When Big Businesses Push the Start(up) Button

Three ways big companies can be like startups.

Can large companies be more nimble? Social media makes the answer a qualified yes.

Nestlé’s global head of digital and social media, Pete Blackshaw, says the world’s largest packaged goods company has worked to borrow some pages from the Silicon Valley startup culture. He took Nestlé executives on a tour of Silicon Valley, and the velocity of the culture impressed them. Nestlé, he says, can’t become a startup — but it could borrow some methods that startups typically use. Here are three:

Take your “digital vitamins” — and pass them around.

One key characteristic of modern startups is their digital savvy — something many established companies weren’t born with. Companies like Nestlé can supplement by developing digital expertise in young leaders, and seeding them throughout operations. Blackshaw set up a Digital Acceleration Team at Nestlé headquarters in Vevey and staffed it like an academic fellowship, with an eight-month term and the promise of leadership training. Nestlé employees from around the world were encouraged to apply, and 12 were selected. These digital dozen were also turned into a resource for the company; units and departments could apply to have them work on short-term projects.

Nestlé recently named its third Digital Acceleration Team. Hundreds of internal projects have received support, and three Nestlé country units have set up their own DATs, with others gearing up to do the same.

Practice adaptive marketing.

Digital media runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s a cultural challenge for any organization. Blackshaw says the biggest obstacle for any organization is figuring out how to adapt its own culture to this always-on environment. For instance, Nestlé is tying its digital marketing campaigns to real-world events. That demands quick, pinpoint responses — a big change for a company used to mass marketing. Nestlé’s KitKat brand, for instance, put together a parody of the Felix Baumgartner jump from atmosphere that featured a KitKat bar. The ad took 24 hours from conception to release.

Find a stimulant, use judiciously.

Blackshaw says digital media presents a dilemma for companies: they need stimulants, often from outside the organization, to help them change the way they do things. Blackshaw himself is a stimulant, an executive with digital experience brought in to help create change in the organization. But companies also need to know when to shift the stimulants down a notch, and integrate them into the organization. This constant tension between change and integration is a key challenge in managing digital transformation.

As Blackshaw notes, digital media is changing rapidly. Companies may find it best to respond in small ways, by taking iterative steps and being prepared to try something different if a new method fails — or when a method that has worked in the past no longer does.

Blackshaw cautions against calling what Nestlé has done “transformative.” “I want to be careful with that word,” he says, noting instead that Nestlé is on a journey. He considers it a good sign that Digital Acceleration Teams are spreading throughout the company. But social media changes so rapidly that to say one has transformed is to get caught flat-footed.

Companies need to be prepared for constant adjustments of their own, Blackshaw argues; that’s why he likes the Digital Acceleration Team concept, because it will spread digital vitamins through the organization. And those vitamins offer Nestlé a chance at healthy competition in the brand new digital marketplace.