How important is leadership by example? Culturally, we respect people who "walk the walk," so leading business initiatives by example would seem pretty important.
It is surprising, therefore, that a recent study of Fortune and Global 250 companies found that only 10% of CIOs are actively involved in social activities. The study, carried out by enterprise social software vendor harmon.ie  (see disclaimer below), used a formula developed by social scoring expert Mark Fidelman (an executive at harmon.ie). The formula incorporates social activity levels taken from Twitter, SocialMention.com, LinkedIn, Google+, and Alexa.
The reaction to the study has sparked a debate that centers on the following two questions:
- Do executives need to participate in social business initiatives, or can they delegate leadership roles to domain experts?
- Is the transformation to a social enterprise different than other technologically related business initiatives?
Clearly, leaders of companies can’t be experts in every detail for which they are responsible. Delegation and empowerment are critical tools for the effective operation of any organization, and the larger the organization, the more important these become. On the other hand, it is very difficult to analyze the success of an initiative if you don’t understand the complexities of what is being undertaken. This argument can made for any technologically related business transformation, like ERP, CRM, BPM, Y2K, or any other three-letter acronym (TLA) initiative of the last 20 years. As a matter of fact, many CIOs who were not experts in these technologies were able to complete initiatives successfully. So what is different about the transformation to social business?
I believe the transition to social business is fundamentally different. This time, change is not merely concerned with the introduction and adoption of new operational business systems (which itself is incredibly difficult).
No, this time, people are being asked to think fundamentally different. They are being asked to change how they behave at work, how they get the information they need to do their jobs, how they share information with others, and how they seek out new ideas and expertise. This is really difficult.
Accordingly, social leadership by example is especially critical for success. This kind of change can only happen when backed up by actions. When employees see a CIO (or CEO) blogging, participating on Twitter, or posting updates on an activity stream , they understand the company is serious about change…from the top down. On the other hand, when employees are being asked to change, but they do not see any public presence from management, what’s the message? The message is clear--this is just another passing management fad. Resist long enough and it will eventually pass, like a lot of other failed initiatives.
Can CIOs relegate social activities to subordinate experts? I think not. Doing so would send a message that social tools are either too complicated for non-specialists (or anyone over the age of 30), or that it is not important enough to be part of an executive’s day. It’s the "do as I say, not as I do" message that every parent knows does not work.
Other commenters to the study asked whether it was enough for CIOs to be active on internal networks, or whether they also need a public-facing presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora, etc. I think that if a CIO really believes in the power of social, this question is superfluous. A social CIO will seek out public forums because they understand the power of sharing information and belonging to professional networks. They won’t need to be coerced into participating.
What do you think? Can companies become social without active executive participation? Do CIOs need to be active on public forums to be social?
--Author David Lavenda is a high tech marketing and product strategy executive who also does academic research on information overload in organizations. He is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology.
*Disclaimer: The author is an executive at harmon.ie. The views expressed here represent the author’s alone.
[Image: Flickr user Daniël Silveira ]