By Peter Furtado
The graphic below explores how engaged staff are based on their perception of how they see their circumstances. It is based on a survey conducted among British employees in ‘Employee Engagement: How British Business Measures Up‘. Applied to a specific business, such perceptions are good indicators of the company’s culture.
Some ESN evangelists claim that the platform can radically change a company’s culture for the better – by the very nature of the type of exchanges that CAN occur on such a platform – but if you don’t go with the grain by addressing the culture question sensitively at the outset, the platform may be heading for failure. What the platform can do is help adapt the culture – but only if the management are prepared for that adaptation to take place.
Your role in planning the launch is to discover how welcoming the culture is, overall, and to identify which points in the business are more, or less, inviting to the new methods of working and communicating. Working pragmatically with these to demonstrate success will prove more effective than preaching the benefits of change.
While we often speak about the culture of an organisation, it is not so easy to define. It is helpful to distinguish between:
- politics, embedded in the decision-making processes and organisational structures
- culture, the organisation’s vision and values, systems, symbols, language, attitudes and beliefs
- tone, the rituals and habits that characterise daily work experience.
The distinctions are not always obvious. The structure of the board and management, the business divisions, the decision-making processes, the terms of employment and reward, and the ways in which individuals acquire and express influence – these are all about power and therefore politics.
The interactions that result from all this go to make up the identity of the organisation, which is expressed in formal statements such as the mission and values, and in everyday norms such as its attitude to its competitors and partners, even its jargon. This is the organisation’s culture. It would also include habits of mind, such as a sense of coherent, unified direction or its opposite, siloed working; defensiveness or openness; the tendency to hoard information or the willingness to share knowledge. These things can go without being recognized for many years. But they are defined by – and can ultimately be changed by – senior management.
How people interact on a day-to-day basis – the way they banter or dress, how they celebrate birthdays in the office, how they share their successes, or keep their work to themselves – in contrast, is heavily determined by the middle management and by the staff themselves. This is the tone of the workplace.
The ESN and politics and culture
In a reasonably open, relaxed working culture, these day-to-day interactions translate easily onto an ESN, and will help animate it. But while these exchanges set the tone of the daily experience of working for an organisation, the culture of the business is more formal and closely associated with the politics. This derives from the way people are involved in decision-making, at whatever level. It’s not the staff who can determine if their organisation structure should involve them or be collaborative – it’s the management.
Involving people in decision-making can also translate very effectively to a social platform – indeed, in a large organisation it may prove difficult without one. But the success of your ESN depends critically on the politics of the business. Without management support, there are limits to how much of a culture of openness and engagement you can create.
The role of senior management
Ultimately, the culture of any business is defined by its senior management, and is an expression of the political structures they maintain, the way they make decisions, and the way they communicate them. If they adopt a controlling approach, broadcasting information on a need-to-know basis and paying little heed to the opinions of the shop-floor, then the chances of getting your social platform to succeed may be very low.
The politics pressure gauge provides a visual tool for discussing a company in these terms. While a collaborative or empowered environment may appear desirable to many staff, they may put the management under a lot of unwelcome pressure.
If, though, management understands the benefits of openness, direct communication, listening and involving staff in the big decisions and collaborating with them on how those decisions play out across the business – then the social platform may prove an ideal channel for them to express those benefits, and to encourage many other aspects of working.
This makes the attitude of the senior management crucial to your ESN planning, and explains why some of the most successful platforms have been implemented in association with a wider transformation strategy, as the business embarks on a journey from its traditional approach to a more open culture and politics.
For these reasons, it is vital to engage the senior management (perhaps with the help of your senior sponsor) at an early stage of the planning process, to outline to them the implications of the platform for a culture of openness and collaboration, and how it can embody the values of the business. The meeting can also be used to address concerns, for example over governance. If possible it would help to extend the communications survey with a culture survey, which explores the staff’s perception of work culture based on the pressure gauge.
If the management offers endorsement for the platform, the rest of the planning will be greatly eased. Any expressed reservations can be allowed for before the plans are too far advanced, even if this means going with the grain of the existing culture. In future you may be able to nudge the culture further in the direct of collaboration, but not immediately.
The role of middle management
While the senior management set the overall politics and culture of the organisation, the middle managers are normally crucial to setting the balance between the culture and tone for their departments. They define how their individual business units work and communicate, but ultimately they have to report to the board in terms that the senior management has set.
As a result, to develop your plan for launching the platform, you should address the different business units one by one, and identify how each differs from the organizational norm. Some may prove more attuned to a collaborative, inclusive method of working than others; and identifying these at an early stage will give an indication of where early successes may be seen for the platform.
This in turn may impact on the choice of how to plan the launch, whether across the whole business simultaneously, or unit by unit.
While it will be necessary to engage with each manager in more detail later in the launch planning process, initially a survey of attitudes and working practices across the business will identify these pockets of openness (or its opposite).
Culture, tone and the staff
The majority of people naturally feel they would like to work in an open and collaborative environment that empowers people to take their own decisions within their sphere of competence. They therefore may assume that any tool which enables this is desirable, and anyone who objects is a blocker to change.
But there is a distinction between having a relaxed tone in an office, and working in a collaborative culture. The distinction, however, can easily be blurred, and is not seen in the same way by everyone.
Ideally therefore staff need to see their managers using those tools and supporting their use, and addressing the issues of those who refuse. A platform where the senior and middle managers are rarely seen will exacerbate a culture of ‘us and them’, even where the management’s explicit intention is to create a culture shift.
As a result, you have to work at every level to promote the benefits of the platform, and to help people to see how they can use it, both to get their own work done more effectively, and to reflect the overall culture of the business.