Are in-the-flow activities a cure against cultural barriers ?

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The importance of culture on the success of enterprise 2.0 projects is now acknoledged by everybody. The issue was widely discussed at the last Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Franfort where I took part in a panel about it. Even apart from this specific session, culture was the hot topic in many discussions during the breaks and the lunches what proves that beyond the agenda of the conference this subject was naturally coming to the surface.

Besides that, let me make a short aside about that. I appreciated a lot to see some our overseas counterpart showing interest about this point. Even if Dion Hinchliffe can often be seen in events taking place in Europe, the attendance of Gil Yehuda who wanted to “see by himself how things were going here and have a better understanding of our context” (if I remember well his words) was a really good news. I don’t even mention those who would have liked to be there but couldn’t due to the closeness to the San Francisco Enterprise 2.0 Conference. In short, on the heels of all the discussions on  blogs or on twitter, both sides of the Ocean are beginning to get  closer, listen to one another and the idea that there is not one adoption model that is supposed to work everywhere emerges. So any international project has to take all local issues into account. In my opinion, discussions and cooperations between Europe and the US will be a major trend in 2010…

This allowed Gil to write two insightful notes (here et here) about his discovery of the german market.

Coming back to the conference’s discussions, it was very easy for each of us to find many example of cases where cultural issues impacted a project. Sometimes it was local culture (country or even region), sometimes corporate culture, or even language issues that are often cleared with the back the hand (“How course, all our employees are fluent in english and many other languages…”) and often come back as a boomerang. I also learned with interest by people from CSC that beyond the strict adoption, depending on countries, people do not necessarily use the same functionalities or don’t use them the same way.

In the “Culture hurts” series, competing to find the most painful experience was not hard at all. But, as conclusion was coming up, I felt that something was missing. Culture is obviously a key issue in many projects but…many projects went well without any problems due to cultural issues. Sometimes it was because culture has been properly addressed, but some other times it was because culture forgot to bother us. And, in my opinion, it was not always a matter of luck.

So I tried to quickly gather the common denominator of all theses projects (of course its only reflects my own experience). And the conclusion was obvious : most of times, the projects that successfully neutralized the cultural issues were those that favored the “in the flow ” dimension rather than the “over the flow” one.

This is also the difference between community management and team management : the first needs feeling like participating, conviction, and cultures plays a big part to make people decide whether to get involved or not, the second only needs people to follow the “official way of doing things” and, even if the cultural dimension does not disappear, it’s less impacting because people’s free will does not have much room.

I also found a corroborating voice in Andrew McAfee’s book (Enterprise 2.0) that also concludes that over the flow activities may not lead to a massive and uniform participation, contrary to in-the-flow activities.

So I let you draw you own conclusions from your own experience (and comments are welcome) but it seems that it’s something that as to be taken into account when designing an enterprise 2.0 project in a multicultural context. Maybe we can also consider that the best way to reassure people and make them feel more comfortable with the “over the flow” is to start with “in the flow” that is more worklow oriented but less involving.

This is one more argument in favor of in-the-flow activities which, more than properly addressing the sense and alignent issues also allow to lower the cultural risk.