BP, corporations and social media

Joshua-Michele Ross has just published an, as usual, insightful post about the oil disaster in the gulf, BP and social media.

Josh says that BP “as a corporation is structured to be profitable at all costs.” While I might agree with him on this I have also worked with BP and spent time with some if its most senior engineers who were responsible for standards and safety (this was a few years ago ago and they are not the guys dealing with the current situation). They were smart, concerned, experienced people with a high degree of integrity who were talking to me about the possibility of using social media to improve their ways of dealing with the unpredictable better. They were trying to balance the needs of regulation, documentation and the slow wheels of organisational life, with the real and unpredictable world that they had to work in.

This seems to me be to be exactly where the media in social media is so misleading. Josh is right that much of the buzz around this disaster from social media folks is about the story and who wins or loses the PR war. Even the things that Dachis are saying sounds like spin and management bollocks rather than any radical way of changing the way big orgs work.

For me what is much more interesting is how the social web can enable complex and effective ways of working to be better able to avoid things like this happening in the first place and fixing them better when they do. It is yet another situation where the Cluetrain was spot on with “globally distributed, near instant, person to person conversations”.

Josh says of the relationship between corporations and the society they operate in:

I believe that social technologies put selection pressures on businesses over the long run – and will make  it harder and harder for corporate profiteers to thrive.  This to me is the promise of social business — over time, businesses that abide by a social contract (respect, authenticity, reciprocity, earned trust etc.) will outperform those that abide by a strictly corporate (or legal) contract.

I reckon the same sort of contract with staff will help avoid situations like this in the future. However there is no way corporations can shrug off decades of crap and disfunction and become organic networks of autonomous individuals. This is why I reckon it is going to take decades for the full potential of this to become apparent.

5 thoughts on “BP, corporations and social media

  1. Great response Euan.I also worked with two major oil companies (not BP) and in one case with safety engineers as well. They were great people. Like you, I am not making an argument about people – but about institutions. You find good people in almost every organization you encounter… It is the structure of businesses that drive much of the behavior… In BP’s case they were specifically noted in the Cheney energy task force as lobbying against kill switches because they were "too expensive" — When a corporation is structurally aligned (its worldview, its policies, its employee incentives etc.) for profit it makes pathological decisions. I am also on your side of the notion that we are in the midst of a transition that will take decades.


  2. Interesting post Euan. Having worked in senior levels in global multinationals for many years I know how easy it is to do everything right (by the book even) and still have bad things happen. It is very easy for us to criticise the BP staffers and their decision-making processes. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. And I know how well large companies regard risk mitigation activities. Until the risk has occurred it is very hard to get people’s attention. The Challenger disaster is a great case study of this very problem.


  3. Not sure you read the post as I had intended Kate – I must try harder! I wasn’t implying any criticism of staffers, in fact I was praising them, nor indeed was I making any "hindsight" pronouncements about what BP should or shouldn’t have done in terms of this particular situation!I was more interested in the stuff that makes things like this more likely to happen and less easy to deal with, is common to all organisations, and I believe can be improved by the widespread use of social tools.


  4. Yup to Joshua’s points and argument.However there is no way corporations can shrug off decades of crap and disfunction and become organic networks of autonomous individuals. This is why I reckon it is going to take decades for the full potential of this to become apparent.Yes, also. And "structure" .. there is so much that addresses empowerment (or not) embedded in the methods organizations everywhere use to design and manage peoples’ work .. and relatively little has changed so far (and only on the surface). The effects of interlinked people working with information flows and each other via hyperlinks and integrated collaboration platforms will in all likelihood lead to major structural issues for the organization, most of which are yet to be addressed in any meaningful way.


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