Is Middle Management the Enemy of Social Business?

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In order for an organization to truly become a social business, the culture has to be right. Social tools enhance transparency within an organization. There is no more hiding behind email or highly structured business silos. Social tools, especially Enterprise Social Networks (“ESN”), have the functionality that make it possible for every employee in an organization to have a voice.

This is good news for senior executives who want ideas and suggestions from every employee. One never knows where the next great idea or suggestions is going to come from and who better to come up with these ideas than employees. Employees, after all, have the most knowledge of what works and what does not work. They know if a process is broke or if certain people within an organization are preventing progress to evolve because they are following their own political agenda.

This is also good news for rank and file employees who are looking to demonstrate their ability and want an opportunity to be heard. When a senior executive posts a question on the ESN, employees don’t need to go through traditional channels of communication to voice their opinion or provide an answer. They can do that directly on the ESN. This type of transparency and ability to share knowledge is one of the value propositions of an ESN.

Crowdsourcing is also an exercise that offers tremendous value and new insights for companies. IBM is one of the companies that has invested in the power of social and crowdsourcing to drive change and innovation inside the company. Since 2001, IBM has used jams (collaborative crowdsourcing events) to involve its more than 300,000 employees around the world in far-reaching exploration and problem-solving. ValuesJam in 2003 gave IBM’s workforce the opportunity to redefine the core IBM values for the first time in nearly 100 years. During IBM’s 2006 Innovation JamTM - the largest IBM online brainstorming session ever held – IBM brought together more than 150,000 people from 104 countries and 67 companies. As a result, 10 new IBM businesses were launched with seed investment totaling $100 million.

Other companies are also seeing tremendous value in allowing every employee to participate in solving problems and coming up with new ideas. Social technologies are opening up tremendous possibilities for collaborative innovation — ways of working across industries, disciplines, and national borders. Ross Dawson, a highly regarded futurist and friend recently published a  book, Getting Results From Crowds, in which he gives several examples of how companies are using employee crowdsourcing to drive real business results.

Unfortunately, not everyone is embracing the possibilities and capabilities that social business tools and processes bring to an organization. Middle managers, those that traditionally have had control over what information gets conveyed to upper management, are struggling to find their roles in this new way of doing business. The reason for this is that middle managers are unsure of what their roles are or will change once a company decides to add social business technologies and processes. These new technologies allow for everyone to have a voice, so the need for middle managers to “manage” and “filter” what is said and done by their teams disappears.  Middle managers need to understand that in a social business environment their roles changes from a “management” role into a “curator” role. For example, instead of filtering and controlling what information gets conveyed to upper management, middle managers can take an active role in curating content, giving it proper context and framing conversations and discussions that enable their teams to collaborate more effectively.

In 2012, IBM conducted a study, “The Business of Social Business: What Works and How It’s Done,” that showed that while companies are increasing their social technology investments, middle management leaders are struggling to embrace these capabilities as part of their day-to-day work. The problem, as the IBM study revealed is that “the key to accelerating widespread adoption lies in an organization’s ability to build social business expertise among employees, while encouraging behavioral changes that may influence a wider cultural shift. However, only one-quarter of companies believe they are fully prepared to address the cultural changes that are associated with this transformation.”

Therefore, companies needs to spend a significant amount of time and effort in encouraging their middle managers to change their existing behavior and provide their teams with a platform for engagement such as ESN’s and collaborative spaces. Middle managers need to embrace their new roles and upper management must set up a system to reward them for this. Without this basic fundamental change in culture, middle managers will resist change and a company’s social business initiative will be doomed before it starts. Middle managers in turn need to teach their teams the value of collaborating with one another and sharing knowledge and expertise. This may seem simple but from my experience it is not.  Middle managers can encourage this collaboration by transforming existing business processes into new more effective processes that are enhanced by social technologies.

For example, a middle manager can shorten and enhance their weekly meetings with their direct reports by creating a private group in an ESN. If that weekly meeting happens at noon every Friday, then everyone in the team is required to upload any information they want to discuss at the meeting by close of business on Wednesday. Everyone is required to read that information on their own time but before the meeting takes place. On Friday, when the meeting takes place, no new information will be discussed, only the information that has been shared and reviewed by everyone will be discussed. The result of this enhanced process is shorter and more efficient meetings. Everyone comes prepared and everyone already knows what is going to be discussed. Then as soon as the meeting is over, the minutes of the meeting are posted in the private group as well as any next steps.

It seems like a simple process, and it is. However, it would not really be possible if not for the use of social technologies that keep everyone connected and all the information in one place. These are the types of simple process that middle managers can enhance by embracing and using social technologies. All it requires is an understanding of what is possible and a new mindset to make it happen. Social business is the future, don’t let your middle managers hold you back.


  1. Nice description of the challenges, though labeling middle management as “The Enemy of Social Business” is a little unfair. The rank and file an executive management play roles as well, both for and against the social enterprise. I’d imagine differences in experience, generations, and across departments and industry also matter. I’ve seen entire companies “get it” and other places where one department is ready for Social at the dismay of another.

    Nice point on managers needing to be curators. Excellent managers put their people first, so maybe we can re-frame the idea of them holding a company back into one where middle managers can lead your organization into the shiny social future. Having “manager” in your title doesn’t mean you can’t also be a leader. :-)

    • Alvin thanks for your comments.

      Yes, I agree that labeling middle management as the enemy of social business may sound a little harsh. However, in my experience, middle managers as a whole are the group who usually has the toughest time adopting and encouraging the use of social technologies.

      You are correct in stating having manager in your title doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader. I also know many managers who lead by example and are huge proponents of social business. Unfortunately they are in the minority. However, I am in full support of the concept of allowing and encouraging middle managers to lead their organization into the shiny social future.

  2. Interesting! Such enemies could be present in all rungs of the organisational ladder not just the middle level. Anyone who considers enterprise social to be a potential threat to his authority & freedom might impede its adoption. Social is about leveraging on the collective intellect, strengths and resources through ideation, crowd sourcing & collaboration. In fact social is about unleashing the real strength of the organisation while many employees unknowingly limit themselves to their own heroic capabilities. There are many organisations now witnessing real value from enterprise social and such stories are inspiring others too.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree anyone at any level could oppose a social business initiative is they don’t understand the benefits. That is why its important for top leadership to ensure that everyone in the organization will benefit from the use of social business processes and technologies.


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