Paul Michelman is editor in chief of MIT Sloan Management Review. He tweets @pmichelman.

An interesting thing happens to ideas when they are rightsized for Twitter. The tweet takes over — and becomes a substitute for — the larger idea it is meant to introduce. In a way, the headline becomes the story.

This phenomenon is particularly evident when the idea behind the tweet is in any way nuanced or controversial. In the world of management ideas, questioning the value of corporate culture meets both of these criteria.

I wrote a column for MIT SMR in the summer 2017 issue called “The End of Corporate Culture as We Know It.” My basic argument was that the traditional, monolithic, “the way we do things around here” version of corporate culture was on its way to extinction.

The column provoked lively and smart conversation. Many readers disagreed with my view — either in part or in whole. That’s a glorious thing. As an editor, there is little I love more than a robust argument about ideas.

The column was also a hit on social media, especially Twitter. Here is the tweet we generated that got the most traction — and it’s still making the rounds today:

@pmichelman: “During my work life, I have been lifted by strong corporate cultures and nearly drowned by weak ones.”

While the initial tweet also included a link to the column, the number of people who simply retweeted far exceeded the number of people who clicked through to read it. Hardly a breakthrough insight, but here lies the rub: In its pithiness, the tweet focused on only half of my point — and sadly, the wrong half. Whereas the tweet reads like a strong endorsement of the importance of corporate culture, it was excerpted from a paragraph with a different intended meaning:

“During my work life, I have been lifted by strong corporate cultures and nearly drowned by weak ones. I have no doubt of culture’s power to align an organization and enliven its workforce. But that’s history speaking.”

The phrase “But that’s history speaking” didn’t make it into the tweet, leaving most people with the wrong impression. Social media lesson learned.

So the goal of this column is twofold: first, to reach anyone who only read the misleading tweet (hopefully we succeeded in getting more of you here) and, second, to affirm and add to my original thesis.

I believe more than ever that most historical approaches to corporate culture will soon outlive their usefulness. Yes, culture matters — but it can’t be controlled or programmed; it can’t be driven by repetition, slogan, and patterned behavior. Our new, flexible, continually transforming work environments render such tactics anachronistic.

More than ever, culture comes down to the choices organizations make about people. If you hire for talent and for attitude; if you take the time to make deeply considered decisions about who you want in your organization — and whose development you want to invest in — and you do so by considering the full picture of who they are, you will have already addressed 90% of your culture.

We can discuss the remaining 10% another day. Right now, I need to work on a new tweet.

1 Comment On: The Trouble With Tweets

  • PETE DELISI | March 1, 2018

    Paul, I don’t know if your main point is that culture is anachronistic, or if you need to be careful when tweeting — especially about culture. Space doesn’t allow us to thoroughly debate your point about culture, “as we have known it, having outlived its usefulness.” I guess the argument revolves around your definition of corporate culture. If we take Ed Schein’s definition, for example, we see that there are multiple layers that constitute culture — 1) the surface behaviors, artifacts, stories; 2) the underlying values that support the surface kinds of things; and 3) the deeply rooted fundamental assumptions. The reason it is so hard to change culture is because of the deeply rooted assumptions. I suspect you are saying that behaviors, and maybe even values, are changing, but I submit to you that the fundamental assumptions , that provide the bedrock of the culture and provide meaningful integrity to an otherwise jumble of corporate actions, lives on through the changes that you describe.

Add a comment