One of the most important factors in developing a social media strategy, for businesses large and small, is culture. It is also one of the factors most easily overlooked.

So to make sure it’s not overlooked in my free, 12 month Social Media Webinars 2011 series, I’m making business culture and social media the focus of the August webinar, next week.

Today I’ve been doing some mind maps and jotting down notes on the subject and in the process realizing it is a big enough topic to occupy quite a few webinar sessions. What follows here is a synopsis of my current thinking on the topic.

It’s often the case that more attention is paid to questions of which social media platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus and so on – to use and how, when in fact the subject of culture should be given much more attention, and earlier, than those technology-focused questions.

Cultural issues come into play especially when it comes to setting down policy guidelines or “rules of engagement”. Sometimes these documents are just left to the lawyers or company managers. That aspect has its own value for the process, but it is not enough. Indeed, a too narrow focus on having a document that “satisfies the lawyers” may mean that broader issues of company or industry culture are not addressed or not adequately.

“Culture” of course means different things to different people. In business it is often used fairly loosely, both positively and negatively – “culture of innovation”, “culture of bullying”.

A culture involves certain rules, explicit or “understood”, about what is acceptable, or desired, or expected, and what is not. I usually explain it as “the way we do things around here.”

In organizational terms, culture is strongly related to structure and operational mode – e.g. hierarchical or flat structure, command and control or more encouraging of flexibility and individual operator judgement and decision-making.

And it’s definitely related to industry and company type. Think about the different ways companies operate on a day to day basis in, say, the food, beverage, hospitality, tourism sectors and in mining and construction, or in health services.

There will be issues of more or less regulation, traditions of operation and so on that affect how things are done, how management and staff relate to one another and each of them to customers, partners and competitors.

All of these aspects and more can affect how a social media strategy is constructed and implemented.

If they are not taken into account, a strategy that worked for one company or in one industry can be inappropriately applied in another company or industry and results can accordingly range from disappointing to disastrous.

It’s not just me saying this.

Adam Christensen, for example, in notes accompanying a slide deck on The Impact of Corporate Culture on Social Media (IBM’s Case Study) , wrote:

…culture is, in my view, the most overlooked, underestimated factor determining whether social media succeeds or fails in a company. And when corporate culture and social media are pitted against each other, social media will always fail. Always.

But if the development of a social media strategy incorporates a good understanding of the company culture and the prevailing culture or cultures of the industry the company is in, it stands to reason there should be more chance of having an appropriate and effective strategy.

A related but very important consideration is that of how accommodating or otherwise the company culture may be for engagement via social media.

It may well be that in the process of developing a social media strategy, a judgement emerges that for the strategy to be viable there will need to be some changes to the corporate culture. Better to discover that in the development phase and make appropriate changes than when unforeseen cultural conflict emerges later on.

As a corollary, a decision might be made at that point to not try and change or adapt the culture: it would then be necessary to either change the focus and style of the social media strategy. In practice, some companies might decide at this point to do nothing new and settle for business as usual.

Except that we all know there is no more “business as usual”.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).