A failure of leadership?

Another draft section done and ready for comment!

What stops civil society associations using social media? It is easy to point the finger at a lack of technical understanding, or a paucity of time and budget. But whilst these are all genuine concerns, they are all relatively simple to address if organisations decide to do so.

Resistance to new technology by upper management is a pernicious problem. Talking to civil society associations and reading comments left on the survey shows that for many organisations, conservative attitudes amongst management and trustees stifles the use of social technologies. A web developer for one large organisation, when discussing possible uses of social media, responded, “The trustees would never go for that.”

Michael Collins, in his presentation Social Networking — Threat or opportunity for membership organisations? given to Memcom 09 [1] , identified these “internal threats” when examining the reasons why associations aren’t engaging with social media:

* “Complacency, apathy, indecision, fear of change and losing control”
* “Myopia re ROI”
* “Inadequate consultation with community members”

From the comments left on the survey, lack of knowledge and understanding, is a key problem:

“Lack of knowledge in the upper levels of the organisation tends to hold us back sometimes.”
“We have an ‘older’ age range of staff, who are focused on service provision. Many don’t understand, or have time to learn about the net.”
“[There’s] not much understanding that social media is not the same as mass publicity that the ‘comms’ team can just do by themselves.”
“We are just beginning to expand on usage, and I am doing my best to educate my management team.”

And out-dated attitudes seemed to be behind another comment from the survey:

“Current policies seem to have been made years ago.”

A further problem identified by the manager of one medium-sized association’s website was resistance to change:

“The culture of [our organisation] leads its communications efforts in many ways and it’s not based on evidence, or knowledge of the marketplace or the audience. It’s ‘This is the way we’ve always done things’. When push comes to shove we tend to revert back to instinct, revert back to assumptions.”

But although getting managers and trustees to recognise the value of social media might be hard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that using social media is impossible in those environments, just difficult:

“I have struggled to get buy-in from management, but have had success with what I have been able to do.”

The importance of an internal culture which is open to new ways of doing things must not, however, be underestimated. In their report Discover, Argument and Action: How civil society responds to changing needs, Julie Caulier-Rice, Geoff Mulgan and Dan Vale discuss how civil society associations “can sometimes become frozen around past needs rather than current ones.” [2] Although Caulier-Rice et al were not directly discussing civil society association’s attitudes towards technology, their words are just as applicable in this context.

Those who oversee civil society associations must ensure that the culture they create within their organisation is one that is open to new ideas, new technologies and experimentation. Failure to do so will not only hobble staff in their efforts to communicate, collaborate and engage their community, it will also hold the organisation as a whole back. Organisations unable to use the internet to its fullest capability risk being sidelined by others who understand how to use social technologies to spread their message, and unite and organise their supporters.

[1] get citation
[2] http://www.youngfoundation.org.uk/publications/reports/discovery-argument-action-how-civil-society-responds-changing-needs-march-2008