The 6 Basic Organizational Attitudes Toward Social Media

By Anthony J. Bradley and Mark P. McDonald

Our research has uncovered a spectrum of six basic organizational attitudes — folly, fearful, flippant, formulating, forging, and fusing — about social media.

These six F’s can play an important role in the success of your collaboration efforts. In fact, the attitudes within a large organization will most likely vary across units. Be sure to identify and understand this variation.

Folly

People with a folly attitude mainly consider social media a source of entertainment with insignificant or no business value. Leaders with this attitude usually ignore social media. However, because the organization doesn’t actively prohibit it, business value can come from grassroots movements that capitalize on technologies readily available in the public space. The organization offers no guidance about how employees or others in its value chain might participate.

Where a folly attitude prevails, your vision must emphasize direct, specific business value. Avoid nebulous value statements around improved collaboration and stronger relationships. Instead, target tangible business benefits tied explicitly to well known and recognized organizational goals or challenges.

Fearful

Where fear of social media predominates, people see it primarily as a threat to productivity, intellectual capital, privacy, management authority, or regulatory compliance. With this attitude, the organization often does take a specific stance: it discourages and even prohibits the use of social media.

This approach reduces the potential for undesirable behavior — that’s the reason for restriction — but it also stifles any business value that might be derived from grassroots use of social media. To counteract fear, the community collaboration vision should focus on relatively low-risk initiatives, even if other, higher-risk opportunities might offer greater business value.

Flippant

With a flippant attitude, people no longer fear social media, but they don’t take it seriously either. Companies taking this approach simply make social media technology available, with some basic policy guidance, in hopes that productive communities will form spontaneously and deliver value to the organization. As we’ve already pointed out, this approach rarely succeeds. Organizations with a flippant approach treat social media and community collaboration as tactical rather than strategic.

The chief information officer (CIO) at a large investment firm in the United Kingdom indicated that it was just completing a policy covering the use of social media. When pressed about how he planned to move the organization from reactive and tactical efforts to more proactive and strategic approaches, he said, “Social media is like spreadsheets. I have no idea how they might use them. So my job is to provide the technology and some policy on their use.”

Unfortunately, this sentiment is rampant within IT departments. This organization is moving out of the fear stage and into the flippant stage, where the worst practice of provide-and-pray thrives.

Flippant organizations tend to treat social media as a technology platform rather than an enabler of business solutions. Unless this attitude shifts, they will find it very difficult to elevate community collaboration to a strategic opportunity.

A well-formed and clearly expressed community collaboration vision will go a long way toward overcoming a flippant attitude. It will clearly show that leaders of the organization believe a strategic approach to social media can deliver substantial business value.

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Formulating

With this attitude, organizational leadership recognizes both the value of community collaboration and the need to be more organized and strategic in its use. In almost all cases that we’ve seen, organizations have arrived at the formulating stage after progressing through the flippant provide-and-pray approach with little to no success.

Simply providing access to social media technologies now gives way to active planning targeted at well-defined purposes. For an organization at this stage, the social media vision should emphasize the strategic value of community collaboration, recognize the importance of sanctioned grassroots efforts, and position these steps as the beginning of an effort to build a strong organizational competency in collaboration.

Forging

In an organization with a forging attitude, people are beginning to integrate productive community collaboration into their daily work lives. But not just individuals are doing this — the whole organization is starting to develop competence in assembling, nurturing, and gaining business value from communities using social computing to collaborate.

A forging organization is on its way to becoming a social organization. Successful and repeatable practices are emerging, and it’s time to evolve them into a full-blown organizational competence. Business value has been proved, and leaders are eager to expand these efforts.

When an organization has a forging attitude, the vision statement should recognize previous successes and capitalize on growing momentum. It should advocate continued evolution and highlight investments already made and being made to drive toward the goal of becoming a social organization.

Fusing

Fusing is the most advanced attitude, and it is rare. Fusing organizations treat community collaboration as an integral part of their work; it’s ingrained in how they think and behave. This is the attitude of a social organization, and in social organizations the need for an explicit vision and strategy subsides. All business strategy and execution already includes community collaboration wherever appropriate.

One of our goals is to help you avoid or counteract the folly, fear, and flippant attitudes and move directly to formulating and forging, where the strategic value of community collaboration is widely recognized.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Social Organizations: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees by Anthony Bradley and Mark P. McDonald. Copyright 2011.

Anthony Bradley is a group vice president at Gartner Research. He advises clients on the enterprise employment of social media and social software solutions. Mark McDonald is a group vice president and head of Gartner Executive programs. He works with executives on the business applications of information technology.

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