Simon Terry

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Infrastructure of culture

Culture eats strategy for breakfast – Peter Drucker

Enterprise social networks are a new form of communication in organisations. Culture is the outcome of how we interact. New interactions will change the culture of our organisations over time. Managing culture changes is critical for organisations coping with disruption.

Adam Pisoni recently quoted a comment I made at Disrupt.Sydney that enterprise social networks are ‘infrastructure of culture’. The comment was building on Kai Riemer’s talk at Disrupt.Sydney that technology that acts as infrastructure (of connection, of transportation or of communication) is open to novel uses and depends on users to make new sense of the infrastructure. Kai was drawing a distinction with our traditional tool based view of technology where it exists for a specific purpose. This point highlights one reason why we often have an inability to forecast where new communication technologies lead us in terms of changes in interactions and societal change.

Enterprise Social Networking is an Infrastructure for Culture

The culture of an organisations is a sum of the interactions across the organisation. It is the ‘way we do things around here’ or ‘what happens when the CEO is out of the room’.  Culture runs deep and is the outcome of thousands of interactions. Speeches, posters and announcements don’t determine culture. As social animals, people look for guides as to what is acceptable in the stories of the organisation, the daily behaviours of others as they interact and importantly in how moments of crisis or conflict in the community are resolved. What happens when things get uncertain is at the core of the culture of a company.

Disruptive change tests the culture of organisations. Shaped by purpose and values as demonstrated in action, culture has an enormous influence on how the organisation runs and what is possible. Many organisations need new strategies to respond to disruption. However, if your strategy runs counter to your culture you will face challenges and likely fail. In the face of disruption, many organisations have found they simply cannot pivot their strategy because it threatens some deep elements of their culture.

A common goal of launching an enterprise social network to execute a strategy to ‘change  culture’. Looking for more leadership, authenticity, accountability, openness or innovation, organisations assume that the network is a tool to deliver that outcome. These organisations are usually disappointed initially. Culture changes the strategy. All they see at first in the community on their network is their organisation’s current culture, just much more visible than ever before. The good, the bad and the ugly is on display. Even worse, the much vaunted new values from the strategy are often not on display because the community is not yet comfortable with those novel interactions, is waiting for a lead from others or does not accept that they can be arbitrarily imposed from above.

Communication networks are infrastructure, not tools. The change in culture is in the community adopting new behaviours, not the technology. The potential of enterprise social networks to change the culture of organisations occurs over time as the interactions change. Importantly, social networks offer opportunities to accelerate this change.

How do new interactions accelerate change the culture of the organisation?

  • Build common purpose:  Social networks are a place to discuss and connect around purpose. Purpose is not imposed.  It comes out from interactions and work in the organisation. Too often when organisations have a new strategy, it is the executive team who assumes the right to set the purpose and only they understand the context that drives the need for change. A social network allows others to discuss and question this.
  • Empower change agents:  enterprise social networking often appeals to a group of early adopters, your organisational change agents. This group of diverse individuals have been looking for a way to have a larger voice, to connect and to drive change. These early adopters will drive a lot of the initial interactions & innovations.  Their goals are each different but they are often more comfortable with many of the values that organisations seek such as collaboration, openness, innovation and experimentation. The challenge for organisations looking to leverage these individuals to drive change is to authorise their activities and encourage the new interactions in constructive directions. Senior leaders can use their authority to play a key role in ensuring that your network does not become a sub-culture of the broader organisation.
  • Lead and role model: People look for role models and leaders. They will follow their guide in the behaviours that they demonstrate. Build a group of leaders of the community and let them know that they are responsible for fostering constructive interactions. Make sure your hierarchical leaders are playing a positive role and not discouraging change.
  • Share stories:  We learn culture from stories of interactions. Social networks allow us to share those stories in new ways and with new audiences. Encourage story telling and make sure you are looking to draw out the cultural lessons of the stories being told.
  • Make interactions visible:  Social networks are a new medium to see interactions. Remember the majority of people will watch, read and learn. Your culture will be on display and shared more widely than ever before.
  • Create interactions across sub-cultures:  Large organisations are often frustrated by the number of sub-cultures as communities within the organisation develop their own interactions. These sub-cultures often create unresolved conflicts blocking progress. Connect these individuals in one community and let them learn about each others contexts. Building shared purpose, concerns and understanding will build a greater commonality of culture.
  • Create conflict:  If there are values conflicts or other regular interactions driving conflict in your organisation, they will surface in enterprise social networking. The faster you bring these out the sooner culture changes. How you work to resolve these through collaboration will be key to your future culture. Remember it is better to resolve these internally before they leak externally through employees or other partners experiencing the conflicts and sharing them.
  • Allow the creation new interactions:  As infrastructure, an enterprise social network is open to employees, leaders and other participants to create new interactions.  If you encourage experimentation and quickly weed out failures, you will be driving innovation in your culture as each new successful pattern of interaction develops.  Embrace the chaos and you will see rewards as your culture develops.

Communities change culture when they adopt new interactions through the role modelling of others and the support of leaders. Enterprise social networking is an infrastructure to accelerate this process through new interactions and innovation. Disruption often demands rapid changes to organisation’s cultures that have been built up over many, if not hundreds of years. Networking the community within the organisation is critical to enabling the organisation to manage that change.


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