As the momentum around social business grows, it’s fascinating to watch it challenging so many existing assumptions about what we can and should be able to do in the workplace, and testing views on what should be private and what should be shared. While from a business strategy perspective, it seems perfectly reasonable – and indeed advantageous – to want to open up communications across the organisation, to move away from traditional, stovepiped, departmental pockets towards an environment where organisational knowledge is shared freely, this often throws up major challenges and objections from management and staff, largely through a tendency towards resistance to change.
Those in management sometimes worry that opening up the communication channels in this way will cause mayhem, allowing the “niggles” that have been bothering people to be aired on a much wider stage, prompting a backlash that is much more powerful through weight of numbers. However, much more common is simply the fear that public social communications channels stir in people, and this is one of the biggest cultural challenges that faces social collaboration adoption in business – and is also one of the reasons that laissez-faire viral strategies are not enough in themselves. And this is where it comes back to the issue of privacy – and a sense of security or control. Because for those who are not “naturals” to the whole social software thing, or those who are naturally more introverted, the prospect of posting your thoughts or opinions in an open group environment is a daunting thing – just like standing up in a large room full of people to express your opinion. Unless you are sure that the audience will be supportive and encouraging, rather than contradictory and nit-picking, there will always be the fear that you will be shot down in flames, or shown to not know what you are talking about. With email-based communication of course, there is a much greater sense of control – while you might feel comfortable sharing a controversial or perhaps unsupported opinion in a one-to-one email exchange with a colleague, or even in a larger group discussion, you in essence see it as a private conversation. While there is the possibility that the recipient(s) of your email could forward it on if they wanted to (and without your knowledge or consent), we trust that that won’t happen. In an open forum, there is much greater need to be diplomatic, to be aware that you don’t necessarily know the people who are reading your message, and what their perspective or point of view might be.
Of course, this is exactly the cultural change that we want to effect through implementing social collaboration – to help people overcome this fear of being open, and to encourage people to not only have the confidence to ask for others’ opinions, but also to respect other people’s points of view, and recognise that everyone has their own role to play, and their own set of valuable skills to contribute to the whole. So how do you effect this change? This is something I’ve written about in my reports on How to build a collaborative culture, but one of the best approaches is to show rather than tell people what they need to do – we naturally copy the behaviours of those around us, and so while top-down communications and education can help to clarify the reasons for the initiative and what it is intended to achieve in terms of the goals for the organisation and the benefits for the individual, having strong management participation at all levels (simple “buy-in” is not enough) and commitment to communicating in a more open and inclusive way, will help give staff the confidence to experiment. It is of course still a long haul process; people change at different rates, and if you have a very conservative organisation the effort involved will clearly be much greater, but the key is to see this as a long-term investment in the organisation, not a quick-win solution.
Have you found this to be a major challenge in your organisation? How have you approached it? Please use the comments thread below to share your thoughts.