by Jon Wade
September 17th, 2012

There is always inertia when trying to bring about change in any size organisation. But when we consider larger organisations (let’s define them as those with more than 2,000 employees), the inertia can feel like trying to escape the gravitational pull of a black hole.

Why is that? There are a multitude of reasons. Here are some. Large organisations have been doing something right for many years to get them to where they are – they often don’t see the imperative for change. Large organisations come with large and valuable corporate reputations – there’s a lot to lose if they make a mistake, particularly if it’s a big one. Any misstep will also invite media scrutiny which is not what large organisations like. Large organisations have a lot of staff who typically follow established, tried and tested procedures and protocols. You have to influence a lot of minds to bring about change at an organisational level. For managers in large organisations, change is often scary. Having to learn new skills and behaviors and manage large numbers of staff who do jobs which the managers themselves may not understand properly takes them out of their comfort zone. It is far more comfortable to reinforce old behaviors and skill sets.

And so it is that because of these reasons, and a plethora of other influencing factors, creating change in large organisations sometimes feels like raising the Titanic. This brings us to the subject of how it is possible to you take large organisations successfully into a Web 2.0 world. A social world. A world of corporate and brand transparency. A world of diminished control over reputation and brand. Of new skills, new roles, new behaviors. A world of opportunity.

But how to jump? Having had this conversation with several clients, there’s no easy answer. I can understand why this seems like a very uncomfortable place to be for large organisations. It is scary – you’re giving up a lot, for the unquantifiable long-term gains of becoming a socialised brand. That said, I am convinced that consumer behavior has changed hugely (thanks to the internet); and that the change required by organisations is increasingly imperative and inevitable. Though I can still totally understand why large organisations sit like fledglings on the side of the nest, looking down before taking their first flight.

Sometimes, to bring about change in large organisations, the stakeholders have to be given some kind of proof. The best proof, in my experience, is directly relevant evidence of the gains provided by a more socialized brand approach. You can’t argue with unequivocal evidence or hard cold facts. But to obtain that evidence, to provide that incentive, you must do first. Often, however, doing faces resistance. All organisations have rules and processes. Large organisations have a lot of them. The problem is that, when it comes to how an organisation represents itself online, many of the rules are out-dated and irrelevant because they are based upon an understanding of a world before the internet, before Web 2.0 and before the wholesale change in consumer and citizen behaviors, attitudes and expectations.

So how do you know which of these rules are limiting the organisation’s opportunity and which ones are genuinely protecting it from harm? To find out, I believe you have to break them. One by one. Test and learn. Test and learn. Now, of course, I’m not advocating wholesale disobedience at an organisational level – a free-for-all where staff just say and do whatever they want online. Clearly that would bring about chaos.

What I am advocating for is that a small, trusted group of expert individuals, who are fully aware of both the risks and the opportunities presented online, be given a mandate to experiment and break some rules. To do so in a way that is recoverable if the experiment goes badly. To do so in a way that if they make a mistake they can ask for forgiveness and be granted it. But to do so without needing to ask permission for every time they try something new. A special ops team if you like, with a mandate to collect the evidence required that is specific to the organisation to demonstrate the opportunity presented by the social world to that organization. That means rewriting the rules.

It’s a risk – no doubt. But every investment that carries a potential risk also carries a potential return. Economic theory shows us that risks are directly proportional to the opportunity.

So this is a bet. A big bet. But paradoxically not a crazy gamble. Organizations cannot afford to pass up the bet if they want to survive in the long-term.

My advice? Set up your special ops team and give them a (carefully described and limited) mandate to do first, ask for forgiveness later. They will provide you with the evidence that you need to make the wholesale changes required in the organisation, and make becoming a truly socialised brand possible and very achievable.

Jon Wade is head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick

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