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One of the most important, and most often overlooked, aspects of social business is organizational culture. For organizations with the right type of culture, social business represents the opportunity to unlock new collaborative potential and fundamentally transform the organization. For organizations with the wrong type of organizational culture, social business may never amount to more than a suite of unused IT tools.
So what is the “right” type of organizational culture for social business? A clue can be found in a 2012 Harvard Business Review article. This article discusses a fascinating study by Stanford psychologist Lee Ross and his colleagues.
Ross conducted a classic “prisoner’s dilemma” scenario with a group of participants. This scenario is one in which two prisoners each are given, separately, the options of cooperating with one another by staying silent, or betraying the other prisoner for a chance at freedom. The catch is that the benefit (or cost) of betrayal versus cooperation is determined by the choice of the other prisoner — that is, whether one prisoner’s choice is better or worse for his situation depends entirely on what action his counterpart takes.
The twist to this scenario was that the researchers told participants in one group that they were playing “the Wall Street Game” and in the other group were told that they were playing “the Community Game.”
The results were striking. When participants were told that they were playing the Wall Street Game, 70% of participants acted according to rational self-interest and chose to betray the other prisoner. When participants were told that they were playing the Community Game, however, 70% of participants chose to cooperate. The key takeaway is that a substantial portion of people decides whether or not to cooperate based on environmental conditions.
The implications for how (and with whom) to deploy social business are profound. Companies that already exhibit the cooperative culture of the Community Game will benefit more readily from social business. Social business tools unlock the inherent willingness to collaborate and desire to cooperate embedded in the organizational culture. At the risk of putting too fine of a point on it, social business is the Community Game, where benefits accrue from cooperation and sharing information.
Companies that exhibit the self-interested culture of the Wall Street game, however, may require a cultural shift before they can benefit similarly. It requires managers to begin thinking about business differently, as a cooperative enterprise with employees and customers. Social business tools facilitate those who want to cooperate and collaborate, but it does not create that desire.
The challenge is that this shift cannot be faked. Unlike a prisoner’s dilemma game that represents a single decision-point, social business is an ongoing enterprise. Even if a manager tells employees and customers that they are now playing the Community Game by introducing social business initiatives, their actions will quickly reveal whether or not it is truly the case. Successful social business may require a shift in culture, not just a shift in tools or in rhetoric.
Although perhaps an oversimplification, I suspect most failed social media initiatives — internal or external — can be described as an attempt to use social business tools to play the Wall Street Game. Instead, social business may be a different game entirely.