Social Software as an Organisation Culture Reagent

(Version française)

There is something unquestionably virtuous about Social Software. This is the reason why I’ve been such a devoted supporter (and user) of it for the last ten years.

This virtue directly addresses the most frustrating organisation problems I faced during these 23 years in the knowledge economy throughout Europe : how to streamline activities, how to better align the workforce with organization goals, how to set up leaner processes, how to help great ideas bubbling up, how to share knowledge in a simple and effective way, how to have people engaged rather than cynical …

No matter how much I have written about it so far, I hadn’t succeed in really isolating the core property embedded in social software that makes it look so glowing.

Reading about organisational culture, it just struck me : the social software virtue that makes it so ethically appealing is the strong and healthy culture, a key to workforce alignment and long-term business success.

define:Organisation Culture

Wikipedia has a great article on the topic where a first definition of organisational culture is the way things get done around here which is a good shortcut. A more precise definition, though, is from Edgar Schein, from MIT Sloan School of Management :

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems“.

Schein identifies three cognitive levels in the organisational culture. The first one encompasses the physical and visible attributes (or artifacts) : premises, dress-code, slogans, the way people collaborate  etc …  These are the tangible assets of the culture.

The second level is the one of the values. This includes local and personal values, individuals perception of the trustworthiness and supportiveness of the organisation. This level can be made visible through interviews, questionnaires etc …

The third and deepest level is the one of the tacit assumptions and unspoken rules. These are unseen and are not cognitively identified in everyday interactions between organizational members. Most dangerously, these are taboo to discuss and quite often, they foster a cynical culture flouting the official values of the company.

My experience : the thicker the third cognitive level, the more opaque the organisation and the less healthy the culture.

Strong, Weak and ethics

Applied to culture, the Strong/Weak polarities define the level of alignment of the workforce to organizational values, as reported by the Wikipedia article :

In strong culture staff respond to stimulus because of their alignment to organizational values. In weak culture there is little alignment with organizational values and control must be exercised through extensive procedures and bureaucracy.

In other word, workforce alignment in a strong culture is based on clear leadership while in a weak culture it is based on control. Baring in mind that workforce alignment is nothing but discipline, one could argue that strong culture fosters self-motivated discipline while weak culture impose discipline via control and processes.

In The Corporate Culture Handbook, multi awarded HSBC Change Management Program Manager Gabrielle O’Donovan states that, within an organizational context, morality must become part of the cultural fabric. Only with integrity and transparency can a corporation motivate its workforce and attract business away from the competition.

According to O’Donovan, this culture of ethics is critical to address the three major challenges CEOs face today : driving change, managing corporate culture so as to reverse the increasing occurrences of corporate malfeasance, and meeting market requirements by ensuring that the internal environment keeps pace with external forces.

Business Value

Drawing on Built to Last by Jim Collins, the Leading by Leveraging Culture HBR paper by Jennifer Chatman and Sandra E. Cha states that :

 Strong cultures enhance organizational performance in two ways. First by energizing employees  appealing to their higher ideals and values, and rallying them around a set of meaningful, unified goals. (…)  Second, strong cultures boost performance by shaping and coordinating employees’ behavior. Stated values and norms focus employees’ attention on organizational priorities that then guide their behavior and decision-making. They do so without impinging, as formal control systems do, on the autonomy necessary for excellent performance under changing conditions.

The last sentence probably is the most important : excellent performance under changing conditions can’t happen under formal control but it does happen when the employee behavior is shaped by a strong culture. This is the reason why HBR claims that Apple no longer needs Steve Jobs : Steve has infused the culture to such extent that there’s one question Apple employees constantly ask themselves, as a principle guiding their decision : What would Steve do ?

Creative Ethos

As I’ve written earlier, while importing these Social Platforms from the Internet, we also import an underlying electronic culture that will profoundly change the workplace organization. This culture has been shaped by the many projects that have been developped on the web such as open-source software, Wikipedia etc …

This culture inherits from what Richard Florida‘s Rise Of The Creative Class calls the creative ethos. It was born in San Francisco at the end of the sixties from the collision between Protestant Work Ethic and hippie counter-Culture and has been innerving the Silicon Valley ever since. This culture has very strong values : meritocracy, equality, transparency, simplicity, pragmatism, entrepreneurship and faith in technology.

As a strong culture agent, Social Software nurtures alignment (and creates value) through leadership and principles. This is the main difference with legacy enterprise systems (CRM, ERP, PLM, etc …) which are tools to align the workforce through processes and, as such, are agents of weak culture.

Just as importantly, while championing egalitarian and transparent values, Social Software is an agent of healthy culture (O’Donovan’s culture of ethics). This is a great asset to reduce the tacit assumption cognitive level of the organisation culture and make the organisation a healthier and better place to work.

Tale of the unfreeze

“Networks make organizational politics and culture explicit” (Michael Schrage, MIT – one of the favorite quotes of my friend Jon Husband).

The greatest virtue I see with the advent of Social Software is its inherent strong and heathy culture. As the organisation is confronted to this social wave,  regardless of the adoption, it is forced into some introspection to assess its own culture (or the absence of) and the alignment of its workforce with the strategy.

The situation unfreezes as questions then start to be asked : what is the organisation culture ? Is it a strong or a weak culture ? How the executives want it to be ? How thick is the tacit assumption and unspoken rules cognitive level ? Are social norms virtuous or cynical ? How clear the strategy is ? What are the principles that embody this strategy ? How aligned with the strategy the workforce is ?

There are the questions to ask as a reply when you’re asked the What’s in it for me ? question.


  1. This is an excellent post, Cecil. In my work and research so far, we have observed a noticeable aversion within many organizations to digital culture and its associated equality, transparency, reciprocity, etc.. When hearing stories of how open source communities work, or gamer guilds or social networks or wiki communities, the reactions of many of these folks are as if i were explaining to them communal village life deep in the Amazon, or ritual dances of a people in some other country.

    Your post has nudged me to consider the idea of framing this (at least partially) in terms of a cultural struggle. Thanks for the nudge!

  2. Thank you Christian. I guess we’re all encountering the same type of problems, and each time, the root cause is culture conflict.

    The questions at the end are an effective way to encourage organisation introspection into its own culture. They help give a different perspective and ease the way. My 2 cents anyway.

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