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Who Owns Social Media? Everyone and No One

March 23, 2010

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Over the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in a number of meetings both within Booz Allen and with my clients to discuss social media, and I’ve noticed that more and more organizations are moving beyond the social media experimentation stage. I’m finding that I’m no longer justifying the use of social media, but helping develop the processes, policies, and personnel that will move the use of social media from interesting experiment to a long-term way of doing business.

While your organization’s initial foray into social media may have started with a junior public affairs professional, some webmaster in the IT department, more and more organizations are now trying to figure out how to integrate these social media “pilots” into their long-term strategies and plans.

In one case, I met with a room full of information security professionals. In another, it was a public affairs office. In another, I met with the recruiting office of an agency. In still another, it was a mish-mash of people including public affairs officers, project managers, internal communications, privacy specialists, records management professionals, and senior leadership. Everyone viewed “ownership” of social media differently. Some thought their team should control social media for the entire organization while others felt a more decentralized approach would be more effective. Others wanted to create an integrated process team with representatives from across the organization. The only thing that everyone had in common is the view that their perspective and concerns weren’t getting the attention they thought they deserved.

Internally, we’re going through a similar evolution – in a firm with 20,000+ employees spread across the world and dozens of different business lines and market areas, there’s no shortage of people now looking for ways that social media can help them and their clients. In talking with one of our Vice Presidents the other day, he asked me, “in your opinion, who should own social media here?”  Who was going to be THE person he could reach to with questions? The first answer that came to mind was “well, no one should own it, but there are a lot of people who need to be involved in owning it.”

Then yesterday, I came across this post by Rick Alcantara, “Who Should Control Social Media Within a Company?,” and I couldn’t help thinking that we’re asking the wrong question. If the use of social media is so transformative and paradigm-shifting, and we agree that there needs to be new processes and policies in place to deal with it, then shouldn’t we also be looking at new governance models as well? Why do we assume that social media should (or can) fit into our existing buckets?

The Problem

Organizations traditionally consist of distinct lines of business, teams, branches, divisions, service offerings, etc. This model works great when these teams don’t have to work with one another – IT is responsible for protecting the network, public affairs is responsible for communicating with the public. Great.  But what happens when these teams need to work with one another, need to collaborate with each other?

In some cases, these teams work well together, not because of some formal charter or governance process, but because of the personal relationships that have been made. My team and Walton’s (my counterpart on our IT team) team work well together not because we were told to, but because he and I have a relationship built on trust and mutual respect for each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In other cases, one team works on something and then sends it on to the other team for a formal “chop.” That’s not collaboration – that’s an approval chain. Sometimes, an Integrated Process Team (IPT) is formed to facilitate this collaboration, but those too often devolve into screaming matches or passive aggressive maneuvering, and most IPTs don’t get any real power beyond “making recommendations” anyway.

Just as social media has fundamentally changed the way organizations communicate and collaborate internally, it is also forcing us to rethink the way we govern its use. Maybe social media shouldn’t be “owned” by anyone? Maybe it should be governed in a similarly transformative way?

The Solution

I like what Jocelyn Canfield, owner of Communication Results, has to say at the end of Rick’s post:

“Organizations are best served by collaboration, not control. PR, Marketing, HR, IR, Corp Communications all have a vested interest in effective social media activities, while IT and graphic design can be an important allies in seamless execution. If everyone feels ownership, everyone benefits.”

Emphasis above was added by me – I think everyone has to feel ownership, but they shouldn’t necessarily have ownership. Organizational use of social media impacts everyone across the organization in different ways, from IT security to HR to legal to marketing and ceding “control” to just one of these groups seems to be both short-sighted and unrealistic. What happens when you say that Public Affairs has control of social media, but then IT decides to block all access, citing security concerns? Who resolves that issue? Do the Directors of IT and Public Affairs arm-wrestle? Steel cage death match? Frank and thoughtful discussion?

The answer to who should control social media is everyone and no one. Here at Booz Allen, we’re bringing together both social media leaders and select representatives from across our various teams to form a committee, primarily to ensure that open, cross-team collaboration becomes the norm, not the exception. One of the primary roles for this committee will be to ensure that everyone feels ownership, but that no one is actually given ownership.

How’s this different from an IPT? Well, for starters, I’m proposing that all committee meetings be livestreamed internally where anyone from any team may watch/submit questions. We’ll be blogging internally about what we talk about. Meeting agendas and minutes will be posted to our internal wiki. Everything will be done in the open, encouraging participation, contribution, and truthfulness and discouraging passive-aggressive behavior, back channel discussions, and hidden agendas. The committee’s goal isn’t to determine who owns what; rather, it’s to ensure that everyone understands that no one owns anything.

Organizations should look at social media governance as a way to re-think traditional ownership roles in their organization. When this type of governance is based on open discussion and mutual respect instead of turf-protecting and power grabs, who owns what becomes less important and who KNOWS what becomes more important.

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