A Path for the Social Media Reluctant Organization

by Holly Heiberg on December 21, 2010


Traditional, hierarchical institutions have a difficult time embracing the flattened, dynamic and complex reality of communication through Web 2.0 technologies.   Many institutions are reluctant to engage with their target audience through social media because they fear failure or simply the unknown. Often the critical window when engagement is most important—as during a crisis—is the time when an institution becomes most paralyzed.  There are times not to engage, but strategy, not fear, should determine the right path.

Resilience: Learning from Failure

While missteps may cause some short-term harm, the benefit from continuous engagement based upon sound strategy outweighs the risks. For example, Whole Foods survived its disingenuous sock puppet scandal, and Walmart worked through the lack of transparency of their Jim and Laura campaign. Not only did these companies survive; they learned, adapted, and improved engagement.

The Adaptive Action Approach

Innovative approaches may not always succeed, but failure should be seen as part of the iterative process on the road to success.  My colleague Lynn Johnson and I have studied how social media enables self-organizing around an issue or cause, and how traditional, hierarchical institutions can effectively interact through self-organizing phenomenon.  Dr. Glenda Eoyang of Human Systems Dynamics, who has participated in a TRG workshop on self-organizing, developed a method of adaptive action to engage with complex or self-organizing systems.  Adaptive action is different from traditional processes because it is about leaping as you look.  Adaptive actions are immediate, often simple steps that change a condition, which, in turn, influences change in a whole system.  See a landscape diagram developed by Dr. Eoyang below.

Because the process is iterative, there is room to sort out what is working and what is not in real time and adapt accordingly. Key to the adaptive action process are observable outcomes over a short time-span so that evaluation is continual and informs further decision making.  In short, to operate in today’s complex environment, an institution must adapt to the ever-changing information environment or face obsolescence.

An Adaptive Approach to Social Media Engagement

At a recent social media train-the-trainer workshop sponsored by TRG, Rob Cottingham of Social Signal suggested these simple processes for traditional institutions to mitigate the unknown consequences of engagement.

  • Engage with intention. Without clear intention, utilizing social media is destined to fail.  It is important to articulate in writing the objectives.
  • Start small.  If an organization is timid, has restricted budgets, faces environmental or internal constraints or does not have a lot of experience it is better to smart small and build toward larger projects. Use the tools in small ways that add up.
  • Create contingency plans. Give clear guidelines on the kinds of conversations desired by organization—both externally and internally.  For example, an organization can post that conversations should remain free of hate rhetoric, liable, and support free speech.  This gives validity to organization to remove things if not following rules.

  • Plan for participation. Planning for participation is often an afterthought.  Yet, without a clear strategy of what the audience should do with the information once they have it, a campaign will likely fall short.  Also, plan for under-participation and negative (i.e. harmful) participation. The biggest risk is no one will say anything: do not build empty cities.  A good rule of thumb is to spend as much on engagement, promotion and content as on technology.
  • Create an iterative cycle: Measure, review, adjust. Engagement is an iterative process that requires ongoing measure, review, adjustment and adaptation.

With this simple framework, an organization has the agility to probe, adjust, re-engage with the complexity dynamic of social media. Through the lens of adaptive action and complexity theory, an organization does more than simply check the box on social media strategy implementation.  Instead, the organization has the opportunity to leverage the wealth of complexity connections in a way that is meaningful to the target audience and mindful of goals and objectives.

Holly Heiberg is a senior strategist at The Rendon Group specializing in social media, self-organizing systems and Southeast Asia.  She currently resides in Oregon and can be reached at hheiberg@rendon.com.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lazaro March 8, 2015 at 10:19 am

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