A qualitative perspective on social media thinking among managers

The MIT survey, conducted by Michael Fitzgerald, Nina Kruschwitz, Didier Bonnet, and Michael Welch, is based on 1559 executives and members of staff from 106 countries who participated in a broad-based survey. Such dataset can make a qualitative research based on some thirty Danish managers look ridiculous. Let me start with a few comments to set the frame of this blog post: In qualitative research, representative samples do not make sense as every single informant has a unique voice and understanding of the world. The questions posed by a researcher or stated in a survey will always be interpreted differently based on the respondent’s particular experience and context – which make comparability a worthless effort. However, a quantitative report can be useful as a point of departure for an in-depth discussion.
Technology in business is becoming increasingly strategic, which also explains why that is my field of study. One of the basic and global acknowledgements amongst managers is that the connected consumer creates an imperative for digital transformation and that managers believe in the ability of technology, such as social media, to provide open routes to new ways of doing business and thus bring transformative change to business. Put in concrete numbers, 78% believe that achieving digital transformation will become critical to their organization within the next two years and 93% of the employees feel that digital transformation is right.

But if we take a closer look at the management dimension only 38% in the MIT survey said that is was a permanent item on the CEO’s agenda and only 36% of the CEOs the digital transformation vision. However, 65% thought it ought to be.

The Danish managers in our (my colleagues and I) research expressed the same perception of a changing market. Stating an imperative does not necessarily initiate action; there was not much digital transformation taking place in their companies and there was no strong consideration of implementing social media as a business platform. In line with the MIT report it is a significant minority of companies in Denmark who have developed the technology and management skills to realize the potential of social media.

The MIT report also states that managers see the potential in social media, but are unclear about how to get to the results. In my interviews, not all Danish managers saw a potential, not because they didn’t want to, but no clear vision seemed to appear – just blurred ideas triggered by the questions posed by the interviewer.

One of the reasons may be that it is difficult for a small Danish retailer or service company to associate with some of the successful companies like Lego or Starbucks, which are often used as best practice examples, and thus find useful and applicable inspiration. No doubt that these large companies have been really innovative, as stated in the report by Brotman (CDO, chief digital officer) from Starbucks:

“We were not just doing smart around Wi-Fi, but we were doing something innovative around how we were connecting with customers”.

But if the manager forget about size for a moment, he or she might find something very useful, indeed, that does not have to do with size, but with attitude: These companies used social media to change customer relationships. Changing the business model has helped both Starbucks and Lego to re-engage with customers and boost overall performance. Social media is becoming more pervasive in people’s lives, which invites you to rethink our corporate identity. Try for a moment to re-think you as a manager of a social media-based company – not a traditional retailer- or service company.

Stating that it is a question of attitude more than company size place a particular challenge on the shoulders of the manager. In order to develop the competences needed the manager needs to boost self-motivation and make sense of such learning process. Another argument for the impact of managerial perception is that of those companies, who have digital transformation as a core strategic consideration, 81% believe that it will increase competitiveness in two years. Optimism and the ability to see opportunities are vital traits, but opening up to the digital also seem to influence optimism: Among those managers, who were not focused on digital transformation, only 18% believe their companies will increase competitiveness.

In general, most companies lack experience: Digital immaturity is a widespread problem, but mainly because of the manager’s attitude towards it. In raw numbers, the report defined 15% of the managers to be mature and 65% as beginners. This is a problem since it is the managers who must lead the process and coordinate across the company. In our research, we did not categorize the levels of competency, but the MIT report suggests four categories:

Beginner: The manager is slow to adopt or is sceptical of more advanced technologies such as social media (65%)
Conservative: Companies deliberately hang back, although management has a vision and structures needed (14%)
Fashionista: The company is very aggressive adopting new technologies, but lack corporate coordination and effective vision (6%)
Digirati: The managers share a strong vision for what new technologies bring, invest in and manage digital tech quickly and effectively, and gain the most value (15%).

The mental barriers of including social media on the executive agenda are obvious in the MIT report as well as in our qualitative research. The in-depth interviews, I conducted, revealed in some cases a strong personal resistance, even though the context was professional. Both managers in the MIT report and our informants raised the problem of too much hype. All that talk of social media and digital technology seem to have a negative impact on some managers’ motivation.

However, the immediate explanations given for not getting further involved was time and money, but at a deeper level the reasons were attached to the individual perception and self-identity: The fear of incompetence, to be viewed as ridiculous by others, a perception of social media as something unserious that managers should not spend their precious time on, and no sense of urgency. The latter was confirmed by the report as 39% felt no sense of urgency, which can be seen as a cultural barrier to social media. Most dominating cultural barriers mentioned were:
53% said ‘we don’t have time for that now’
42% said ‘we don’t have time to do that’
40% expressed a resistance by saying ‘this is the way we have always done it’
18 % expressed a risk aversion by stating ‘it’s not worth the risk’.

A reason, also stated by the Danish managers, was the lack of clarity of pay-off. What is the ROI and how can we define KPI? There was no second-order reflection on whether is could be measured in the ordinary way. The question should instead be: What social media measures are relevant and why? Why is measurement considered so important (for instance, we don’t need to measure the air we breathe in order to assess its vital function)?

The survey shows a clear split in perception of urgency between top managers and their employees: The further down, the more they feel that the development goes too slow. 53 % of CEOs think the pace is right, fast or very fast in opposition to 22 % of staff. One of the respondents (p. 7) expressed that “Management is found guilty of complacency, ignorance of modern technology and clueless management”.

Again, perception leads to low motivation.

In accordance, the MIT report concluded that managers in general lack the management temperament and relevant experience to know how to effectively drive transformations through technology. The authors state that it requires a different mindset and skill sets than previous waves of transformative technology. Social media and the Internet is not just another technology, but more pervasive than assumed.

What does the positive mindset have to offer?

But let’s try to motivate by looking closer at the experienced benefits and what managers of small companies can expect from gaining membership in the social media business club:

Most prominent is better customer experiences and engagement by improving the overall customer experience, followed by enhancing products and services in customer-friendly ways. This was followed by stream-lined operations and new lines of businesses or business models. Moreover, social media seem to improve internal communication in the company. But in the light of strategic management, the manager must decide what to transform first. Is it the relationship with the customers and/or other stakeholders? Is it the internal operations or is it the business model?

The positive approach starts with a vision in the mind of the manager that can be shared with others. Business transformations seldom happen as a clean bottom up process, and has the strongest odds of becoming successful when the entire company aligns around the same vision. The report stated that what distinguishes a doing technology and leading tech-based transformation is how the companies put the leadership framework in place. (page 7)

But what to do when 2/3 of managers seem to fail to articulate a vision for digital transformation? How can the manager articulate such vision, draw a roadmap and commit to it?

I suggest that the first step is for the manager to acknowledge the degree of difficulty such challenge possesses with regards to:

Management competencies. The manager’s role has shifted from ‘managing a profession’ to ‘professional management’. That is no longer sufficient, but now requires both the managerial and professional skills: technological and social intelligence are equally important. The manager must be able to add ‘a social and digital leader’ to the resume. Moreover, the manager must be able to involve others and develop the courage to shift the collective mindset. The MIT report states that a critical skill is to have someone who can keep scanning the tech landscape and explain it to the rest of management. Reframing such questions about the business is really challenging, because it requires a company to challenge its own assumptions about itself.

Handling market change and complexity. The traditional assumptions of control must be revised. Control is a mental state of mind, a sense more than a tangible fact, which develops parallel with the sense of competence. Social media management requires the will to explore it without being judgmental. It is complicated, but can be managed, if the traditional assumptions of what to manage, why manage, and how to manage are adjusted to the digital age. A place to start is to understand that technological and social change is a basic condition, not something that will go away. Companies have to develop a continuous process for digital innovation. Try to be curious about it, take small experimental steps and invest in what works. Remember, the worst to do is doing nothing! Second worst is to just do something or hire others to do it for you. Whatever you choose, choose it for the right reasons.

If you are a manager in you best years, you must also be alert: According to the report older managers must understand that their age can undermine faith in their ability and interest in leading digital information and develop approaches to make it clear that they want to se transformation occur. Senior managers seem to understand the importance/relevance, but seem to be paralyzed by business systems and business processes that will take a good deal of effort and cash to change/adapt.

Thinking about your thinking can change your mindset and offer new perspectives that may work as stepping-stones into this digital transformation. And remember – as this report together with our research has shown – as a manager, you are not alone on this challenge.

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