“Digital Hives: Creating a surge around change”
Arne Gast and Raul Lansink
The McKinsey Quarterly
The way to get people in your organization to use social tools that you create is by creating digital hives. Or so McKinsey tells us. The article is trite, cloying, and an absolute must-read.
Once you get past the hives metaphor, the too-cute “honeycomb” graphics, and the intentional alliteration in their components to the digital hive (“Purpose, Policy, Progress, Perks, Pulse, Platform, Profile”), there is some real wisdom to be gleaned from here. To wit:
- There must be an compelling reason for everyone in the enterprise to shift to social beyond “the boss says so;”
- Usage policies should emphasize open communications with as few limitations as possible;
- Usage should be monitored to ensure that people are making it a habit, and barriers should be addressed quickly;
- People should be incentivized to use the platform and rewarded for making exemplary use of it;
- Events and milestones offer a superb opportunity to draw more people in and to demonstrate the value of the platform;
- You need to choose the right platform, and balance it with off-line experiences; and
- A great way to begin engagement is to address an organizational challenge – strategy change, breaking down silos, and using the platform to involve key customers.
All of these are essential points to take into consideration when implementing a social media system for internal communications, and the article, taken as a whole, represents a welcome, elegantly packaged effort by McKinsey to address the role social media plays inside the company.
We acknowledge that you cannot include everything there is to know about successfully implementing a social media system in a single article. At the same time, when reading the article and considering the Digital Hive model, there are important caveats to our endorsement if its conclusions. The slickness of the presentation lays a thin veneer over some deep flaws that most CEOs and HR leaders would miss, largely because they lack the experience in implementing these systems. Five that leap out immediately:
• Leadership. The model leaves out the critical role of senior leader participation in driving the usage and effectiveness of internal social media platforms. In most organizations, particularly in corporate and national cultures that drive people to take cues from the boss, if the company’s leaders do not make a social platform their primary communications method, others won’t either. For CEOs, implementing a social media platform while maintaining an e-mail habit almost ensures that the platform will be dead on arrival.
Instead of noting this fact, the authors suggest that the problem in implementation lies in the “message” getting stuck in middle management. In our experience, middle management is often desperate for tools with which to engage younger, harder-to-reach employees and are often the drivers in getting corporate leaders to take social initiatives in the first place.
• Universality – The model treats all organizations as the same. There is no point anywhere that implies that natural variances among companies could limit the applicability of this model. The solution for any company, if it is to be organic to the firm, its structure, its geographies, and its cultures, is going to be different. How does the importance of the “seven P’s” vary from one to the other? Are there other factors that come into play? None of this is addressed.
• Fit – The authors fail to recognize that social media as an internal communications tool is not a good fit for some organizations. The costs and challenges of implementing social media as the primary communications channel in small firms, labor-intensive factories, and companies that are extremely hierarchical or necessarily compartmentalized would far outweigh the benefits. Just those qualifiers alone wipe out a vast chunk of enterprises, and there are more. The authors may wish to consider (as we do) a series of factors that would make a company particularly suited – or particularly unsuited – for social media.
• Evidence – The two cases offered by the authors are both large multinational Dutch companies. One suspects that the authors are drawing conclusions from a more diverse body of cases, but this is an assumption. What we must conclude is that the digital hive works for large Northern European multinationals: will it work in Silicon Valley, much less Shanghai? Perhaps that is what we are asked to believe, but those of us who have worked with or in companies from Europe, Asia, and the United States might want to see more proof that the concept travels.
• Culture – The issue of social communications across cultures is ignored. The authors note at the beginning that corporate culture is a variable that must be taken into account, but they completely fail to address the formidable challenges companies face when trying to foment digital habits across national or tribal cultures. Corporate cultures, however strong, do not always trump key behaviors deriving from national culture, and are a critical variable in building what the authors call “a psychological understanding of what triggers new behavior.”
• Language – Finally, the authors work from the implicit assumption that there is a single corporate language environment in which all workers are comfortable dealing. While most Dutch firms are able to establish a single language for corporate communications, there are a growing number of multinationals that are unable to insist on a single lingua franca throughout the entire enterprise. One example: Chinese firms that are extending overseas often have thousands of senior employees unable to converse in Chinese, much less use Chinese on a day-to-day basis. This challenge is becoming increasingly common as BRICs firms go abroad.
McKinsey has some extraordinarily smart people offering some sharp insights. But the purpose of their articles is less to enlighten than it is to establish their credentials and sell consulting services. If you or your CEO has picked up on this article as a guideline for implementation, be aware that such general advice is no substitute for a company-specific social media effort.