Can Social Be Top-Down?


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Adoption is the pain point of social enterprise. While adoption rates linger at staggering low levels, critical success factors are endlessly identified, dissected and commented.

Among those is the “top management support”, often seen as the key to success. But is it really? Is it true that, to succeed, social initiatives must have a high level champion, possibly the CEO? Can a company become social if it hasn’t got its Michael Dell, a Chief Social Officer, or at least highly convinced top executives?

Exemplified success stories support this view. And it is true that top management can provide precious resources for social adoption:

A vision. Foreseeing what a company will become in 10 years from now can’t ignore social, which top executives (should) know. What’s even better is when they embody this vision, and act accordingly – at least by using and promoting social tools. Being a social leader is another story.

An example for others to follow. When brought into new tools or new interaction modes, many employees want to know whether the Management is serious about it before jumping in.

The organizational impact capacity to make things change. Only top level executives have that power to make a difference quickly since they decide on the organization, budgets and priorities. If they put their institutional power at the service of social adoption, there’s little doubt it gives it a better chance to happen.

However, I believe it is not the magic solution to having a company embrace social. Finding and convincing top-level champions may even be detrimental to social projects because of the time and energy they require.

Often, this top-down approach is just not effective and does not generate the expected positive outcomes on social adoption.


Geared for competition, not collaboration. The top executives of today have grown in environments where competition, not cooperation, was the key to moving up the corporate ladder. Hardly enthusiastic about the “collaboration imperative”, they value the social status attached to their title and react strongly when hit by internal competition. They take a critical look on social, which challenges the way they operate. Information leakage, negative opinions made public and disorder are major risks they’re not willing to run.

Shaped by old management theories. Wirearchy is not yet at the program of business schools, which still teach students how to become good leaders, i.e. the happy few at the forefront who lead the others thanks to their brilliant ideas, superior dedication to ROI, etc. But social requires a whole new theory of management, just as modern economics needs to move away from bases that are no longer adapted to today’s reality.

Not familiar with social tools. Very few top executives, especially in large companies, are digitally native. They belong to a generation that has had to learn all the digital tools, applications, social networks, etc. and for which each innovation is a pain that will require learning efforts. While efforts are paying off for an ever increasing share of the elder adults , reaching a high corporate position requires a lot of hard work which gives top executives little time or intellectual availability to get started with social.

So, what can you do if you don’t have, from the early start, a strong advocate for social among the executives team?

Well, just remember that social is at its best when it comes from the people themselves. Listen to what already exists. Identify your social connectors. Let the employees speak with each other, interact, form discussion groups. Stimulate the creation of communities, provide a minimal infrastructure and let them self-organize. Establish an open dialog and avoid control. Manage to put the most engaged participants under the spotlights.

Then go see the Management and show the depth and intensity of these interactions generated by the social communities. Social is then no longer an abstraction, but a concrete, simple and attractive reality. Tell the corporate leaders they are welcome to join the movement, and how interesting it would be for them and for the company.

The real flavor of social is bottom-up.