Is the recent drum banging about tribalism a good thing?

I recently read and reviewed Mike Klein’s 55 minute-book From Lincoln to Linkedin in which my former SDL colleague takes a very mature look at the link between social media and social communication. In the process, he adopts a stance I’ve held for some time, that social media is simply an extension of the suite of communication tools available to us, it doesn’t replace the basics. Or, as I’m prone to summarise the debate, Facebook will never replace Facetime.

One of the most appealing aspects of Mike’s book is that he puts the obsession with technology in its place while exploring internal tribes within organisations. He has a lengthy career history as an interim communications professional and, as such, rather like a consultant, has had a rare insight into the norms and mores of employees across-sectors and geographies. Regardless of your personal preference for the early adopters or resister gangs, it’s clear that so-called social media has provided additional platforms for all sorts of tribes It’s relatively easy to see groups, gangs or tribes everywhere using language, technology, symbols and behaviour to signify difference as well as to connect with like minds. The HR tribe is usually fairly easy to discern and differentiate from the Marketing tribe, for example.

Difference can be healthy but it can also be dangerous when the CEO needs the tribes to unite in support of a common vision, common cause, common journey and common brand. I witnessed this very recently when the HR function at a client company markedly refused to implement a brand development strategy as it had been imposed upon them by the marketing lot without consultation. It took some untangling and bridge building to sort out the squabbles on their corporate lifeboat.

Whilst reflecting, I was reminded of an article I was asked to write for Melcrum when the talk of recession was turning into a reality. In it I advised organisations to take a transparent and joined up approach to managing their brands through the downturn. I referenced Harvard Business School professor John Quelch. who suggested that marketing functions should focus on family values and relationships because “when economic hard times loom….we tend to retreat to our village….as uncertainty prompts us to stay at home and also stay connected with family and friends”.

Tribalism can be reassuring, a source of security, a way of making sense of the world and gaining strength in numbers. It’s certainly a natural symptom of tough times. But as media talk increasingly turns to industrial disputes the extent to which a tribal mentality is a threat rather than a benefit to businesses depends very much on creating a unifying cause rather than accentuating and reinforcing barriers within.

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