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.”