Mitch Joel mentioned to me in a recent exchange that he thought social media was changing corporate cultures.  As I pondered this possibility, I’d like to suggest that this scenario is very unlikely, and in fact the opposite is true — company cultures are radically changing the social web!

Anybody who has ever worked in a large company knows that corporate culture can be a very mysterious, powerful, and difficult thing to deal with. Culture may stem from:

  • The values and personality of a company founder (example: Richard Branson, Walt Disney, or Larry Ellison)
  • Rules, regulations and customs of an industry (defense contractors, law firms)
  • Complex brand identity issues (think of McDonald’s or Coca-Cola brands and the impact on culture)

To give you an idea of how deep and entrenched a culture might be, I once worked for a company whose identity and policies were driven in part by a lawsuit that happened in 1945.  Another customer I work with has policies posted on the walls of their HQ building that were created by the company’s founder … in 1938!  I don’t think this is unusual.  Company cultures are forged over time, change slowly, and come to define how a company shows up in the marketplace, even as technologies and channels change.

And like a human being, the psychology of an organization may be derived from a complex history and set of circumstances that determine behavior in ways we may never even truly understand.

So the idea that you could transform a company culture just because it needs to create a Twitter account or YouTube channel is probably fanciful. I believe the companies who are succeeding on the social web are doing so because they already have a company culture that would enable and reward that success.  A well-managed, market-oriented company with a legacy of customer-centricity is going to do well with social media — and any other marketing innovation that comes down the line.  If you look at a list of the most successful companies on the social web, there really aren’t any surprises are there?  Their cultures are pre-wired to succeed.

But a company that is slow to change, entrenched in bureaucracy and resistant to customers setting the pace will carry that culture through to whatever market challenge they face, too.  And pressuring them to set up a Facebook page isn’t going to change that either!

In fact, I will argue that strong corporate cultures are actively and powerfully changing the social web. Think about …

  • How blogging has changed from “journaling” to a search-engine-focused marketing tool.
  • How Facebook has transformed from an exclusive college social network to a multi-billion-dollar marketing powerhouse
  • How grainy, home-made videos of brides falling at weddings have been replaced as the most popular YouTube videos by glossy corporate mini-movies

Power to the people?  Hardly.  All of these changes were brought about by corporate marketing strategies. Companies are dramatically changing that nature of the social web far more powerfully than the social web will transform companies.  Right?

Community note: Mitch Joel posted a nice counter-point to this article on his blog.  A good read to see another valid perspective.

Illustration: View from Tower of Belem, in Lisbon, Portugal. I took this photo in 2009 and it reminds me of the fortress-like characteristics of corporate culture!
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