Blog post

Is Social Media a Corporate or a Personal Tool?

By Andrea Di Maio | January 09, 2012 | 4 Comments

social networks in government

During the Christmas break I have been reading “The Social Organization”, an excellent book written by two distinguished colleagues of mine, Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald, which looks at how organizations in different industry sectors can take advantage from social media more strategically than many do today. The book leverages a lot of Gartner research collected over the years and brings many of its points to life through multiple examples of how companies have been succeeding as well as failing in using social media.

The book makes a great point about the different nature of social media endeavors, recognizing that some of them are top-down while others are bottom-up. It does provide useful advice about how  to better plan for top-down initiatives to make them more successful, and how to create an environment that better aligns bottom-up initiatives to corporate objectives.

I would recommend reading this book to anybody who is struggling with articulating the full value of social media and wants to have a comprehensive view of what it takes to make it an effective corporate tool today.

However there is an important question that the book, in my humble opinion, leaves unanswered: what is the right balance between top-down, corporate-driven activities, and bottom-up, personal activities?

The center of the book is the enterprise and how social media can create value for the enterprise: Anthony and Mark did a great job at describing how the principles that support community building and mass collaboration relate to management principles, and how managers need to be more guides than managers.

But little is said about the critical link between the personal purpose and the corporate purpose, despite their invitation to ask the question “what’s in it for participants?”, as a key point to assess whether a community purpose is sufficiently magnetic to keep individuals together.

I believe that the future of social organizations will be one where the organization recognizes the power of the individual and accepts that individuals – be they customers or employees – will always see themselves, rather than their organization, at the center of a community or a collaboration endeavor. Communities will not be sustainable because they are cool or well designed or well managed: of course all these elements will play an important role, but the key ingredient will be to make community building and participation a tool for individuals to  succeed in their personal endeavors.

For all those who are not convinced with this position, just think about the fact that social media still is a relatively new phenomenon. People using it will be moving from one job to another, from one organization to another, over the years, and the links they establish, their social networks, the communities they participate in, will be part of their personal assets. Next time they move into a new job, they will assume (and not just expect) that those assets will be available to them and that they will be both exploiting and further developing them during their jobs.

Nobody really knows how future, community-empowered workers who are used to play across organizational  boundaries will fit into any current or foreseeable organizational structure where management principles can be successfully applied.

I am sure that some of us do realize the inherent conflict (I do think we need a stronger word than “dynamics”) between individuals and organizations, be they commercial corporations or government agencies, that social media can fuel. However we prefer not to stretch our imagination and discover even greater social media risks for organizations than those they already face today. We do so because adding more risks to the plate would paralyze the initiatives that many organizations are piloting to better understand and get value from social media.

Books like “The Social Organization” help articulate a mid-term roadmap, plan and execute successful project, but do not try to capture the longer-term future. A future where the very concept of organization as we know it might be subsumed by different ways in which individuals decide to self-organize around particular purposes. A future where what we call “enterprise” today may just live the short space of a fortnight and then be dismantled, A future where entire middle management layers may be replaced by technology and behaviors that allow communities to self-discipline.

Personally, I have no crystal ball. But I bet that the best way to figure out how that future might look like is to think more about the “social individual” than about the “social organization”.

Comments are closed


  • Pearl Zhu says:

    Andrea, very interesting blog talking about social individual and social organization, though haven’t got chance to read “social business”, did participate Mark & Anthony’s webinar earlier, to get understand more about the future of business. I would say, from strategic perspective, social business can well integrate business’s social value with its shareholder’s gain via more open communication channels such as executive/expert blogs, organization can well articulate its vision and mission continuously, and present its distinctive capability more broadly; which also means, the wisdoms of social individual empower the next level of social business with purpose; and more agile social business may also cultivate the open environment for more talent, diversified social individuals.

  • Mark Diner says:

    Then for the sake of successful corporations, I agree with Pearl, the social individual will empower the next generation social organization. Not all organizations will need to adopt as the same pace.

  • Pearl & Mark, thanks for your comments. I do wholeheartedly agree with the point that more open communication blended with wised management (the “guiding” metaphor that Anthony and Mark use in their book) increases the chances of striking a more sustainable balance between social organizations and social individuals.
    However it is difficult to predict how more empowered individuals will fit into even modern and “social” organizational structures. One tenet of management and traditional organizational structures is that managers are supposed to have access to more information and to have tools and capabilities that help them process that information more effectively and efficiently (from an organization perspective) than their direct reports. Social media and social networking will definitely challenge this in the long run. So my hypothesis is that what we see today with “purpose” (i.e. the common ground around which a community coalesces and thrives) will become the essence of what real social organizations are about. This implies that individuals will stay on board for as long as the organizational purpose fit their own purpose, then move on. While one might say that this is not new, and certainly resembles what project-based organizations look like, I expect this to happen at a far faster pace and in ways that are determined by individuals rather than the organization they are temporarily associated to.
    If one then looks at the bigger picture, with the need for greater employee mobility, the disruption caused in many countries by the impending second recession or worse, with the failure of traditional businesses as well as government organizations, the ability for socially-enabled individuals to self-organize leveraging their networks may become the foundation of how future businesses look like.
    Actually, if one looks at the impact of social networking on other traditional structures, such as family and personal friendships, it is already reported that Facebook and the likes play a key role in a fair amount of divorce cases. I would argue that families are the most traditional and resilient organizations in the history of mankind, and yet the socially-enable individual does not easily fit into that structure. Of course I’d rather not elaborate about how future families may look like…

  • Tom says:

    @Andrea wrote: >>One tenet of management and traditional organizational structures is that managers are supposed to have access to more information and to have tools and capabilities that help them process that information more effectively and efficiently (from an organization perspective) than their direct reports.<<

    Not sure I agree that they are 'supposed' to – as if by some design – so much as the fact is that they often *do* have access to more info, etc. And they savvy managers have learned how to leverage this fact to build power bases and political capital. That said, I think you are right on with the notion of moving to more dynamic, self-organizing structures.

    To me what this really speaks to is a shift from management to leadership, in terms of the behavioral emphasis underpinning the org structure. It's all good news – and does make one wonder, 'what will a large, global enterprise look like in 10 years?'