Changing corporate culture on social media


How do you change an organisation’s culture on social media?

I had a job interview not so long ago. During the interview I felt that the job was not for me so when I found out that I had not got it, I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise and sadden me was the organisation’s attitude towards digital and social media – one that reflected my final six months in the civil service during the first half of 2011. Essentially social media was something dealt with by communications teams. As far as everyone else was concerned, you didn’t do social media in your work time.

This, combined with the need to have my blogging and tweeting activities approved by a communications team had I been successful, the prospect of closing down this blog – and possibly Puffles…you can see why this was going to be a non-starter for me. Given the opportunities there are with digital and social media, I find it astonishing that in this day and age managers see social media primarily as a threat or a risk that must be stomped on.

How do you go about getting ‘corporate culture change’?

With great difficulty.

I found this out the hard way with the Freedom of Information Act. My first job within the civil service in 2004 was all about implementing the requirements of the Act that were to come into force in January 2005. Having no previous baggage and knowing that this Act could help with my postgraduate studies, I threw myself into it. Some senior managers were horrified at the prospect of these requirements. Some of the comments were straight out of “Yes Minister”.

I didn’t care – I had been won over by the idea of the public’s right to know and I was going to make sure that everyone else did too. Hence why I went far beyond my grade in learning all about the details of the Act and what it meant – not something you’d expect for someone coming into a post that only required a handful of GCSEs.

The biggest barriers I found were the tier of middle managers and the more longer serving (but not necessarily older) staff. People who perhaps had become comfortable with doing things a certain way because that was the way they had always been done. Younger staff that were more internet savvy (many in my old office being college-leavers or university graduates) were more than comfortable with the idea of freedom of information, having grown up with the free flow of information in education. Similarly with some of the older new staff who had been used to the internet in previous jobs or having gotten it at home. They came with a different mindset.

In a hierarchical institution where senior managers’ eyes are constantly looking upwards, they often forget the talent that lurks in more junior grades. Middle managers sometimes feel threatened by the talents of those in junior grades rather than nurturing it and bringing it on. Far easier for senior managers to make an announcement – by email – saying “This shall be done” and assume that people will get on with it. If only!

Whitehall isn’t alone in experiencing various half-hearted attempts at corporate change. All-too-often I’ve got the feeling that corporate change is brought in because someone up top feels the need to prove themselves/show their worth by doing ‘something’ irrespective of whether there is a business need or not. Centralising everything, decentralising, outsourcing, bringing things in-house, new performance reporting systems – old-timers will tell you that these things come in cycles. Hence why for many people they are understandably unenthusiastic about such changes which start with a flurry of activity before dying a quick death.

Off the top of my head, two of the main things that should drive corporate culture changes are:

  • An external shock
  • A significant piece of management information about the organisation that it was not previously aware of.

In the case of Freedom of Information and people’s use of social media, these fall under the former. One is a change in the law, the second is a societal change. In the case of the latter, it might be that a review of the organisation’s risks pulls up something nasty, or pulling out something from a management system (i.e. analysis of data) shows something that needs to be tackled.

All too often in my experience the evidence base is not set out clearly enough. There’s lots of appealing from senior managers as to why something needs to be done in terms of high-level management speak (“We’ve got to do more with less…We’ve got to respond to changing business pressures…”) but very little is quantified as far as the organisation is concerned.

You then have the workshops that people are invited to. You get some (like I was once) who will throw themselves into it, while others completely ignore them through apathy or high workload – or both. Sometimes they will be workshops for everyone irrespective of grade, other times they will be grade-specific. There’s lots of listening, flip-chart paper and post-it-notes…and then it’s all forgotten about. Hence why those who have been around a bit don’t bother because they have seen it all before.

What makes social media different?

It covers both of the two points I’ve mentioned above: It’s an external shock – a societal change, and it’s created a whole series of risks that were not previously there. Freedom of Information was the same – the external shock was the legislation, the emerging risks included organisations’ records management systems were not fit for purpose to deal with the requests – and that examination of them could spring up other nasty surprises (such as potential breaches of the Data Protection Act).

People’s use of social media in their non-working lives also makes a mockery of some existing work practices. Shutting down social media websites on your IT systems? People will simply use their smartphones to get round it. You can’t use blanket technological ‘solutions’ to deal with line management problems. Line management problems are about people. Therefore your solution has got to involve people. I’d like to think that if you treat people like mature adults they’ll behave like them. Treat people like children and you risk infantilising them. It also says you don’t trust them to make reasonable decisions and judgements. How about trusting until proven otherwise?

Changing the culture towards social media – harnessing pressures inside and out.

Locally, this is what TeaCambs is all about as far as the public sector is concerned. By connecting like-minded people across public sector organisations, it demonstrates that otherwise isolated social media advocates are anything but. This is what I found when I went to my first Whitehall Tecamp gathering in early 2011 – ditto with UKGovCamp soon after. What we’re trying to do with Teacambs amongst other things is to bring together those people inside public sector organisations to help drive that cultural change from within. Along side them are those of us from outside the public sector leaning on organisations from the outside. And this is where Puffles and I come in.

Are you a public sector organisation in Cambridgeshire? A dragon fairy is coming after you!

Detective Puffles wants to see your social media strategy – please.

No – really!

This strand of work is part of a broader ‘vision’ to bring Cambridge – and Cambridgeshire together. Both city and county can be so much greater than the sum of their parts – but at the moment my feeling is that we’re not even that at the moment. I want to use social media to break those ‘silos’ that various parts of the city and county are sitting in.

The first steps as far as public sector organisations are concerned are: 1) Inviting you to send interested and enthusiastic people (irrespective of grade) to come to our Teacambs gatherings, and 2) to ask you all to release copies of your current social media guidance, and to ask you what plans you have to update them following the new guidance published by Cabinet Office in May 2012. (Please note Puffles has been credited in the release from Cabinet Office!)

Yes, the dragon fairy has friends in high places! 😉 (Or for those of you familiar with Puffles’ Twitter mannerisms, “Puffles (*waves big stick!*)”

It’s not all complaints and fire-breathing dragons though. I’ve been really impressed by some of the things I’ve seen from Cambridge City Council’s customer services team (not just because they commissioned me to run social media awareness sessions earlier this year, but because they’ve taken the plunge on using Twitter and Facebook to connect with people) and Cambridgeshire County Council on open data. I should credit Jonathan James, Head of Customer Services at the City Council for driving social media there, and Rich Hall at the County Council for his work on open data that he presented on at the last-but-one TeaCambs gathering.

This really is how I want to play it. I don’t want to go around naming and shaming organisations into action. We have newspapers to do such things. I’d rather come across local organisations that were open about what their problems and challenges were, were honest they needed help and wanted to engage with those of us who come to TeaCambs. We’re happy to help & talk things through over coffee and cake. (Or jellybellies, pistachio nuts and wine for those familiar with Puffles).

One of the things that we often do at teacamps and the various unConferences such as UKGovCamp is to bring our work problems to the table to see how we can help solve them. See this from Dan Slee about UKGovCamp2012 and you’ll see what I mean.

On this blog I’m happy to give credit where it’s due – as I’ve done above and on previous blogs. In fact, I prefer it that way. It’s the way I roll. If, however I do come across entrenched resistance where the friendly co-operative approach doesn’t work, Puffles will give you a kicking and call in the cavalry from Whitehall and local government to help sort things out. (Puffles has nearly 3,500 non-spam followers at the last count – including several from across Whitehall and Cambridgeshire local government – and this blog gets over 6,000 hits per month. Don’t say you weren’t warned!)

So if you work for a public sector organisation in Cambridgeshire – or are local to the county and are interested in public sector social media, come along to Teacambs!


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