Social Media for Social Change — Inside the Organization?

by cv harquail on February 15, 2011

This post is featured on Social Media Today.

How has the activity of organizational change been changed, with the advent of social media?


Back when I was an internal OD/Org Change manager in the Soap Plant, we spread ideas about change the old-fashioned ways: meetings, photocopied paper mail, and face-to-face conversations.

With the rise of enterprise social networks, and all of those messaging, micro-blogging, meet-up-ing, and connecting tools, the world of an internal organizational change agent must also have changed– but how?

Has Social Media Movement Building moved inside organizations?

At last week’s Social Media Week events, there were several sessions about using social media to foment change ‘outside’– among citizens, voters, consumers, and audiences.

Social media — the latest, greatest tool set for social movement building –is being used outside organizations:

  1. To aggregate individuals who share an interesting change,
  2. To cohere these individuals into a community, and
  3. To mobilize this community into off-line as well as online efforts to change a social situation.

No one at Social Media Week really talked about using these very media platforms and techniques inside organizations. This led me to wonder:

Inside our organizations, are individuals intentionally using social media to develop organizational change movements?

We already know that the adoption of social media within organizations, through the implementation of “enterprise social software”, can (and should) transform relationships among individuals and organizations. Once conventional organizations, these actively networked collectives have become “social organizations”.201102151008.jpg

As far as I’ve seen, most of the conversation about the dynamics of social media within social organizations have to do with dynamics around getting work done (project management, knowledge transfer, innovation) and personal career development (expanding your network, finding sponsors, developing a personal brand). These activities reflect the basic needs of organizations and the self-oriented concerns of individuals who want to succeed in organizations.

But what of organizational social change agents?

You know, those individual people in our organizations who have a vision about how things could be better? These individuals may or may not be in leadership positions; they may or may not have managerial authority or access to significant organizational resources. But what they do have -now- is access to internal, cross-organizational communication networks.201102151055.jpg

  • Are individuals using these communications networks to aggregate the attention of individual members around a moment, an event, or particular program?
  • Are they using social media to build these aggregates of individuals into a core community of employees/members who are moving towards a shared vision of a better organization?
  • Are they using social media to move organization members to act differently at work, to push for change and initiate it themselves?

The kinds of organizational changes I’m thinking of are not things like re-instituting Friday coffee hour. I’m thinking about organizational change initiatives like developing a worklife flexibility policy, promoting LGBTQ inclusion initiatives, or influencing the organization to adopt a cradle-to-grave sustainability program.

I can imagine a few individuals using the internal social network:

  • to identify possible allies,
  • to recruit new members,
  • to share information about successes, failures and opportunities for influence,
  • to send messages–public messages–to key decision-makers,
  • to gather financial, behavioral data on the change topic.

Enterprise social media tools could also be used to build off-line community–for example, creating ways for people to meet each other and work together in person. Social media can help a change initiative movement “scale” to include a critical mass of members within an organization. And, it can allow individuals at many different locations in an organization to group together and put pressure on the organization from many different angles.

All of this change agency can be facilitated by social media within the organization, without or before even turning to the organization’s external stakeholders to engage them in helping to influence the organization.

There are obvious power-related obstacles to using social media within an organization to mobilize organizational change.

The primary one is, of course, that the organization itself owns the networks. If powerful members of the organization wanted to prevent individual members or employee groups from using the organization’s networks to foment revolution, all they would need to do is change the rules about how the network can be accessed by members, or revoke the user privileges of certain members.

Another obstacle to using social media for organizational change is that the very visibility, transparency and trackability of internal social media tools makes it difficult for internal change agents to keep their enthusiasm and participation “under the radar”.

Still, why not use the master’s tools to transform the organization?

It seems so likely that this activity is possible, I’d like to know if anyone actually done it. Anybody have some stories?

Some ideas about where this might be underway? Please share…

See also:
When Will “Social Business” Become Social Change Business?

Only A Cosmetic Apology? MAC’s Juarez Controversy & Fauxial Awareness
Enterprise Social Networks : another productivity lever


Susan Macaulay February 16, 2011 at 3:51 am

Interesting questions…

RJ Johnson - 21st Century Appreciative Inquiry February 16, 2011 at 4:02 pm

When the Google employee in Egypt, Wael Ghonim, was interviewed last week, he said the he could be imprisoned, beaten, or killed and he wouldn’t stop. The “advantage” that the Egyptians and others had have is that they have gotten to the point of saying “enough” and that has overcome their fear. The level of fear, as opposed to the level of passion, is currently what rules in most workplaces. Just as there is a new phone app for secure communications, we need to take the same approach to workplace organization and organize under the radar, possibly with people with similar passions from outside one’s current organization. This is similar to what John Hagel talks about. Most organizations of today simply aren’t designed to leverage people’s passion.
In addition, not that everyone is inherently out for themselves, but it is challenging for us to see what “the good of the whole” actually looks like. Even for Egyptians, it was easy for them to agree on what they didn’t want but what they do want is a different story. By organizing around passion, the image of the whole begins to emerge.
Best regards,
RJ Johnson

cv harquail February 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Hi RJ-
Thanks so much for your comment!

“Under the radar” options are a good idea in organizations where individuals and initiatives might not feel safe.

It may be that, instead of using internal (company-owned) networks, change agent members would just use the ‘public’ networks only directed towards each other…

Most organizations really aren’t set up to leverage the passions of members, it’s true. So we could expect differences in internal mobilization depending on the degree to which the organization encouraged genuine engagement. I’m hoping for find some examples to learn from.

John Tropea May 31, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Sure we can work better and be aware and more productive, but at the same time we now have a voice that totally skews the influence of the org chart….like you say we can connect across-silos.

Now even the mail room person can have a say in perturbing a process (probably like they always have done in face to face or email) but now it’s said in the blog and people hear about it and comment. It reaches all ears, not just the supervisor. Now other line managers can see it, now others can comment and perhaps support it. What I like about this is that the frontline inititate the change (about issues managers don’t experience…hello undercover boss ), and we don’t need to privately chain email to see what others think as the comments field is the focus group or poll itself.

Anyway this was the frontline having a say about their own domain, but equally the platform enables them to express their views on social issues or innovations in general. Connect and discover with like others, and from this networking build a group and continue with their discussions…sure, just like Wikipedia, there’s still a top-down governence in the background.

But as you say will people feel confident enough to form these social change groups online within orgs?

That’s a good question. I think this is more probable in time when you have lots and lots of online groups…this way the social change groups don’t stand out as much. The other thing is orgs are new to social computing so social change groups aren’t the best way to make an impression. Once we apply social tools for pain points and processes, and then get used to them for connecting and awareness…and get some real wins and they start to become ubiquitous, only then do I think social change groups may become more acceptable. ie Management will have gained so much by bottom-up insight and collective problem-solving due to these new tools, that they may then be prepared to take constructive criticism on the chin…but I don’t necessarily think it’s about criticism, it’s just about having a stake, having a say, as you are at work most of the day and you want it to be a pleasant, passionate and meaningful experience.

Great post; I think this conversation will surface again in the future.

External social media welcomes opinions of customers, and for customers to co-create. Is internal social media going to have this same dynamic? A customer has nothing to lose, whereas an employee does…

Ryan Brush November 1, 2011 at 5:04 am

Perfect blog post

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