Business books and blogs are typically full of US sporting metaphors and quotes. As a British reader with no interest in baseball, basketball or what-you-call-football, I find these mystifying and alienating. So, forgive me if I, in turn, mystify and alienate my US audience by explaining what the 18-year-old utterances of a Scottish football pundit say about who is responsible for the social business strategy in your company.
On the first day of the football (OK, “soccer”, if you must) season in August 1995, Manchester United were beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa. Analysing the match that night on TV, Alan Hansen criticised United for fielding a team with five 20-year-olds, and famously claimed “you can’t win anything with kids”. By the end of the season he was proved spectacularly wrong when United won both the league and the FA Cup, a feat only achieved five times previously in over 100 years.
Although Hansen will always be remembered for his mistake, few would have disagreed with him at the time – the team seemed far too inexperienced to succeed. Yet this is precisely how many companies manage their social business strategies. Perhaps a few manage United-esque triumphs through this approach, but many, many others don’t.
The logic behind entrusting social business to “the kids” is clear, but flawed. The so-called Millennial Generation has come of age alongside big consumer social media services like Facebook, Twitter and before these, MySpace. So the “you know social – you run our Facebook page” attitude was probably inevitable, a 21st Century version of “I don’t know how to program my VCR so I get my children to do it”.
But it is also a sign of not taking social business seriously enough. This has led to countless high-profile social media disasters where the people tasked with managing a company’s presence have lacked the experience to deal with any widespread customer discontent. Maybe this failure to take social business seriously was understandable at first, but as the importance of social technology both inside and outside the company has become clearer and clearer, it is nothing short of a dereliction of duty for management to continue with this attitude.
The main reason many social networking initiatives fail is that they don’t align with business objectives. Plans to deliver true customer engagement through Facebook and Twitter deteriorate into nothing more than another advertising channel that customers react to with hostility; internal communication initiatives fizzle out and die when employees fail to find time to engage with the newly-formed community. But none of this should be surprising to us if these projects are not being driven by senior management.
It is now widely accepted that the success or failure of social business projects has little to do with technology. These projects are dependent on changes to an organization’s culture and working practices, and these are things that junior employees have relatively little influence over. Many employees are often reluctant to break their knowledge-is-power email-centric working patterns and make the effort to share their work more widely for the benefit of their coworkers. And they are highly unlikely to be jolted out of these practices by the newest recruits to the organization. It is usually only as a result of management directives that working practices change.
This is not to say that young, enthusiastic employees don’t have an important role to play in social business strategies. Any management directive needs to be accompanied by social business champions who illustrate how collaboration is meant to work in our brave new world of open communication. While you can’t win anything with kids alone, you’re equally unlikely to win anything without them. Involving younger employees and harnessing their enthusiasm in the evolution of company culture gives them a greater sense of belonging and ownership which will pay dividends throughout their careers. Some of “the kids” may go on to do great things for the company. Manchester United’s scorer on that day in August 1995? A 20-year-old David Beckham – you might have heard of him… even in the US.