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Is Bureaucracy the Enemy of Social Media?

18 Comments 21 January 2010

Image courtesy of Dunechaser

The culture of the social media-savvy company is the opposite of the culture of bureaucracy. Bureaucratic companies lose agility, ability to make immediate decisions, become wedded to old customs and routines, and sometime…lose the ability to innovate. (Think: US car companies. GM, anyone?)

Organizations become more bureaucratic as they become more complex, expand geographically, and need more accountability and reporting. A culture of openness throughout the company is often replaced with a culture of secrets and fear. Processes become cemented. Many approvals are necessary to create any new ideas. New ideas are easily dismissed as unnecessary or too risky. For a great example of this, read about “The Incompetence of American Airlines and Fate of Mr. X.” It’s not limited to for-profit institutions, either. I’ve had nonprofit clients with processes just as unwieldy as those described above.

And how do organizations like that implement social media? They “silo” social media to the hands of the very few, do not take risks, do not personalize engagement, are afraid of critique, shut down employee social media initiatives, and cannot add new social media platforms without many layers of approval. Yikes.

Here is a radical idea: It’s not that the company is excessively bureaucratic. It’s that the company won’t change.

If your company is scared of change, scared of transparency, scared of critique, and unwilling to change, its efforts will, in fact, fail. This type of company’s social media efforts will be compressed into the least interesting, least engaging tactics possible. Without ever producing any return on investment. (But you are probably not reading my blog. Maybe your employees are…)

The social media savvy company is agile, creative, willing to take risks, transparent (or at least transparent in its use of social media), interested in customer feedback, eager to listen, and can make rapid decisions when necessary. This sounds a lot like a young company’s culture. doesn’t it? It doesn’t have to be.

I don’t think that only young companies, or hierarchically flat companies, can effectively use social media. Zappos is the common example held up of the large company that embraces social media. Their company culture is young, open, interested in change, and very customer-oriented. Best Buy, the largest US retailer of electronics, beautifully embraced social media in 2009 and is really successful at it. The American Red Cross integrated social media to help them meet their programmatic goals and mission.

You work at one of these institutions. You want to help your company change. The key is a change in corporate culture, along with some shifts in bureaucracy. How?

A few suggestions:

  • Start with education.  Offer training to the entire staff about what social media is, why it works, how it can help the company better fulfill its mission.
  • Create a social media team that represents many different departments. Make sure it includes real decision-makers on the team.
  • Insist that everyone in the company receive reports summarizing online mentions, the social media team’s major activities and goalposts, and its upcoming activities.
  • Periodically, hold company-wide trainings about social media.
  • Ask that employees be allowed to participate individually. Start small, with members of the core team. Expand.
  • Secure a six-month commitment. Nothing long-term – but long-term enough to show that it isn’t scary, or the end of the company. It’s also enough time to show quantifiable results.

What are your suggestions? Have you faced these issues at your organization?


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  • Great thoughts here Debra.

    I’ve found that if a company has a culture that embraces learning for all and embraces taking calculated risks, they will be able to adopt some social media strateiges easily. If however they are as you described, “scared of change, scared of transparency, scared of critique, and unwilling to change,” that culture runs deep and employees are in a “survivor mentality” trying to keep their job. In those cases, unless there is a major change in leadership at the top, it’s doubtful that the Titanic can make changes to its course.

    [Reply]

    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Jeff – I actually have worked with two nonprofit associations that fit this bill. It took a champion within the organization to get them to begin considering it, and to decide to work with an outside professional on strategy. That said, having an insider champion just hasn’t been enough. The organizations are just too wedded to “the old way” of approvals and closed doors and tightly-held PR. The insider team feels that they aren’t getting the support or recognition that they need to continue championing, and I can say that personally, it even wears down the consultant.
    This blog post was written with my experience in mind. I feel like some of the beginner steps would begin to make inroads and help those champions to educate from within.

    However, I also know that the Titanic doesn’t really change its course. What will? I think social media adoption is inevitable in the corporate sector, but some nonprofits feel immune to it. What will convince them?

    [Reply]

  • Great thoughts here Debra.

    I’ve found that if a company has a culture that embraces learning for all and embraces taking calculated risks, they will be able to adopt some social media strateiges easily. If however they are as you described, “scared of change, scared of transparency, scared of critique, and unwilling to change,” that culture runs deep and employees are in a “survivor mentality” trying to keep their job. In those cases, unless there is a major change in leadership at the top, it’s doubtful that the Titanic can make changes to its course.

    [Reply]

    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Jeff – I actually have worked with two nonprofit associations that fit this bill. It took a champion within the organization to get them to begin considering it, and to decide to work with an outside professional on strategy. That said, having an insider champion just hasn’t been enough. The organizations are just too wedded to “the old way” of approvals and closed doors and tightly-held PR. The insider team feels that they aren’t getting the support or recognition that they need to continue championing, and I can say that personally, it even wears down the consultant.
    This blog post was written with my experience in mind. I feel like some of the beginner steps would begin to make inroads and help those champions to educate from within.

    However, I also know that the Titanic doesn’t really change its course. What will? I think social media adoption is inevitable in the corporate sector, but some nonprofits feel immune to it. What will convince them?

    [Reply]

  • Oh man does this hit the nail on the head–bureaucrats vs. change-embracers!

    Your suggestions are right, and I think education and starting small are key. Even if the education takes the form of examples, mini-teaches at staff meetings, and pointing to other org’s successes, it’s definitely okay if they’re from the ground up–leading by example!

    [Reply]

    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Heidi- thanks for the support! I like calling the education “mini-teaches” – because the intention IS to start small. Also great to point to others’ success. In fact, doing that did convince one nonprofit that I know of to start using social media.

    [Reply]

  • Great Post Debra!

    I think this is part of a bigger picture. Social media is one obvious symptom. Companies that do not adapt as the pace of change in our society quickens, fail.

    Social media with all its aspects is a great tool to help companies deal with this especially when it comes to relatively inexpensive market research (“listening”) and the ability to respond quickly – be that in a blog post, a shift in messaging or even improvements and innovations in their core products/services.

    Had Sony been “listening” we might all have an innovated walkman instead of an ipod.

    [Reply]

    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Charlie- Awesome example with Sony vs. iPod! Good way of selling social media is the listening – it does usually convince a company to get into the game once they hear that others are already talking about the company/brand online…without them. That’s a great educational tool to add. Thanks for the comment!

    [Reply]

  • Great Post Debra!

    I think this is part of a bigger picture. Social media is one obvious symptom. Companies that do not adapt as the pace of change in our society quickens, fail.

    Social media with all its aspects is a great tool to help companies deal with this especially when it comes to relatively inexpensive market research (“listening”) and the ability to respond quickly – be that in a blog post, a shift in messaging or even improvements and innovations in their core products/services.

    Had Sony been “listening” we might all have an innovated walkman instead of an ipod.

    [Reply]

    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Charlie- Awesome example with Sony vs. iPod! Good way of selling social media is the listening – it does usually convince a company to get into the game once they hear that others are already talking about the company/brand online…without them. That’s a great educational tool to add. Thanks for the comment!

    [Reply]

  • Hi Debra –

    Great blog post.

    I agree bureaucracy is a major hurdle when it comes to organizations designing and implementing a social media strategy. In my opinion, I don’t really fault these organizations for this bureaucracy.

    Sometimes social media fails because of one or two individuals that serve as detracts or gatekeeper rather than the whole bureaucracy of an organization.

    I believe that someday in the future social media will not just become a budget line item (like paid search advertising) but it will be part of a larger corporate culture within organizations.

    Once again – great post
    Keep up the conversation.

    [Reply]

  • Hi Debra –

    Great blog post.

    I agree bureaucracy is a major hurdle when it comes to organizations designing and implementing a social media strategy. In my opinion, I don’t really fault these organizations for this bureaucracy.

    Sometimes social media fails because of one or two individuals that serve as detracts or gatekeeper rather than the whole bureaucracy of an organization.

    I believe that someday in the future social media will not just become a budget line item (like paid search advertising) but it will be part of a larger corporate culture within organizations.

    Once again – great post
    Keep up the conversation.

    [Reply]

  • Great post Debra. Fully agree with everything you have said and noted your suggestions. If anything, it has to definitely start with education around social media – especially from personal experience (though not NGO focused) – and start implementing your suggestions from there.

    Definitely moving the social media/communication forward with my Marketing Director at the NGO, I’ve been actively involved with, even if it’s taken 2 years of slow change from their side.

    [Reply]

  • Great post Debra. Fully agree with everything you have said and noted your suggestions. If anything, it has to definitely start with education around social media – especially from personal experience (though not NGO focused) – and start implementing your suggestions from there.

    Definitely moving the social media/communication forward with my Marketing Director at the NGO, I’ve been actively involved with, even if it’s taken 2 years of slow change from their side.

    [Reply]

  • Pingback: e.politics: online advocacy tools & tactics » Quick Hits — January 27, 2010()

  • Oh man does this hit the nail on the head–bureaucrats vs. change-embracers!

    Your suggestions are right, and I think education and starting small are key. Even if the education takes the form of examples, mini-teaches at staff meetings, and pointing to other org's successes, it's definitely okay if they're from the ground up–leading by example!

    [Reply]

    Debra Askanase Reply:

    Heidi- thanks for the support! I like calling the education “mini-teaches” – because the intention IS to start small. Also great to point to others’ success. In fact, doing that did convince one nonprofit that I know of to start using social media.

    [Reply]

  • Pingback: 5 Communication Hacks to Bust Bureaucracy - The HR Gazette()

About

Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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