Which comes first social media or social media culture?

For me, one of the more fascinating aspects of social media is the impact it has had on our culture. Depending on how you look at it, social media has either revolutionized communication, or made it easier to do what we did 100 years ago.

What IS different is how social media has created a set of values we no longer seem willing to live without. Transparency. Collaboration. Social media culture is more about “using” social media or “doing” social media.  Say what you will,  social media and social media values have changed everything in our collective human culture. And business is no exception. But businesses have several cultures to contend with, including their own.

A recent study by Deloitte examines the impact of social media and corporate culture. Maybe one of the biggest findings in the research is the fact that executives see that social media has an impact on corporate culture, but employees see it less so. It is ironic that we’re seeing more support for the ideals behind social media from executives than by employees. In particular, 38% of executives thought that a social media presence led to greater transparency, while only 17% of employees agreed. This really stood out for me. I recently did an internal survey for a large company which showed tremendous support from executives, but less enthusiasm from staff.

Why is this?

Cultural and Strategic Disconnect

I think it boils down to the disconnect Execs see between corporate culture and strategy. So while its important to consider strategy, its also important to consider how that strategy will be implemented and whether corporate culture will support it. I’ve seen this in my own social media practice over and over; as Sandy Carter of IBM puts it: “culture eats strategy for lunch.”  Just as businesses are learning that social media works best when it isn’t siloed to a single department for execution of strategy, this survey shows how businesses who incorporate the culture of social media (referred to often as “social business“)  into their culture succeed on numerous levels, including the almighty profitability metric.

One would think that the culture of social would be embraced by employees. Why would staff be less enthusiastic? Isn’t social media grass roots? Well, social media IS grass roots, but I think the average employee doesn’t embrace social media at their own company for many reasons. Part of it is disruption and the general discomfort with change. Something else I see over and over is the fact that in most businesses today, most employees are feeling the burden of layoffs and doing the job of those departed as well as their own. The idea of taking on another project or layer seems daunting to much of the rank and file of businesses today. But as importantly, the resistance occurs when the culture doesn’t support social values. Social media is incredibly hard to do at a company that doesn’t embrace social values. Imagine if you had to get three or four layers of approval before doing a Facebook post. Ugh. I’d be less than enthusiastic too. But companies who embrace transparency and openness don’t need these layers, they educate and empower their employees – and provide them with clear guidelines which support empowerment. Empowerment is very different than control. Control is paternalistic, suffocating, obscure, the exact opposite of empowerment which is collaborative, open and illuminating.

And as importantly, when and how did Execs start leading the social media charge? Well, for one, it is the job of Execs to look forward and they are seeing that social media is no longer a fad. Not to mention, there are finally case studies in every single industry, for every size business for successful use of social media. But what most of those case studies don’t examine, is how a company internally prepared for social media and that preparation’s impact on social media success. Simply having a social strategy just isn’t enough. The best examples integrate social values throughout the organization.

The solution is to integrate social media internally as well as externally. Some businesses, including newer or smaller businesses don’t need a lot of internal preparation for social media. But larger businesses, government agencies and regulated industries do need to consider the internal aspect first.  The internal aspect should focus on communication and training with an emphasis on transparency and collaboration.

How to implement social culture?

Executives have to lead the social media revolution from within their organization, by implementing social values of increased internal transparency, customer centricity, two-way conversation  internally first. This is the heart of the social media revolution for businesses; it changes everything. Those businesses  that incorporate social values internally, will ease into the next phases of customer communication, because the communication will come naturally to their staff.  They’ll worry less about what their employees are saying on their Facebook pages, because they will have empowered and excited their best advocates: their staff. Companies who embrace social values find that implementing social strategy isn’t based on platforms – its based on the values. When social values are in place, so many things fall in line.

Examine the differences between two of the world’s most dynamic companies, Apple and Google, through the lens of employment and you’ll see the differences between implementing social values and not. Google, at its heart is a social company (despite what you think about Google+). It does more than innovate – it gives back. It experiments. And it empowers. As seen through the lens of working at Google, its about more than just perks.  This is a company who does a tremendous amount of research and not all of it is available for public consumption. But when it is – they encourage and empower their staff to share it with their own social circles.  Compare that with Apple who has no social presence and whose culture of secrecy is well documented. And consider Apple’s failed attempt at social, Ping, social network for music.  Could it be that Ping failed because social is the antithesis of what Apple is as a culture?  One company is social, the other, is not. Social is not about great food – its about empowerment over secrecy. Its about sharing and two-way communication. Its about finding ways to give first. Social is about openness and inviting collaboration. Not every business can go to the lengths that these two companies do, but in their own ways, businesses of all sizes have the choice to implement one of these two cultures. Choose wisely.

Culture Leads to Strategy

“Leadership changes and evolving marketplace conditions can significantly impact business strategy,” continues Renjen. “To be an exceptional organization in today’s business climate, organizations must articulate, invest in, and nurture workplace culture now more than ever.  If properly supported, it will transcend any environmental shifts, and serve as the foundation for organizational sustainability and growth.”

Its not easy to create corporate culture and its even harder to change it. But it can be done. Much like implementing social media, it takes commitment and collaboration from multiple departments including human resources, communication and marketing and the C-suite actionable leadership. Thoughtful leadership will lead to better strategy, which leads to better execution and more success. For those who say its hard to implement cultural change in an era where there is so much instability in business, I say: this is exactly when you should do it. Rip the bandaid off and prepare for the next phase of growth. Get ready, because consumers are already demanding change.

We’re seeing a shift – the C-suite philosophically sees the value in utilizing social media, but they still aren’t implementing these values in culture. And that is the source of the disconnect.

Do you agree with this assessment of businesses using social media? Do your favorite case studies also seem to embrace social values internally?