Social and 2.0 : employee adoption does not matter. Manager’s does.

Summary : making employee adopt new usages and tools is often seen as pivotal for the success of any social business or 2.0 initiative. But what’s about managers ? Considering them as average users is overlooking their importance on the field and make sure that tools will be used for anything except actual daily work. Either employee adoption is achieved or not, manager adoption for better coordination and efficiency in day to day operations is what makes the difference between a widely used tool and a productive tool.

In any discussion about the success of a social business project, adoption quickly appears as the key issue. Employees have to adopt. I won’t repeat one more time my beliefs on adoption as a replacement for sense, alignment and coherence or that adoption is for kittens. But facts are here : even it may lead to some  results, supplication-based methodologies have limits.

So this post is not about adoption per se but those it targets. Employees and end users. And my assumption is that this target is not the right one, at least as a primary target. Why employees and end users and not managers ?

Many explanations can be found.

• In networked and flat organizations, managers are employees like any other. That’s a mistake. What is supposed to be right in the tool is not on the fied, in actual operations. Managers using social networks are seen as the managers their are in real life. The way they’ll be seen online will be exactly the same as offline. A manager who’s online is a manager first and employees will be paying a lot of  attention to the way he behaves online.

• Because managers are actually cared about. There’s a real focus on their role in tomorrow’s organization, that’s a real concern. Here again, that’s a mistake. There’s a huge difference between being sure that tomorrow’s managers will micromanage less and will be rather connectors and facilitators than controllers and coming to the conclusion that their role is to do nothing, let things go, observe employees networking and never act, react or interfere. But the border between these two views is too often and easily crossed.

In short, in adoption programs, managers are seen as being both average employees (who should behave as such) and managers (who’s future is to interfere in nothing)

If we assume that adoptions relies on sense, alignment and coherence, all this looks unfinished for the reason that the one that sets the tone in the workplace is told to adopt a low profile and stay in the background.

So managers need specific adoption programs that are more than about letting thing go, quiet kindness or frustrated silence but productive use.

Example :

I remind of a manager who adopted this approach a couple of years ago. He set up expert spaces (communities) and spaces for day to day work, applying observable work logics. When he was asked by email to solve a problem or find the person able to solve it, he used to reply to the sender that such a request has to be shared in the right community, not sent to him. If the sender did no get the point, he used to copy and paste the message himself in the right community, saying “Mr So-and-so would like some help with this point”. Same for day-to-day work. Any e-mail to multiple recipients saying “I’ve done this, I need that”, aiming at informing the ones and covering oneself regarding to others was not read (rule in outlook : any message he was copied ended in a special box he never opened). So people were had to share through their activity stream. As he was in charge of a team made of people in many locations, he explained the merits of observable work and used to rely on what was observable to assess the qualitative and collaborative part of people’s work. Not to reward noise or punish slow adopters, only to recognize those whom, with a positive attitude, helped others to succeed, to make sure that collaboration and sharing was not seen as waste of time that could impact negatively they performance review.

In this case, even if things were done for employee adoption (networking and social collaboration at their own initiative), what made the difference was, without any doubt, management adoption. Not a passive adoption in the “I tolerate and let people do” way, not a vague kindly support, not to see managers behave like any employee that joins communities to have conversations. It was a productive adoption with specificities related to the role of a manager.

Not easy ? It’s clear that this person was quite ahead and that the decision of deploying a social network was not to follow a trend, it was not a strange tool he had to find something to do with to justify the investment, but what he’s been looking for for years to manage people as he was convinced management should be done but did not have the right tools to act accordingly.

So a manager with the right mindset can make things happen within his team, creating a kind of bubble of comfort in the zone that’s under his responsibility. But what to do with a “normal” manager ?

Of course it will be hard to make anything change is there’s no reflection on the role of managers at the corporate level. That’s often the case even if switching from thinking to doing still scares boards and HR people. Then, a two-steps program can be tried :

- a first step that’s painless provided technology is not too repulsive. It’s only about trying to move existing flows from the email to adhoc spaces and tools. At the beginning, it requires people to use new tools to send the same messages they used to send before but that will become easier in a near future since business and process applications are getting socialized and make such plans more coherent. For example, have a look of what that means for project management.

- the second and more touchy step will be to adapt managerial postures and usages. First, start with the current situation and explain him how he can do “like before” in a tool context that’s much more productive than email. Understand his mission and tasks, the way he and is staff work, then create a very simple and adhoc social routine. Then it’s possible to work on the posture. It’s more about coaching and we can bet that an unconscious and slow shift will happen over time as the manager gets more comfortable with what he does and so gets bolder and bolder.

- an optional but not that useless point is to sort the path of least resistance out. People are so used to email that even a strong willpower is not enough to kill habits. Clamping email to prevent counterproductive behaviors one wants to get rid of may be radical but effective solution. After all, why investing in new tools if there’s no desire to fix the way the old ones are used. Another idea would be to bring social back into new generation email clients, following the  social mail  approach which is likely to become a standard in a near future. Doing both at the same time makes email more difficult to use for wrong purposes as social tools become easier to use for right ones. But killing email makes no sense as long as social tools are still so poorly integrated with other tools.

Anyway, a productive roll-out of a social business project should not rely on user adoption only. A specific approach targeting managers as the people who coordinate and supervise is essential to avoid non-work-related programs and improve organizational agility. Managers should adopt social not as employees but as managers.

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