For organizations new to social media, venturing into this world can seem daunting and alien at times: new apps and tools to learn, lots of scary jargon, whatever goofy new change Facebook has unveiled this week.
But the fundamental change that drives social media is pretty simple to articulate, if no less daunting: it’s a shift in how individuals communicate with each other and with organizations. The tools that facilitate this communication (social networks, mobile, blogs) value sharing of content and information. Because individuals can share, they often do, and it’s become the new standard for many.
Like Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky, Charlene Li’s earlier book Groundswell covers this ground adeptly, but in my experience as someone who worked in a large organization struggling to adapt its culture to social media’s culture of sharing and openness, there was still a missing link, a book that gave concrete strategies that a worker like me could take to her boss. (Or her boss’ boss).
However, Open Leadership is that missing link. It’s a book that speaks to organizational leaders directly, confronts their concerns – and yes, fears – about social media technologies and how they are used, provides compelling case studies of large organizations that have adapted, and most importantly offers assessments and action strategies for organizations to use.
And trust me, it’s needed. Social media often scares executives and many communications professionals who devote much of their energies to crafting and controlling a particular message (internally and externally) on behalf of their organization, yet also see the opportunity it represents. Li is very clear about the importance of top-down executive leadership in effective organizational social media practice. And by taking the emphasis off of tactics and even strategy, and placing it on organizational development and leadership, she creates a compelling argument for social media practice that will speak to even the most resistant higher-up. Li says:
“No matter how compelling a technology or potential relationship might be in the face of an immovable mass called company culture, and without the right organization and leadership in place, any digital strategy will fail.”
So many of the popular social media “self help” books focus on small-nimble start-ups or former startups that have grown in the last five to ten years, and having worked for a number of large organizations with an entrenched company culture, I can say without a doubt it’s a hard thing to change, and no amount of social media cheerleading can take the place of a compelling case study that says “hey there are other big companies who allow their employees to blog or respond publicly to negative feedback – and they haven’t gone under!)”
Open Leadership uses examples from both for-profit and non-profit organizations to highlight best practices (and missteps). Li starts the book with a description of how the Red Cross’ first social media manager, Wendy Harnan, integrated social media practice into the organization through education and a clear policy. She explains how United Airlines turned a public relations nightmare around through their open response to the” United Hates Guitars” You Tube song, and she talks about the customer service approach that Comcast CEO Brian Robers adopted that propelled the companies use of social media. She outlines companies that have clear and open internal social media policies for their employees.
To bolster these case studies, Li devotes the rest of the book to laying out a strategy for Open Leadership within an organization and maintaining relationships under a more open management style. She suggests, using tried and true tactics like establishing Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) – and yes, as a web analytics geek this made me very happy – identifying organizational workflows, established social media policies (Li prefers to call them “covenants”). She encourages organizations to allow opportunities for employees to share in decision making and in leadership, and she uses case studies of companies (Cisco, Best Buy) who continue to evolve into a more open organization
What I actually found most valuable about Open Leadership is the fact that it has more in common with management books like Good to Great than the usual social media tomes that focus more on technology or case studies of campaigns. It places the emphasis on the leadership styles and organizational practices that make the most out social technologies rather focusing on social media as a marketing tool.
So with that said, is Open Leadership a must-read for all managers/executives? The optimist in me says “yes,” a committed, engaged leader who’s willing to take measured risk, possibly fail, and go back to the drawing board again and again will get a lot out of this book. But the cynic in me thinks that the executives that need this book the most would never bother to pick it up. I hope I’m wrong.