Thursday, 29 May 2008

Culture and Web 2.0

Over at The AppGap, Matthew Hodgson has made a post uniting some of the themes I've been blogging about recently: the effect of different cultures on the take up of Web 2.0 tools.

Of course, I have to add the industry standard disclaimer that I too have philosophical and technical doubts about Hofstede's categories like "Power Distance" but overall it's not a bad starting point in this case (and definitely a post worth reading) Hodgson points to some recent research:


The book The Emergence of the Relationship Economy looks at a wide range of factors in the adoption of social computing tools, including culture. In bringing together a number of studies, chapter nine [1] deals specifically with the issue of culture.

graphc of Power-Distance

The book reports that cultures who have very high Power-Distance scores also have low adoption of social computing tools. What organisations are likely to be high Power-Distance cultures? Many government agencies, defence and security organisations, and manufacturing companies could be described in this way.

He goes on to muse on how to address the problem. I agree overall with his contention that you can build an organisational culture that accepts social web tools even where the national culture seems to mitigate against it. However, what I've seen so far is that many companies still fail to take the time to consider that there may be cultural differences across different branch offices before they roll out these tools. So I make that the most important take home point of this post: Find out what cultures are operating across your organisation before you roll out a one size fits all change program.


Monday, 19 May 2008

Willingness to work together?

Shiv Singh recently posted some Reflections on the Nature of Collaboration over at the app gap. He says:

An often forgotten fact about collaboration is that the people who typically want to collaborate are also the ones who trust each other the most. They are also the people who recognize that they can benefit in some manner by collaborating. Those benefits usually extend beyond just learning from one another to also recognizing that their reputations get enhanced as more peers observe their ongoing collaborations. But these people aren’t always in the majority.

Shiv concentrates on the implications of this for "Enterprise 2.0 software" but it reminded me of the often unspoken political problems when "intercultural communication problems" are identified in a business. Every now and then, two offices are not co-operating well on a project, but the problem is not at the level of the cultural differences in ways of working and communicating, or generating trust across two groups who perceive strong differences between them.

Instead, the problem comes out of a company's structure, which may place parts of those two offices in competition for certain customers, or particular bits of work. Or the director of one of the offices doesn't want the project to succeed because the director of the other office would get all the credit (and the coming promotion!)

Business problems can have many roots and it may not be the one you expect. This is why it is so important to begin with an analysis of the business and the context of the perceived problem. When you're holding a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. That's why I feel my experience in other fields has helped in cross-cultural consulting. It helps me be open about what the root causes may be and allows me to step back and say "This problem is really about the way you force these offices to compete against each other over business. If you don't address that, co-operation between them will not improve, no matter how many "cultural awareness" workshops are put on.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Virtual Communications

Over at IABC Cafe, Julie Freeman asks about people's experiences with teleconferencing, which reminds me of a recent conversation with a lawyer. He asked me my general opinion of video conferencing and other technologies. I was moved to enthuse about a recent demonstration I'd seen of Cisco's TelePresence. I think that the approach of representing people in high definition at life size is the way of the future for virtual business communication. For now the cost, both for equipment and bandwidth, is beyond most organisations but (other than holography) it's the first setup I have seen that begins to offer an experience that offers some of the affordances* of face-to-face meetings.

However, I ended the conversation by touching on my reservations. The lawyer heads up a branch office and was wondering about the use of technology to reduce travelling to meetings at the central office. That sounds very promising, it could save time, money and help save the planet. Unfortunately, I was of the opinion that for him, it was a bad idea. Why?

The firm is run as a partnership and these meetings at the central office are where the partners gather to decide how the business will be run. My experience is that every such partnership has it's share of low-level politics. And if you move to "virtual meetings" you will amplify any communications gap between the people at central office and those from various branches. That gap no doubt already exists, politically, with those who work in each location tending to discuss matter with each other before the overall gathering takes place. Low-tech teleconferencing however raises the danger that those in central office can have a "back conversation" throughout a virtual meeting, which puts those on the other end of a video link in a position where they have much less awareness of what is going on and thus less ability to influence proceedings.

Is there then no hope for a greener teleconferencing future? I think there is hope, but it relies in understanding that meetings are often not the best forum for discussion or decision-making. If other methods are taken up, they can proceed using "virtualisation technologies" and a smaller number of meetings be made face to face.


*Affordances is a word which means "action possibilities" and I first encountered it in the book "The Myth of the Paperless Office" which I highly recommend if you like thinking about the way various media delimit the way we work and communicate.


Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Interacting with the world

David Ferrabee has a nice post on the way globalisation is affecting every business, not just those with branches out in "foreign places." He asks some important questions about the ethical basis of our interactions with other countries, for us all to consider:

  1. Do our buying policies help serve countries that need the trade?
  2. How can we support sustainable development (like drought resistant crops) is developing parts of the world?
  3. Do we have any way of influencing fertility rates in countries where children are still being born at a rate of 5/6 per woman?
  4. How can we help keep children in school...? Children who could be contributing more effectively to the economy is a matter of years...
  5. What kind of investment brings people and communities along with us, rather than sitting in opposition?

I'd emphasise that these questions apply all the more strongly to those businesses who are already, or are in the planning stages of doing business abroad. If you do (or are going to do) business in far off places you should be looking at every avenue to develop engagement and understanding of the culture there.

Think carefully about acting on some of David's questions and you will not only improve your understanding of the local market and employees, but you can improve your CSR ratings and get some goodwill, good PR both at home and abroad.


Thursday, 1 May 2008

Communications are leaky, so what?

I blogged recently about the new reality that any communications will leak beyond the intended recipients to all sorts of other stakeholders, particularly departments of the business in different countries.

So how should you construct your communications? Shel Holtz has a nice summary of the implications:

The core message absolutely must be consistent.


However, I don’t agree with the notion that you can craft a single communication for each audience. Whether or not you share your external communications with employees, they’ll see it—or, at least, have access to it. The message to analysts ends in analyst reports which find their way into investment blogs, the media message is published on news sites and from there into the blogosphere.

But employees still need the internal spin, and I’m using that word in the constructive sense. In a merger, analysts care about the impact on value and share price. Employees may also care about that—particularly if they own stock—but they have more immediate concerns that aren’t on the minds of other publics (including local communities, NGOs, activist groups, the government, and so on). They want to know about the security of their jobs, the status of existing projects, where they’ll wind up in the revamped structure of the new company and whether their benefits will change.

Spinning stories (in the good way) to accommodate the unique interests of each constituency is at the heart of effective communication. It’s why we research the audiences before we craft the communications.

Of course, defining the boundary line between the "core message" which must be preserved and the "details of specific interest" which can vary from audience to audience isn't easy. But that's why they pay us...