Social business in Germany

As social business is adopted around the world, I take a look at the state of affairs in Germany and explore a success story in detail.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor on

"100 years ago, Jazz disrupted music - just as social media are challenging businesses today: From conducting to improvisation." - Michael Gold As I continue my tour of social media hotspots around the world, it's become pretty clear that the rise of medium has become a true global phenomenon, deeply affecting the developing and developed world both. Although the pattern and timing of adoption has been unique in each region, there is virtually without exception -- except in the very poorest and/or most totalitarian countries -- a strong and sustained uptake of social media in nearly every aspect of consumer life, from microblogging and photo sharing to user-generated video and social networking.

The global data on social media usage certainly confirms this, but fails to capture the uniqueness that each culture and region bring to the table. Countries do seem to have broad tendencies that characterize how they use social media. Some societies are more technocentric, or more private, or less (or more) tolerant of risk, and so on. Others seem to have a distinct barrier between how things are done in private life versus what's acceptable in how work gets done in their organizations. So, after my trip to Australia recently, it was time to start visiting Europe, and Germany was the first stop.

Thus I ended up spending a good part of last week in Berlin getting a sense of that country's experiences with the more serious side of social media, namely when we apply it for work purposes and what we often now call social business. Europeans tends to be more conservative and rigorous about how they apply IT to their businesses, and this is true of Germans in particular. I believe this also tends to make them less strategic in some cases as they prefer to focus on specific near-term business problems as opposed to widely enabling generational technology shifts in their organizations.

Yet it's been striking how effective German companies have been at adopting social business recently, particularly internally, aka Enterprise 2.0. Industry leaders such as Daimler, Vodafone, and Sennheiser have all begun the journey in recent years, but are just some of the examples.

Currently the fourth largest economy in the world in terms of GDP, Germany has had an interesting pattern of social media adoption in their citizen's private lives. While 66% of online adults in America use social networks regularly, considerably less than half of Germans do the same. In contrast however, mobile social networking is quite advanced there, with the same data showing at 77% of German Internet users now access social media via mobile devices.

But how specifically does adoption of social business fare in Germany? It's a society that's famous for its structure, order, and hierarchy -- something often considered anathema to the free wheeling nature of social media. Normally, I check to see how social media is proceeding along first. In general, I find there is a strong correlation between consumer usage of social media and the uptake in the workplace. For example, Japan has one of the lowest rates of social media adoption in the developed world, and it also has one of the lowest workplace rates of adoption of social business.

Related: Social business in China and Russia.

While social business adoption data about Germany can be somewhat hard to find, I was able to uncover a recent citation from IBM's Sandy Carter, who found just recently that 70% of German companies are currently using social media for business purposes, with 40% of them using it for customer acquisition. If this number holds, it's surprisingly high given the lower rate of consumer adoption, but not altogether unexpected. If nothing else, Germany companies tend to be pragmatists and they will seek value where they can find it.

A Teutonic social business story

At the Social Business Summit 2012 Berlin, which was my primary reason for the visit (Disclaimer: My company held this event and covered my travel), we heard from German chemical giant BASF -- with 2011 revenue of €73B and over 111K workers -- about their global social business effort aimed at better connecting together their workforce.

I've been following BASF's story for a while now, and even detailed their story here on ZDNet a few weeks ago. It's an impressive example of the dedication and time required to change the collaborative landscape of a very large firm with its own distinct culture, habits, and challenges, such as many geographic regions and product lines. While the BASF presentation on the project is perhaps the best treatment of the project, Cordelia Krooß -- one of the project's leaders -- provided a stellar breakdown of their experiences and results so far.

Cordelia kicked off her session stating the practical focus of the effort: "One should start social business with strategy, not because every company is creating an internal Facebook." She also noted that it takes involvement from all levels of the company, saying, "you need support from the top and engagement from the bottom," to make enterprise social networks deliver results. Cordelia's group periodically received requests for an "official expert approval process" to ensure that contributions from new or unvetted employees were understood in light of their actual expertise. However, like virtually all workforce collaboration efforts, the ultimately found it unnecessary; the transparency of social media and ability to evaluate ones interlocutors personally addressed the issue satisfactorily. The results did too: Cordelia reported that there has been no false actors in over two years of operation of their internal social networks.

But what about business results? What did BASF encounter? This is always one of the tricky questions about social business ROI, a notoriously difficult subject with IT in general. That's because most companies, even very well managed and disciplined ones typically don't baseline important business KPIs before and then after rollout of their social business effort. Yet, Cordelia was able to produce a steady stream of success stories, one in particular which provided significant double digit improvements (details in the slide above.) Finally, Cordelia observed, as we've seen in so many Enterprise 2.0 initiatives, that community management was absolutely critical to the success of the effort, to create the necessary support and oversight to users to make the connect.BASF (the name of their community) successful.

Social business and Jazz: Intellectual cousins?

Another provocative session in Berlin was given by Michael Gold of Jazz Impact. He uses the collaborative and improvisational models of Jazz music to teach about innovation in collaboration, including social business. I had the good fortune to spend some time with Michael as he explored his ideas while he prepared for his session and it's clear that there are fascinating lessons learned that can cross pollinate between the two disciplines.

As Michael said in his far-ranging presentation (which, to prove his point, typically involves working musically on stage with someone new he's never met before), "100 years ago, Jazz disrupted music - just as social media are challenging businesses today: From conducting to improvisation". Michael's point was that we have to be prepared to move out of our comfort zones to be able to accomplish something truly new using the powerful new methods available to us in the social media era. The real barrier to better and more open collaboration however: "The biggest challenge to moving to open engagement is the inherent resistance to change", says Michael. And to find that resistance, we typically have to only look in the mirror.

Perhaps Michael's most significant statement was this however:

Systems based on open engagement that enable rather than control will generate results that far exceed the combined input of the resources involved.

This a key insight as we move away from the 19th and 20th century models of work (farming, manufacturing where repeatable outcomes of a fixed process were key) to a far more dynamic model of knowledge work where the primary endeavor is to continually develop creative new solutions in a fast-changing business environment (and something I've explored in detail with the concept of next-generation enterprises.) In this way, social business is very much the Jazz model for business compared to the orchestral and centrally conducted model.

Although there were many other great speakers that day and space is limited, I'd be remiss in not calling our my colleague Dave Gray's terrific line during his presentation, where he began with the observation that "there is a conflict between today's organization and the future." Based on his research into how organizations are evolving, he predicted that in the near future, "everyone will operate as a fractal version of the CEO." Meaning that in a networked, deeply connected company -- instead of hierarchical organization -- everyone will have the responsibility to locally drive the business forward in all the ways that top leaders were previously supposed to be responsible for. In fact, this is something that might only be possible in a scalable, repeatable way with the connected approach of social business.

Related: Social business in Australia.

In fact, the change in how we must structure our organizations is something the social business community has been discussing more and more recently, in terms of organizational models of the near future, such as Stuart Boardman's recent post on the subject.

That's it for now, but I'll be keeping the updates coming here as often as possible. The next stops are Hong Kong, then Denver, and London. I hope to provide detailed updates on the state of social in all its forms while I'm on the the road this year. In the meantime, you can get more detailed case studies, a roadmap, and a compelling case for enterprise-wide transformation in our just published social business management guide, Social Business By Design.

See also:

Enterprise 2.0 success: BASF

Social business success: Burberry

Salesforce eyes international expansion one country at a time

Is it time for a C-level social media executive?

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