Your Company’s REAL Social Software

    By: Larry Marturano on Jun 28, 2011

    Browsing the programs at Enterprise 2.0 and the PDMA’s own Conference on Social Product Development and Co-Creation, it’s obvious that the collective opinion on enterprise social media is pretty bullish. A cottage industry has emerged selling the benefits of collaboration among your employees—and also selling you the social software to make it all happen. Social CRM, online communities, video sharing, social file sharing, blogging platforms, enterprise messaging… social this, 2.0 that. The list of companies selling social business applications is pretty long and impressive.

    To be sure, there are a few visible enterprise social media champions, like IBM, who are reaping real value from the movement. For most companies, though, the jury is still out. A lot of them are still struggling to figure out exactly how to integrate social product development and collaboration tools into their businesses.

    Even though I’m an avid social media user, I can’t join the Enterprise 2.0 cheerleading squad. Call me a curmudgeon, but I think Enterprise 2.0 is probably equal parts salvation and snake oil.

    In my own experience working with clients across a range of industries, too many companies take a “Field of Dreams” mentality to it: just deploy the software and our workers will collaborate. Silos will crumble. Decisions will get made faster. Revenue will increase. But in many cases, we build it and no one comes.

    Why? There are certainly some well-discussed factors: unfamiliarity with the technology, especially with older workers (read: “older than 30”), lack of compatibility with the company’s existing business processes and technical platforms, lack of training, and lack of executive support. But I think none of these are the major reason social media fails to deliver in many enterprises. The issue goes beyond the IT group, or tools, or training.

    The big thing we miss is that the real social software of a company has nothing to do with electronics.

    It’s about the nature of collaboration itself—what a company’s culture says about how discussion is handled, and how decisions are made.

    It’s easier to roll out Yammer than it is to deal with these deeper issues. But companies whose cultures don’t encourage discussion and productive conflict in decision making—in other words, who don’t handle real life collaboration well—don’t stand a chance of benefitting from the virtual version that social media enables. Just implementing software to allow employees to “talk to each other” or “share ideas” doesn’t by itself affect the motivation for employees to really collaborate, give them permission do so, or help them feel like anyone will really listen. In many cases where enterprise social media tools “fail” to deliver, the software itself has little to do with the real issues.

    No, high quality collaboration depends not on software, but on high quality human conversation. In their classic book Execution, Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy call this “robust dialog.” People enter discussions with open minds. They express their genuine opinions and engage in discussion—sometimes heated—and arrive at decisions based on data. They operate on informality and are comfortable expressing dissent, even to superiors. And once decisions are made, people get busy executing them without repeatedly debating the same issue over and over.

    But too often we experience the opposite. Conversations are stilted and overly politicized in gate reviews, design meetings and other venues where important development decisions need to be made. Some people dance around the real issues and take anything resembling a disagreement “offline.” Others, by autocratic rule or by simple browbeating, let it be known that the decisions are already made and are being decreed, not discussed. In many cases, interpersonal quarrels are allowed to ruin decision making sessions. In these environments politics flourishes, collaboration within teams suffers and between functions or divisions, it’s almost impossible.

    When these behaviors are the norm, it’s difficult for social collaboration software to really have an impact—if your company doesn’t support high quality conversation in person, no wiki, online community or messaging application is going to help you.

    Many times a culture of robust dialog starts at the top, but what can you do to encourage real collaboration if you’re not in the C-suite? I’ve found two techniques useful in my own experience and in my work with clients. You might not be able to change your corporate culture overnight, but you can do your part to move it in the right direction.

    • Got data?

    One reason real conversation suffers is a fear of conflict. Teams often get burned arguing personalities rather than issues and so learn to fear real collaboration. Especially in the front end of development, I’ve found it helps to have relevant and actionable data available. Customer and competitor data is especially useful here—market and competitive research, and especially real data about customers’ behaviors, attitudes and use of products. Encourage your teams to support their arguments with data instead of with force of personality.

    I discovered the power of customer data in a past life as an engineer. I was working with an especially argumentative team defining requirements for a new system management product, and I was becoming exasperated at how much time was being wasted retreating to organizational silos because of interpersonal squabbles. In desperation, I papered the walls of our team room with printouts of all of the customer data models that we had collected. In the next elicitation session, I said nothing, just had the team read what was on the walls. When we resumed, I had them justify every requirement with something from the customer data. It wasn’t a cure-all, but it did help this team focus their discussion on reality—and not on the personalities or what organization they were from.

    • Find your court jester

    Funny shoes, pointy hat, playful antics… everyone knows the court jester as the comic relief in the king’s court. But court jesters actually had a more serious role as well—they often provided important counsel to the king, saying what everyone else in the court was thinking, often directly criticizing the monarch’s decisions. As the “fool” the jester was the only one who could give this advice and criticism and still save his head. And the king could consider alternative opinions and still save face. It was a relationship that worked.

    In too many of our modern organizations, it’s also risky to speak truth to power, and so opinions—and people—are excluded from discussion and decision making. But you can recreate the jester’s function without the funny hat.

    One idea is to sanction a “minority report,” a dissenting opinion that gets put on the agenda at portfolio reviews, gate reviews, strategy reviews—any meeting where important decisions are made where you need real debate. Allowing explicit air time for opposing or alternative ideas ensures that they’re at least heard, and they often embolden those who would otherwise remain silent to speak up. Long term, this encourages real collaboration by demonstrating inclusiveness. In my tenure at Motorola during the 1980s and 1990s, I saw minority reports that ranged from hysterically satirical to passionately angry, and in at least one case, have a major and very profitable impact on corporate strategy.

    Jim Collins offers the “Red Flag” idea in Good to Great. The red flag is a way for employees to bring an important issue to attention—anything from speaking up in important meetings to shutting down a production line. Collins describes how one company asked its customers to pay their invoices short if they were dissatisfied. Red Flag mechanisms ensure that everyone’s opinion matters. In such a culture, employees are more apt to share suggestions and ideas, and collaborate across boundaries.

    What about your company? Have you implemented an Enterprise 2.0 strategy without the results you’d hoped? Are the internal online communities sparsely populated and people still not sharing real information and ideas? Look at your face to face interactions. If your real life meetings are boring because conflict is taboo, nothing ever changes at reviews, or the messenger gets shot too often, maybe your company’s REAL social software needs some tuning first.

    - by Larry Marturano, Director, Chicago Office at InContext Design.
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