Corporate Antisocial Behavior: the Enemy is Us.

silencefailsThis bugaboo of a word “social” is the irritant with social software in the enterprise. Social just has too many negative connotations in corporate circles from socialism to socialites. I once heard from a Wall Street executive that he was no longer permitted to use the word “social” when describing 2.0 opportunities. It made senior management uncomfortable. Similarly, if there is more emphasis on social than networking, our clients raise the justifiable question of employee productivity. When we talk about collaboration and breaking down barriers with earnest information-sharing and knowledge harvesting, the conversation is more intriguing. But, realistically, can technologies engender cultural change? That is the $5 billion dollar question that will be answered over the next few years.

I heard recently from a manager at a large bank who is rolling out a corporate-wide social network to over 100K employees that the greatest challenge the bank is facing relates to change management, not any particular issue with the technology at all. Even the grand-daddy of Enterprise 2.0 case studies, DRKW, enlisted a consultant to shepherd adoption throughout the organization. ZDNet blogger and fellow Irregular Dennis Howlett recently posited that, “While the benefits of collaboration may be blindingly obvious and the path laid out on a platter, it is only by first understanding the absolute requirement for top down, wholesale DNA change that you stand a hope in hell of making these technologies work within the enterprise.”

At BSG, we recognize that these changes are going to be painful and slow for some large companies. In fact, we have research that proves just how ineffective organizations are when they’re not transparent and openly collaborative. My colleague Andy Shimberg led a major study last year that involved over 1,000 executives and project managers that analyzed over 2,200 projects. The net result was largely undiscussed and ignored problems underlie almost all project failures. Five primary areas were discovered that impeded success:

  • Fact-free planning– padding budgets, ignored estimates and timelines
  • AWOL sponsors– when leadership and support suddenly disappears
  • Skirting– work arounds, scope creep, projects approved with no resources
  • Project chicken– avoiding speaking first for fear of blame/retribution
  • Team failures– all participants have different masters, non-performing team members

Estimated failure rates ranging from 72 to 91%* cost companies hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Imagine the cost-savings corporations would realize if only these folks started communicating and collaborating and avoiding the harsh realities of “Silence Fails” outcomes? It’s just plain unrealistic. The technologies we had prior to web 2.0 would enable employees to “speak up.” Email, telephones, even notes passed under the door could have prevented huge cost overruns and errors, but technology– old or new– won’t fix these problems. When employees are economically linked to questioning authority, there is a downside to voluntary collaboration.

I shudder, but I do remember hearing this before. It was over a year ago we heard Enterprise 2.0-downer Davenport publish these remarks:

Such a utopian vision can hardly be achieved through new technology alone. The absence of participative technologies in the past is not the only reason that organizations and expertise are hierarchical. Enterprise 2.0 software and the Internet won’t make organizational hierarchy and politics go away. They won’t make the ideas of the front-line worker in corporations as influential as those of the CEO. Most of the barriers that prevent knowledge from flowing freely in organizations – power differentials, lack of trust, missing incentives, unsupportive cultures, and the general busyness of employees today – won’t be addressed or substantially changed by technology alone. For a set of technologies to bring about such changes, they would have to be truly magical, and Enterprise 2.0 tools fall short of magic.

As liberating as they may be, as fun as they may be, Enterprise 2.0 tools simply won’t change basic human nature. It will be a new opportunity for change management or perhaps business social process re-engineering that will enable these tools to deliver on their powerful capability for the enterprise.

*”CHAOS Chronicles,” Standish Group, 2004 and Kaplan and Norton in “The Strategy Focused Organization.”

Author: Susan Scrupski

Longtime fan of technology to improve humanity.

9 thoughts on “Corporate Antisocial Behavior: the Enemy is Us.”

  1. A most thought provoking post and set of comments. A tread seems to have emerged within some of the comments referring to individuals holding onto and using their knowledge as power. Many of our western societies are founded on the individual; however we are stronger together than as a set of individuals. Recently Toyota became the largest car manufacturer in the world in part because of the Japanese cultural attitude and absolute commitment the team. If we do not change management approaches to embrace and encourage individuals to work efficiently together the world will evolve around our existing firms. Much more is at stake here than some new software tools. Enterprise2.0 does give us a new opportunity to think about how we can change and work together as creative individuals and effective team members.

  2. Susan –

    I liked your post, and was most taken with the comment: “As liberating as they may be, as fun as they may be, Enterprise 2.0 tools simply won’t change basic human nature.”
    I agree.

    But, the good news is, humans are social. The bad news is – we also want to win. Be top dog, etc. Often this works against our desire to be social and collaborative.

    The challenge the organization is to find a way to encourage collaboration while recognizing that people are also competitive. This is a dilemma and not a problem to be solved. In other words, the tension between cooperation and competition will always be there. Too often, we try to pretend that both sides of the polarity constitute human nature.

    Rick Maurer (blog)

  3. Susan – this is a great article. E2.0 technologies are just tools, albeit useful ones. As with any useful tool, the E2.0 enable people to do something easier. The power of the E2.0 tools is that they enable average people to unlock the collaborative power of the global technology platform. While that itself is a very interesting and exciting end, it is not the end… The end is how will people use the E2.0 tools. What will they do that is different? What will they do that is the same, but do it more efficiently and more effectively? What will they be able to do that they could not do before? The power of mass collaboration and E2.0 starts with the power technology, but ends with the power of human innovation. That is the central thesis of the work of two other BSG colleagues, Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams. Layer on that the Silence Fails research which talks to how to execute projects that drive change through organization, and you have a methodology on how to bring the power of E2.0 to organizations to solve real business problems and unlock the power of mass collaboration.

  4. Good entry. I think you can add “moral hazard” as a potential barrier to meaningful collaboration, especially from the technical ranks. The “bargaining chip” for many engineers and scientists at different companies is their accrued knowledge, currently they have little to gain by providing knowledge to the overall employee base and everything to lose by “openness”. For them, it pays to be antisocial. So Enterprise 2.0 software is only one piece of the puzzle, just a tool. Much more in terms of “culture” needs to happen for many companies to have a truly collaborative business environment.

    After all, how much did open community help Gutenburg and his printing press?

  5. Great article Susan. There’s a growing shift in the conversation around E2.0 away from the technologies and onto the culture change that will unlock the value of social/networking systems. You would think that persuading the board about the merits of a more open, transparent culture isn’t too uphill a task, especially when you consider the alternative and the negative impact on the bottom line. Corporate rebranding would provide a great opportunity to kick-start social process re-engineering, though these do not happen with any regularity. For a more likely opportunity, any significant project that requires upfront change management and/or communication input (and to the converted, that would be all of them) could be the trojan mouse within which there’s a little magic.

    I have started to refer to social media as the ‘new web’ where appropriate with clients, btw, and would love to hat tip where I read it but can’t remember.

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