Social Business, Culture may not be the problem. Or the solution.In the pursuit of “Social” business, the relationship between technology and what is often called "culture" (a word I distrust for both its imprecision and overuse) is not what the industry would have you believe.

This is Not Cause and Effect

Social Software adoption does not mean a business is "social" and the lack of social software or its adoption does not mean it isn't.

The industry is saying that you need culture and technology to be a social business and that one or the other of those is holding you back from making progress on the other. The fact is that these issues are two separate problems that need to be addressed on their own. They are not linked by cause and effect.

There is probably some relationship. A 2.0 culture may adopt social tools faster. Social tools may aid in the social shift, but the evidence for this is weak. Yammer was rapidly adopted by a wide range of organizations that no one would describe as Shifted and they still wouldn't, though those same companies and their workforces will testify that they are getting real value from those tools. The value is in enabling the workforce - even in command and control environments.

A predominantly command and control business is not shifted, but can still benefit from the adoption of social tools. This is certainly also true of SharePoint, and to a lesser extent Jive. The adoption of social tools may build the awareness, capability and confidence of a workforce enough to drive the “Shift” from the bottom up -- but again, I'd say the evidence for this at an organizational level is relatively weak.

So let's get to the point. The reason people aren't adopting social software is because it sucks.

There are theories and there are laws. Here's the first law of software adoption: people will adopt a tool when it is easier to use than not to. You can manipulate the equation a bit with some coercion and some reward structures (gamification), but I think the argument remains the same.

The reason technology isn't being adopted in your organization may have some cultural elements, but the biggest reason is that it isn't helping people do what they need to do, or it's too hard to use -- despite the lovely UX and modern "feature" set, it is not aligned with the organic flows of how people actually work and communicate. Getting content into or out of it and the way its “communities” or “teams” are formed and structured don’t mesh with reality.

Suggesting that the only way to be successful is to train people to work completely differently is silly. In the 1990s we said saw that software was hard to use, and accepted it as inevitable. Problems were “user errors.” Then in the 2000s we started to make software that was well designed for people and the world of opportunity opened up. Why do we think that software that is hard to use is again the user’s problem?

While I appreciate that email addiction is real, the way to get me off email isn’t to brow beat me and pray for my enlightened soul, but to give me something that actually works better for what I need to do.

The need for these new social tools to prove their value has caused practitioners to filter and even block the rapid learning that should be happening here. We should be racing toward an understanding of what people will and won't use, what works in different use cases and contexts -- but we aren’t.

There's another reason that the culture versus technology argument isn't helping. Culture is a concept that we all recognize. It is a word we use to refer to an amorphous cloud of vague ideas. It does not help us understand that cloud, work with it or learn from it. In short it is a word that isn't helping us, and putting so much faith and responsibility into a word that takes so little responsibility on itself seems, uh, irresponsible. Let's be kind and say that culture is an emergent property of an organization, but tells us little about the organization itself.

What tech can do: Enable people and the organization to work better.

There are all kinds of enterprises and they exist in every place on the spectrum between command and control and "Shifted" -- from eleemosynary to evil empire. (Those are not parallel but perpendicular axes. Command and control can be primarily for good -- cite your favorite charity -- and Shifted can be evil. We could cite some innovative management techniques of various international bad guys.) (and, yes, eleemosynary is an unnecessarily pedantic word, but it's stuck with me since high school, and I haven't had the chance to use it much. Pretend I said "charitable".) Regardless, most organizations run on email and some constellation of shared software systems and file sharing. The emphasis is on email.

For the purposes of this short(ish) and superficial discussion, let's say there are three levels of work that technology can assist. There's the work of the individual, there's the work of teams (and we've identified five kinds of teams, but later for that), and there's the work of the org itself. And by work, in this case, I mean productivity -- the ability to understand the work to be done, the ability to construct solutions, develop options, make decisions and deliver value.

Confining my remarks for the moment to "knowledge work," most workers have a multitude of issues they are working in any particular week. Email -- the dominant tool of knowledge work -- leaves us harried, confused and reliant on self-discipline and unnatural acts of personal organization or memory to keep all the threads clear and moving forward.

At a team level, ensuring that the group understands and tracks the issues as a whole is not assisted by email or Microsoft Project, so rather than tapping into the alchemy of a collection of minds working on a problem, we are for the most part, limiting the value of teams to “divide and conquer,” rather than collaboration. At the level of the organization, once the organization reaches a certain size, without some technology, the work of the organization quickly becomes frantic, disorganized and fragmented.

It is useful to think of social technologies not as a creator or benefactor of "culture" but simply as things that help us get through the day to day -- completely independently of organizational values, behaviors and design. Will one eventually affect the other? Perhaps. Is that why it will be adopted or not? No.

So -- if the stream, blog, community, wiki feature set isn't being gobbled up by your co-workers, then it's not because they are or are not social, it's because it's not helping them out.

Ask yourselves -- what will? And call me.

The best is yet to come.

Editor's Note: Read more of Deb's thoughts in The Future of Social Business is Paved with (Good) Intentions