Is Middle Management Blocking Your Social Business Transformation?

November 29, 2012 Comments
Is Middle Management Blocking Your Social Business Transformation?

After a nice Thanksgiving break, I decided to catch up on some Social Business research such as the recently published IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study, “The Business of Social Business.” I will refer you to two great overview posts summarizing this study: Todd Watson’s and Adi Gaskell’s.

I’d like to focus my post on two main points that stood out for me.

  1. Organizations are increasing their investments in social business, but yet, they remain unprepared and uncertain, with 74% of those surveyed citing that they are unprepared for the necessary cultural changes and 67% saying they are unsure about the impact social business will have on their organizations over the next three years.
  2. Less than half (48%) of the C-Suite supports social business and less than a quarter (22%) believe that managers in their organization are prepared to incorporate social business into their day-to-day practices.

Building on point #2, other researchers, such as Andrew McAfee (@amcafee), Principal Research Scientist, MIT Center for Digital Business, also see the middle management layer as a “make it or break it” stakeholder group in a social business transformation.

In the Feburary 7, 2012 MIT Sloan article “What Sells CEOs on Social Networking,” McAfee is quoted as saying “…I also get the impression that there’s kind of a middle layer that has traditionally been the signal processor, both up and down, and some of them don’t want to see that role go away. The middle is very often a conservative place in organizations. The challenge is that the top can be sincerely interested, and there can be a lot of frontline people who are sincerely interested, but it’s what happens in the middle that can determine success and failure.”

So how do you bring Middle Management onto the success train?

1) The IBM IBV study mentions that it’s critical to incorporate “social” approaches into traditional organizational change management frameworks to fully support your social business transformation. This diagram offers some specific suggestions that can be used with frontline, managerial and executive employees to effect cultural change.


For example, ensure managers get exposed to and trained on the items that their staff is expected to learn. That way they can coach their teams more effectively.

2) Repeat, repeat, repeat. Remember that not everyone understands the reasons for change the first time you say it, or cares as much as you do. To again quote Andy McAfee from the MIT Sloan article: “One of the things I’ve learned to do in the past six years is to just keep going slow, to re-explain the reasons to do this, to re-explain what’s going on, and to not to get frustrated because everyone doesn’t find it as cool as I do. Of course they don’t.”

3) Uncover root causes. If you’ve tried a number of things to get the management layer on board and they’re still resisting, do some investigative work to surface the underlying issues. Some examples to consider include:

  • Are senior executives sending mixed signals such as saying “I don’t care how you get your work done, just get it done,” or “Do as I say, and not as I do.”
  • Are rewards, recognition and compensation for managers aligned to create behavior supportive of social business?
  • Do managers have the right skills to make the changes expected of them? Are they being allocated the time in their schedules to develop these new skills?
  • Do they even know how to coach their staff appropriately on the new social business processes and tools?

What do you think?

Is middle management going to “make or break” your social business change efforts. Connect with me @jennifer_dubow or feel free to leave comments here.

  • Kurt Shaver

    Insightful observation that makes sense. C-level is responsible for looking to at the horizon and it’s hard to neglect social as the wave of the future. Sales, Customer Service, and some Marketing roles are customer-facing front-lines that naturally go where the customers are. Yep, the middle is the key.

    • Jennifer Dubow

      Thanks Kurt for your comments. Any thoughts on what’s worked for you to get the middle swaying in the social direction?

  • Jamie Notter

    So this might be a bit provocative, but if the middle is such a problem here, then why don’t we reorganize their jobs altogether? The middle’s role in any system should be basically to get the top and bottom together so they can solve the problems themselves. Let’s start rewarding middle people who do that, and give generous severance packages to middles who don’t. Now, I recognize that’s oversimplified and easy for me to toss around these ideas in the abstract, but I think it’s a conversation we need to have. The principles that make “social” really work are not consistent with the principles behind the way we’re organized in a lot of companies. I think we’re going to make more progress changing management rather than trying to fit social into our existing structures, processes, and cultures.

    • Jennifer Dubow

      Hi Jamie. Provocative is great! I agree that organizations need to consider their org design in the context of social. And the role out of these changes can take time. I do agree that in many large organizations, there’s a lot of fat in the middle, but on the flip side, there are many lean organizations where middle managers have too large of a span of control with too many direct reports. Back to the point about social though, we need to ensure that middle managers understand the big picture strategy for “why go social” and that they set aside the time, or are given the permission/formal opportunity to get training that’s tailored to their roles as managers, so they can learn to coach their teams effectively. Overall, many systems, processes and structures need to align to make social work, and Middle Managers play a critical role.

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