Let’s try something a bit different today; rather than talk about China social media or communications campaigns, let’s attempt to use the underlying principles learned from our experience with social media to “fix” some fundamental issues faced by Chinese businesses, with a specific targeted emphasis toward problems experienced on the entrepreneurial/start up levels.
To do this we’ll need to go beyond “social media” to “social business”, which according to my own semi-correct definition is the alignment of social resources to accomplish multiple business objectives with a corresponding decrease in micromanagement.. ie: do one action, get ten results.
This may get intuitively technical, so bear with me as I establish the overall challenge and work my way toward a solution; your sustained concentration on my obtuse syntax will lead to a potentially rewarding climax.. tested and case studied near this article’s conclusion.
Let’s get started: so as we discuss social, lets analyze one of the most commonly overlooked problems in building businesses in China: human resources; ie: the very high demand for talent, and the inversely proportional supply.
This is counter-intuitive to most; popular thinking: “doesn’t China have [x] billion people?” which somehow implies within that conceptually huge number exists the managers, planners, strategists, and directors needed to properly run complex multi-tiered projects requiring knowledge either acquired through years of matured industry experience, MBA-level understanding of systems and processes, or visceral ”brave new world” thinking.
Those familiar running companies in China have perhaps intuited the foreshadowed ”bad news”.. for the rest: the above simply isn’t true - yes the workforce is huge, but also remember consulting-level, complex, service oriented business (ie: anything not related to manufacturing) existence as mainstream workforce options are probably little more than 10 years old..? Less?
So how does one solve this triple-sided human resource problem of initial supply, applicable skills, and long-term retention? Well so far I’ve learned it’s a mix of patience, with a little patience, and then add some more patience.. but this begs a better solution if only for preserving one’s sanity.
Winning the patience game will ironically require a lack of patience, thus inspiring a frustration-powered push toward adopting a new set of (made up) strategies. What I’ll talk about below won’t sound familiar, will be more intuitive than logical or practical.. most likely to set off a push notification in the heads of those seeking; a ringtone alert slithering through awareness some hour past midnight, a vibrating cellphone against your thigh, a digital itch you can’t quite scratch.. suddenly scratched.
Challenging a challenging set of challenges.
Solving this issue from the surface won’t work.. so lets dig a few layers deeper.. here’s the primary challenge in the form of a question, posted by a Brand Development intern at Unilever China in Littleredbook’s linkedin group:
Being a marketeer with agility requires us to keep learning new things and forgetting conventional thinking, but sometime I just found it’s much more difficult to forget than learn…
Do you have any advise for “forget”? Or what can we do when our thinking is defined by the old convention and can’t easily break through to come up with new idea?
The above is an omnipresent issue in China, made larger due to rigid systems deeply ingrained into the culture; a focus on nuanced familial and government hierarchy, and an educational emphasis on memorization, contribute to people of limitless potential, limited however by a de-emphasis on possibilities potential, replaced instead with binary thinking sometimes paralyzed by challenges creative.
China’s quick boom has increased new workforce options of creative/consulting fields, yes, but the flip side has lead to high demand for great talent, high turnover rates for talent headhunted to new positions, and professional title hyperinflation as part and parcel for the job hop.
This chaotic forward movement produces confusion and unreliability as a by-product of double-digit progress, eventually leading to forced HR sourcing from other Asian countries for titles above “[x] manager”.
For the entrepreneur? The challenges are perhaps greater; we’ve got the above plus limited resources to hire, and limited time to spend training, ie: “should I spend time developing my marketing to get new clients, directly pitching and wine/dine current clients, micromanaging current projects or develop/train my staff to handle these projects independently?”
This often without support of an international branding gravity well makes each endeavor more intensive.. developing clients is harder as you play on skill vs. brand recognition; and finding, hiring and retaining also becomes more difficult without the social proof brand-relation brings.
What the solution must solve.
So as we do, let’s kill this problem as much we’re able; approaching from the entrepreneurial level, lets assume all China challenges must be solved; a quick list:
- Break at least 20 years of conventional thinking per individual.
- Consistently drive internal motivation to create new ideas per individual.
- Integrate process into daily activity when servicing client projects.
- Slow or stem turnover and attrition of successfully trained staff.
- Reduce director-level micromanagement vs. traditional methods by 95%.
Feel the sting? You are, or you will. These challenges are traditionally battled one-by-one; but as entrepreneurs managing growth, we’ll assume we’ve no time or resources for a process that historically doesn’t work.. or works so slow we have yet to see significant results.
Pulling a “Skywalker”.
Before we continue, a quick, semi-relevant tangent: you remember the first Star Wars movie? The Death Star battle at the end? Well these problems listed above are a bit like the Death Star, a big hulking mass of which you have no clue where to start your attack.
Our solution needs to be like Luke Skywalker’s torpedo trench run – a single point of applied pressure that breaks apart the entire system.
Rather than attacking from multiple angles the outside, we attack a single point connecting all parts; a solution that addresses the source problem rather than the superficial symptoms.
Curiosity makes the cat, a cat.
So what’s our “torpedo” that breaks apart the problems above? As with all things correct, the answer is never complex – it’s simple, straightforward and ethereal.
As does, the solution came in parts, masked in the little things overlooked when not seeking. The first came while depressurizing my brain by watching cable TV.
A semi-epiphany pierced my mind and forced me to pull my finger out my nose: beyond a brand slogan “live curious” means much; as once the mind regains curiosity it grows, queries, and seeks truth.. not to answer questions on a test, or to look intelligent in the eyes of peers or clients.. curiosity seeks truth for the pleasure of seeking truth, the subtle joy of twisting problems, and the layering of deep levels of satisfaction from problem’s solutions.
The pressure of the peers.
So curiosity is great, but it isn’t enough, as it’s based on pleasure and not pain. Let’s then consider the second part of the mix: peer pressure, reminiscent of your pimpled high school “halcyon” days: a powerful omnipresent, somewhat subtle force, which in itself is pain only conformity subdues.
One great positive of Chinese culture is conformity pulls society up rather than down.. as the group to conform to is “upper middle class” (as defined by our communist benefactor’s approved propaganda), of which the vast majority of China is not.. though thanks to media censorship singularly aspires to be.
If social media has taught us anything, it’s that people are shaped by other people; influencers, key opinion leaders, comments, votes, “likes”; symbiotic in nature, dependent on the other as reflection to reflected. Think of the increased speed of connection via Internet also as an increase in the speed of normal human interaction, of which conformity plays a subtle, though dominating role; not the mountain, but rather the mountain’s shadow.
The third element is attraction.. but what is it that attracts one thing to another? It usually isn’t a direct focused pull, but rather some general aura that gradually eats away at barriers and eventually captures consent; starting slow but exponentially multiplies vs. time; it’s a lot like gravity – greater attracts lesser, thereby making the greater exponentially greater, and harder for other lessers to pull away.
Big brands and internationally respected agencies have gravity in their branding; the simple benefit of associating one’s name with a big agency or brand is a facet; you’re likely to stay with that which others recognize and respect.
You’ll find that the brand you work for becomes a part of how others unconsciously define you; the better the brand you’re associated with the more implied respect you gain; ie: the better the brand the stronger the gravity; these intangibles are difficult to leave behind, unless left for something greater.
But going beyond big names, other elements that may contribute to gravity (especially for the entrepreneur) are anti-corporate lifestyle, high-level flat hierarchies, innovation and defining new ground, traveling paths unexplored; either that, or less hours spent unpaid overtime, or processes that reduce unnecessary workload. So names are one, emotions and quality of life are another; the two may overlap, but rarely intertwine.
So the question begged: how do we use the idea of curiosity, coupled with pressure and gravity to break the thick glass walls between brain and mind and achieve the goals stated above?
What I do not have is a bullet-proof answer.. having said that, I do have a potential solution. The way we’re approaching it at Resonance is through a simplified employee-run training process, a bit similar to Barcamp where members become speakers.. though different.. let me explain:
The theory of “social media creative” is that if it’s structured right, it should run itself as it leverages social triggers (ie: the 3 forces listed above) in a holistic way where each feeds the other in some sort of sociologically-self-sustaining ecosystem. You can see this in a lot of crowd-sourced user generated content campaigns.
What is required from directors however is the “rules of engagement” more similar to natural laws (ie: gravity) than government directives (ie: state laws); the rules should naturally sustain the engagement and allow interaction to continue undisturbed by unnecessary distraction from core goals, ie: set the game up right and it should run on its own; the system should work naturally without conscious thought (Mac) vs. breakdown periodically thus leading to actions apart from your original intention (PC).
OK enough chit chat, lets see what this looks like. Keep in mind as you review, this method is specifically crafted for employees who’ve gone through China’s education systems, and demonstrate related dominating culture behavior and attitudes.. the guess is this may work in any situation requiring a focused effort in drawing out creativity, but then that’s a guess; buyers do be aware.
Rules of engagement, first iteration.
- Every week one person is chosen (based on pre-approved schedule) to pick any online China social media campaign they find interesting, case study it, and present to the rest of the staff.
- Once presented, each member of the staff is called on to make some comment; these can range from casual to intense, but whatever it is, they must comment.
- Afterwards, each presentation is ranked on a number pre-determined factors by the staff. Results are presented the following week.
What does this accomplish?
- Curiosity: The speaker is allowed to choose any brand or any subject they want to present. They can explore whatever subject is of interest to them as long as they can present it intelligently and coherently to staff.
- Peer Pressure: Training is witnessed by everyone in company, which turn them from simple obliged homework assignments to demonstrations of intelligence, skill and abilities to fellow peers (not to directors or “bosses” who are of arguably less significance/influence to staff); it’s not about content, its about what the presentation implies about the speaker to that speaker’s peers. This expands from speaker to audience, as each person is called to comment, they are also implicitly pressured to ask intelligent questions as a micro-version of the speakers presentation. Everything is public and transparent, contribution (or lack thereof) is obvious and immediately identified by everyone attending.
- Gravity: Though a relatively stressful event for speakers and attendees, what becomes obvious is that we’re looking to develop them, help them grow past where they are, allow the top and the bottom to share the same issues and ideas. One thing we’ve noticed is that after events, staff become more open, more willing to voice opinions and more willing to share ideas, and thus seem to enjoy sessions now, vs. the sheer terror experienced before. A barrier is obviously broken, but also obvious is that it must be broken consistently over a long period of time. This attention is noticeably different from other companies, and may provide a bit of the gravity we need to retain our talent, as we show an open, dedicated, and visceral interest in developing their talent and socially rewarding them for performance; this in addition to whatever pull our branding and position in the market may have.
- General Training: Throughout this process, they are learning cases of brands Resonance does not manage. They keep up-to-date on the latest trends, newest platforms, latest technologies, successful (and unsuccessful) strategies and can apply knowledge from their presentations and those of their peers on new client China social media campaigns.
- Reduced micromanagement: Director-level involvement is reduced to calling everyone into the room, and moderation of follow up Q&A. The rules of engagement dictate the rest.
Does this actually work? Good question. I would argue that it does, but rather than, here instead are results from the first iterations when initially testing the idea (roughly 2010.11 – 2011.02):
One thing we notice from these presentations is that the level of skill for each varies, but also all are pushing hard to do well. While the first few case presentations brought roomfuls of blank stares, over time those stares became inquisitive looks followed by volunteered questions driven by curiosity rather than my constantly badgering them for not asking questions.
A tablespoon of truth.
Rather than assuming they know this or that, we open up to reality and see what they really know vs. do not; allowing for easier identification of strengths and weaknesses leading to proper assignment of work that’s challenging but not too; and identifying those who are ready to take a step up vs. those who are not.. from this process we’ve identified several managers from executive level staff, which we’ve given more responsibility, projects and pay, and have seen results that correlate to their performance during presentation.
But perhaps more, we’ve seen friendships develop as our staffers bond uniformly through the shared mutual experience of having to put up with my half baked ideas and weird social experiments. This shared experience seems to be improving team dynamics and openness of discussing challenges and has resulted in a noticed increase in searching for solutions, and a sincerity in seeking positive action, vs. hiding from, or “redistribution” of, responsibility.
A few steps further.
So that was the first iteration; the second is an improvement on the first with two specific goals:  Put more focus on curiosity and creativity, and  standardize presentations as much as possible for use in future marketing.
Now this is where it gets a bit more interesting. We’ve begun alternating cases with competitions which consist of grouped teams that create topics for viral spread across the web. Teams are judged by their peers on creativity, results, and applicability to client campaigns.
Results were quite interesting; we had one team pair a picture of a pretty girl with a Dior watch with the headline “My boyfriend makes RMB 30,000/month but still won’t buy me a Dior watch” which got the most page views online, but generally deemed unusable for brands (especially Dior) by the other teams.
Another team created a guide to dating for gamers that game too much to find girlfriends and launched a targeted campaign specifically toward that online demographic.
And the winning team created “the perfect man” and put his profile on Douban; during the course of the week this perfect man received contact from 50 women interested in meeting him for a variety of interests. This winning case was done in such a way that it could be intricately tied to some current campaigns.
Now keep in mind, all of the above was ideated by our teams; directors had nothing to do with it, we simply allowed our staff to follow their curiosity to wherever it may take them. There is something powerful here in these trainings, though not fully isolated and identifiable, it is certainly more apparent than it was before.
Re: standardization? You may have noticed that the first iteration of cases were a bit messy and unstructured. The second iteration features structured templates, starting with clear identification of objectives and target audience and ending with SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats) analysis of each case presented.
These templates help to target discussions specifically at the SWOT analysis portion; allowing both speaker and audience to focus on the source meaning rather than the superficial message.
So how do we tie this back into social business? It’s really just connecting the inside, to the outside.. presented in flowchart form:
So beyond continuous training for current staff, developing a company culture of curiosity, opening minds, etc, we can also use materials produced for marketing purposes and as training documents to new staff just entering the company.
In fact, future LRB posts will likely be reviews of weekly trainings, as they help to highlight what brands are doing, keep me updated on what’s going on, allow us to appear to be semi-knowledgeable regarding China social media to our agency and client partners, are easy to write as they are already written (just sprinkle opinions and voilà) and will probably improve an already overflowing sales pipeline. Not so bad.. not so bad.
You know what social business is? It’s really killing several birds with one stone; except the stone is social triggers and influence points + available resources, and the birds are business objectives both inside and outside the company. Yeah. Something like that.
And there you have it.
Perhaps the greatest fault of the above system is that it will not solve your problems immediately; admittedly this is a long term play to build not only the competence of staff and quality level of service offering, but also internal company culture, which affects company brand and gravity retention of talent.
A bit like watching the Death Star blow up in super slo-mo, though not immediate, it does work toward solving the issues stated at the beginning of this post; ie: breaking through the barriers of the mind to unearth the rich resources that lay within; using tools provided by sociological nature that when properly calibrated produce natural ecosystems that organically align and improve themselves.
Yes, I know this problem is not solved, and no, I wasn’t trying to trick you into thinking I had solved it (but I did sorta come close-ish.. right?).
The conclusion.. isn’t; there is more to learn and grow as we learn and grow.. but I do believe we’re on the right path, we’re going the right way, and might be seeing this in the right light.. and perhaps that’s enough.. for now. Whatever it is, to be perfectly honest, I’m just glad I finally finished this post, cause between you and me, writing this thing took forever.