While social media often commands favorable media attention, the less often told story is that successful initiatives are rare to come by and that there are still a number of organizational roadblocks that managers need to overcome in order to make progress.
Still, we are seeing signs of progress in the form of new efficiencies, more direct ways to connect with customers, and ways to make products and services better. From my experience working and talking with people in large, complex organizations, here are a small sample of obstacles to look for with suggestions on how you might overcome them:
The legal treadmill
Externally, social media is a vastly significant iteration of the Web which has empowered the public in ways we never imagined. It's also highly disruptive. The same potential for disruption exists internally for organizations. Instead of everyday consumers becoming empowered, everyday employees now have this potential as well. And this could cause a culture shock to the system of an organization structured upon decades of tradition, hierarchy, middle management and incentives. An inconvenient truth remains that change is often perceived as a threat.
How to overcome it
Find the change agents within your organization who are passionate about making your company better and harness their passion for the benefit of your business. Comcast's Frank Eliason was a customer service manager who began engaging (and, more importantly, helping) customers via his personal Twitter account. When the rest of the company was made aware of the initiative (and the ensuing positive attention), they decided to reward the effort as opposed to doing a u-turn. A great way to overcome culture shock within a large organization is for leadership to recognize and embrace the mavericks driven to change things for the better. The next challenge then becomes scale.
The changes sparked by technology are giving the lawyers a headache. Legal teams must be on full alert to changes in the social media landscape, such as the FTC's recent decision to force bloggers to disclose when they've been given payment or products. The legal department of any organization exists to protect it. But sometimes doing business at the speed of real time makes it feel like you are on a treadmill when you need to be sprinting to the finish line.
How to overcome it
Legal needs to be engaged early on and by the right people. There also needs to be support from the top if it means doing something that pushes the boundaries. Michael Dell fully supported Dell's pioneering social media efforts from the top down which no doubt influenced decisions made in the legal department. That said, not everything has to involve the CEO. When I recently approached The Art of Shaving (a P&G brand) to sponsor our Movember team, I advised them that the first thing they should do is talk to their legal department. The brand manager did just that and legal produced clear guidelines about how the social sponsorship would work. In order to get off the legal treadmill, you need a combination of leadership and collaboration.
Making strides toward thriving as a more socially calibrated business means taking a risk or three. And in this economy, no one wants to do that. Unless your organization has a serious entrepreneurial streak running through it, it's likely that the people who work in it are generally risk averse and rewarded for playing by the rules. However, riskphobia is a serious problem for large companies who are finding their businesses disrupted by smaller, more nimble players. Tower Records probably wishes they took some more calculated risks before the industry came crashing down around them.
How to overcome it
Risk can often be managed by piloting small initiatives to see what happens — while learning, gathering data, and iterating on them while they inform bigger and better initiatives. When our company launched our website, we included a real-time stream of our activities and content on our homepage. The stream even includes information about who we email (you don't see names, but you do see the domains). Some view this as risky business, but we felt that the gesture would help us help others manage the risks of transparency and we can manage what gets shared. It's a small gesture, but meaningful as we hope to help others manages their own risks.
These are just three of many obstacles. So, I'm curious — what obstacles have you encountered? How have you dealt with them?