When Social Networking is introduced to the traditional workplace, clashes in communication styles can lead to a cultural divide. 

Enterprise social networking in business is relationship-based and favors high context communication. Western style business is rule-based and favors low context communication. When relationship-based business social networking is introduced into rule-based business communication it has the ability to produce major conflicts.

The key to successfully introducing a social business network rests in the understanding of how it will impact the company culture.

In order to form an approach, it is useful to look at the mechanics of these two communication styles.

Rule Based Communications

With rule based communication in western businesses, all parties know how they should operate in any given situation. It has been termed low context communication because the rules (overt or covert, spoken or unspoken) and prescribed procedures govern the way all businesses work with each other. This creates a necessary predictability for the way that communication and transactions are executed. To date this has been an essential part of the capitalist communication system.

Individual companies likewise have explicit rules and prescribed criteria formulated by their management for the way the entire company and employees operate and communicate. All employees are expected to respect and follow these rules and procedures.

For example, business discussions have an objective which drives communication and negotiation. Communication is structured, documented, frank and succinct with the intention of affording a quick resolution. Personal information is largely irrelevant.

At all times the focus is the welfare of the object, deal or event under discussion. Internal politics aside, the stronger more logical argument wins and a decision can be quickly made.

Relationship Based Communications 

The mechanics of social business networking are quite different. These systems are relationship-based by their very definition and therefore offer a personal context to each form of communication. This familiarity (who, where, why, when) naturally infiltrates the message composition and its information.

The personal relationship and ongoing history between the sender and recipient is significant and will alter the weight of the words.

Like any form of social media, it’s easy to make a comment and participate in an e-discussion which is open to more participants. Argument is less formally expressed and often less structured. Communication is sometimes seen almost as an art form. The result is that sometimes the message can be miss-interpreted or focus can drift away from its initial subject and decisions can take longer.

This is particularly applicable for Gen Y and Millennials that are now considered to account almost 50% of the workforce. They are used to saying what they think and easily participate in casual, e-discussions at any time. More experienced work colleagues are sure to feel discomfort communicating on a new and unfamiliar turf.

When high context business social networking is introduced into the low context business environment, it is important to remember these differences, for if left unmanaged, social business communications can have a great effect on a company’s operations and create a cultural divide.

Have a Plan & Policy for Communications in Place

This is why an implementation strategy is so important. I advise my clients to pace the implementation over a period of time and take a long term view of user adoption. The critical factor lies in ensuring the software mitigates the business risks and is supported by a clearly defined educational process. Employees need to understand how this new form of communication is different from traditional communication, be aware of its power and use it thoughtfully.

The education process should be integrated directly into the software through the use of drip-fed functionality and moderation controls. The other essential requirement is the implementation of an official Social Business Acceptable Use policy.

Guidelines for social business networking should be written specifically for the company. Different industries and businesses will require different policies and different ways of communicating these rules. The language needs to be appropriate for the recipients. The guidelines for a blue-collar business, such as a motor vehicle manufacturing plant, will be very different to a white collar IT company.

The Digital Participation Guidelines for the US Ford Motor Company’s digital media starts with a summary of principles for communicating. They are:

  1. Honesty about who you are
  2. Clarity that your opinions are your own
  3. Respect for others and personal humility
  4. Judgment about what information should be shared
  5. Awareness of the permanency of electronic information

These topics are probably relevant for most businesses but should be developed according to the specific nature of the company, and possibly with case studies cited to explain their significance.

Once they understand the differences, employees are likely to feel more comfortable to embrace the social business network and explore its capabilities.

During the stakeholder buy-in and consultative process, Management may perceive themselves ill-equipped to deal with the cultural impacts of social business networking. This does not however mean that the technology should be rejected or deferred.

The cultural collision is part of the process and can only be managed effectively over a period of time. 

Editor's Note: Looking for more on Enterprise Social Networks? Check out Tom Petrocelli's Enterprise Social Networks Will Render Company Intranets Obsolete.