Culture Wars

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 07-13-2009 Print Email

Culture Wars

It's easy to imagine that a high-tech company like Cisco has a leg up in the emergent technology arena, but most firms face cultural barriers that impede adoption. Cisco, for its part, faced a highly skeptical group of engineers when it was still in the planning phase of its social media efforts.

And for organizations that have yet to implement even localized blogs and wikis, it's more likely a question of cultural issues than a lack of enthusiasm for new ways of sharing information, according to Marty Abbott, former CTO of eBay and a partner at AKF Partners Consulting, which advises companies it identifies as being on a "hyper-growth" trajectory. "My guess is that something in the company has killed those ideas," Abbott speculates. "The right focus is to find out why they haven't been implemented. It's very likely they were killed at the first level of management or because of some exhaustive budget process early on."

Projects get squashed for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the prevailing notion that surfing social networks and posting to blogs--internal or external--do not constitute "real work." Euan Semple, a London-based consultant who has worked with dozens of large companies on social software projects, says this disapproving attitude is increasingly being called into question. "People get stuff done through networks of people," Semple explains. "'Real work' for many people is writing a 40-page report that's stuck in a repository. This attitude is inhibiting companies from deploying more effective tools."

Then there's the fear that those publishing tools will emerge as digital soapboxes for disgruntled workers. Yes, says Semple, some will trip up, just as they did when e-mail was introduced, and the crowd they work with will say, "Hey, you're not playing by the rules."

The key, Semple advises, is mining the positive mess and noise, another concept antithetical to the typical large company. "Management has been about taking noise out of the system and looking manageable," he says. "But this environment is showing us you want noise and as much activity as possible. And you want tools that help you get a good signal-to-noise [ratio]."

For CIOs with a keen eye on security, all the cacophony can seem like a gateway to chaos. Making sure that tools work in concert with up-to-date and flexible privacy practices is top of mind for Robin Johnson, CIO of Dell. Security is paramount, Johnson says. "But you can't sit with a 3-year-old policy," he cautions. "You have to understand the risk profile and adapt."

Johnson says his role is to enable collaboration and exploit what's available to improve idea generation and intellectual property--safely. But sometimes, he says, that posture is out of sync with the openness these tools foster, creating another kind of clash: "Those with an audit or controls mind-set are unpopular."

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