always several people who raise that objection – immediately and inevitably. This reflex doesn’t come from a specific awareness of the amount of incremental work implied by using a social tool where many people are posting things. After all, these same people have pretty busy email inboxes. No, the reflex comes from the instinctive sense of noise – the ‘noise’ of hearing all these other people’s comments. It’s so much better when I go to my cubicle and I work in my stuff and nobody bothers me.

This preference for isolationism ‘covered up’ by workload is predominant in large organizations. That’s to be expected. If you walk 200 ft to work in a small village in the mountains of Nepal, it will take you longer to get there than if you walk 200 ft to work in Manhattan. In a small village we don’t tune out and so we greet and talk to everybody we pass on the way to our destination. In Manhattan, people tune out other people and don’t stop to talk to anybody or to notice anybody – our minds go into this ‘selfish’ tunnel and forget our surroundings – lest we run into sensory overload.

But as much as this cubicle-ism may be out of self-preservation, what is important is to realize that people actually favour working in their own cubicles where they control what they do than to work in a community where they are [perceive to be] at the mercy of ‘all these other people’ and their comments and their needs.

eMail and Calendars

Oh yes, Outlook is a big ‘enemy’ of social models and collaboration – for the same reason as with Silos and Cubicles. If you check the history of the internet, you will see that eMail had a pretty fast acceptance rate – and, of course, eMail was born in and made for the Enterprise. No problem accepting eMail in the workplace, right? Why is that? Ergonomically, Social Media feeds and eMail aren’t all that different. So why is that eMail got in so easily and social media doesn’t?

The reason is simple: the Inbox is a personal artifact that gives you a sense of privacy and control which, again, is comforting and seductive. Inboxes at work are always busy. Look at all the time people spend checking emails – at their desks, in meetings, at home, everywhere! The higher you go in the hierarchy, the busier your Inboxes. Yet, in my workshops, when people raise the concern for the time that social feeds will consume, not one of them mentions how much time they waste checking emails.

eMails then contribute to the attraction of the personal cubicle, the individual’s desk and work space. It is this personal nature of Inboxes that made it so easy for eMail to be adopted by the Enterprise. They also make it harder to get people out of those cubicles and that self-centred work mode to go out there and work in communities with other colleagues.

And what about Calendars? Again, Calendars feed into the individualistic nature of the work place. My calendar shows I’m busy so try another time. Calendars, by their very nature and purpose, invite the perpetuation of the ‘meeting’ as the only form of collaboration available in a workplace dominated by people working alone.

Calendars perpetuate meeting-thinking and therefore make it easy for people to continue to work in isolation. When you need other people, you call a meeting – easy! The problem is that meetings are actually anti-collaboration themselves because they don’t promote the idea of working together. Meetings are what I call ‘hit and runs’. You go there, you mingle and then you go back to your desk. There’s no community in a world of meetings, just occasional events where you are mixed with people of other areas for a few minutes or a few hours.

The meeting mindset also makes it difficult for people to understand what it means to work in community. Since they are used to thinking in ‘hit and run’ more, they also think that they go to the community to ask or answer a few questions and then they go back to their desks. And that, my friends, does not work!

So… What can you do?

I’m going to assume, of course, that if you are reading this posting is because you are at least interested in exploring social models and you’ve somehow concluded that there are enormous advantages in adopting this form of work – and there really are!

Communities make everything far, far easier for Senior Managers and Leaders – even though the latter are often the main cause of resistance. Communities are self-managed, they require less time from Leaders, issues are caught and resolved as they occur, there is no accumulation, Leaders have more time to strategize  and plan broadly instead of being constantly sucked into operational details. Communities are far more cost effective than functional hierarchies, people spend substantially less energy to achieve results than they do in a functional model. In the social model, there is little need to coordinate and to handle cross departmental issues – less meetings, less energy.

The things that can be done to move towards a social model and overcome the resistance to the latter from the functional hierarchy are actually simple and yet hard.

Teach people to work together

Let’s face it – egos are a bitch! So, don’t just bring in social media; don’t even start with workshops to implement communities. The first thing you have to do is develop the habit – and indeed the culture – of people working together.

People in the organization have to get out of their cubicles and feel comfortable with the idea of working together with people from other skill groups on a permanent basis. To accomplish this, you have to conduct activities that foster that understanding.

Develop objectives together – accomplish them together

The first thing you should start with is to stop MBO’s by department – move to horizontal MBO’s; preach this fundamental principle:

Anything significant that we do for our customers always involves more than one department.

Thus, what a single department can accomplish alone is not significant for our customers.

Draw Objectives based on what customers see, on what they understand and what you promise those customers. Empower teams of individuals from multiple disciplines to define those objectives and to draft the action plans that will accomplish them.

Then, establish monitoring exercises where the same teams review progress towards those goals frequently.

Start with middle management

The group of people who, by far, influences cultural change – or resistance to change – is always the same: middle managers – Directors, Managers, Supervisors – them!

So, this idea of cross-functional MBO’s has to start there. Conduct lots of workshops, moderated by skilled experts, where middle managers have to develop objectives and figure out how to accomplish them together. Walk away from Departmental objectives so that they have no choice but to work together. Then, make them nominate operational teams of people working for them who will detail actions plans.

In doing this, make sure these collective MBO’s are central to the Enterprise. I.e., don’t make them optional and remote. Make sure they target improvements and results that are mission critical so that they grab the attention of employees who would normally be driven to individualistic thinking. And make sure the objectives are broad, i.e., they blanket everything the Enterprise does.

Begin with MBO-based Communities

As you progress in the path of collective objectives, you can naturally migrate to objective-centered communities. You just have to empower these communities to execute action plans and accomplish MBO’s. Again, make it a big deal. Don’t let these initiatives become peripheral. Make sure they are designed in a way that they are obviously and loudly central to the business plans of the Enterprise.

Implement social media but eliminate eMail and Calendars

This takes guts, it is probably scary for most people and yet, it is not as dramatic as you may think. From my point of view, having worked for so long on this topic and having made experiments myself, I would have absolutely no qualms about taking such an action.

It is completely incongruous and inconsistent to do everything above and leave email around. If you manage to get people to the point where they are almost always working in community mode, it is at that stage that social media will be welcome and needed. Once you’re there, you will see that removing email, no matter how much protest you hear, will not cause trouble.

Calendars are even more natural to get rid of. Once you’re in community mode, you don’t need meetings – you really don’t. Here’s a universal truth: even though most important unexpected issues in the Enterprise cause meetings with many people, the fact is that most of those issues could be resolved by 3-5 people. In other words, for any one issue, there are always 3-5 people somewhere in the Enterprise who could, together, make the decisions needed to resolve that one issue. However, they are not always the same mix of 3-5 skill sets and it’s not easy to find the right ones each time.

With communities working with social tools, as issues surface, the right 3-5 people spontaneously gravitate to each issue and resolve it. You simply don’t need meetings because things get resolved in now mode – it happens now, it gets solved now.

At most, a few individuals will need to get together to physically work on some stuff but that can be arranged without a Calendar.

eMail and Calendars are artifacts of yesterday. They were born from the Enterprise of the 1980’s. Tomorrow’s companies are very different from what was happening in the 70’s and 80’s. Getting rid of these artifacts would liberate the people of the organization to unleash the power of collaborative communities empowered to achieve mission critical objectives.

But you have to go step by step. Give time and space for people to learn to work together. Then, take these last – albeit drastic – steps.

One thing is for sure: unless you face head on the basic ingredients of the functional hierarchy and foster cultural change towards community-thinking, you will not succeed in implementing social models and therefore the tremendous benefits of the latter will escape you.

And keep this in mind: this thing will break through the 30% barrier… If it’s not you, it’ll be your competitors doing it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s