Questions Clients Ask Me #11

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According to analysis by Statista in 2021 the average time spent per day on digital media in the US was eight hours and five minutes. That’s an astonishing third of a day or half the time available to anyone who aspires to the recommended eight hours of sleep. Now add to that the volume of incoming during a working day at the office (home based or not) and it’s hard not to wonder at the slim pickings of time available to actively think, rather than passively receive.

So, at the risk of saying the absolutely obvious, we note that people today spend more time in and around their digital environments than they do in physical reality and, as already noted, if you take out sleep time almost all our time is spent in a context that is essentially symbolic.

Back in the 1980’s and 90’s the media theorist Friedrich Kittler described how the symbolic nature of media, by translating words and images into ideas and memes, influences how individuals and groups behave. In the real world, what we think of as “normal” behavior is a social consensus based on things like culture, history and language, and denominated in symbols. But now, bearing in mind the volume of “screen” time in the average day, that real world is dominated by the prolific constructs and symbols that are received via digital media. The impacts on how people behave as a result of this are a big deal.

And now, despite the predictions of sci-fi writers and film makers over the decades, the rest of us are only just waking up to the reality of a warp factor acceleration of this phenomenon (see chart below). Artificial intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT show the potential to overwhelm us with content that will increasingly be produced by software algorithms, much of which will be misleading at best or completely fake at worst. The billion-dollar sums with which Microsoft is currently looking to expand its investments in OpenAI are not a casual bet that they are placing. They can see the beginning of a revolution that, as RP Eddy and Richard Clarke identified in their recent book Warnings, is one of three massive disruptions over the next 30 years (along with the energy and genetic revolutions).


Source: Google trends, January 2023, Interest Over Time: Red line = “deep fake”, blue line = “AI”


Now translate that context to the world of work. Back before social media this symbolic reality moved relatively slowly. The ability to manage the memes percolating like a beneficial virus through organizations, although still difficult to manage, progressed at a more leisurely pace.

Today, with the combination of ever-present devices, and a tight oligopoly of global social media firms whose social graphs define groups by their common loves and hates, the speed of change in the ecosystem of meaning is swift. A virulent virus has overcome corporate immune systems and for company leaders this presents a massive change in their ability to control the messages and memes that shape employee behaviors.

Organizations have gone from relatively self-contained to fully porous entities as far as digital media are concerned, weakening the organizational immune systems by diluting the internally controllable in a flood of externally uncontrollable symbols.

The recent shift of norms around work-from-home versus hybrid versus office-based are a case in point. Debate was preempted by an external shock (the pandemic), followed by a huge viral flood of memes across digital and analog media reinforcing new norms about how the world of work was changing forever.

By the time corporate leaders started to wrestle with how to respond, their employees were already heavily infected by those new norms and had developed their own views. When a leader like Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan decided that employees should return to being office-based, he was forced to overcome what had by then become a widely established sense of the new reality. The current situation at Twitter is another excellent example of how external memes and internal norms interact faster than the new leadership can coherently manage the messaging.

Add to this the susceptibility of humans to false but engaging messages (“a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”) over truth and it’s easy to understand why more and more companies are employing communications experts to advise their CEOs.


As Sinan Aral’s research for his book The Hype Machine showed, “It took the truth approximately six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people and twenty times as long to travel ten reshares from the origin tweet in a retweet cascade.” Within those now porous walls of organizations, confronting the onslaught of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like that drive engagement through algorithms that birth amygdala-optimized messaging, how is a CEO to achieve any kind of control over the shaping of the corporate environment?

The lyrics to the James Taylor song, You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught remind us of the dangers of this loss of control and the importance of restoring our corporate immune systems by regaining influence over the memes that dominate our cultures:

You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught, to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

Historically, organizations could reasonably rely on the human tendency to develop a strong affiliation to the company, developing a sense of it as ‘their’ tribe. Working for companies like IBM, General Electric and PepsiCo were badges of honor for employees. This strong identification provided a sense of belonging and accomplishments that extended beyond the powers of the individual. However, as employer-employee social contracts have shifted and become more tenuous the strength of that bond has loosened, just as tribalism beyond the firm has grown with the flood of memes being channeled through digital media. This poses a real threat to the power of organizations to influence employee behavior – “when referent power is joined to real power, the combination is unbeatable” (Hyman and Singer, 1968).

We can see that the strength of these forces is compromising the ability of organizations to respond. The organizational immune system is overcome by the viral nature of the memes flooding through the porous organizational boundaries and as already noted, the lines between real versus fake, and helpful versus damaging are becoming harder to distinguish as AI effects flood employees’ attention time.

So, in the face of this how is an organization to strengthen its immune system and compete with the high viral load coming from outside?


Just upping the budget for communications and/or technology will not enable your organization to match the overwhelming and highly variegated viral load.  Sadly, there is no singular fix; no “corporate pill” that can be taken. The evolving symbolic viruses cannot be removed from the environment, so it is necessary to compete against them with a system of activities.

No one has the complete answer yet, but we do know from leading practice that for most companies there is now an urgent need to craft a new combination of people and technology.  Think of it like scanning for mental viruses the same way you scan for computer viruses.  This means having a joint communication, legal, technology and operations team in charge of monitoring the health of the symbolic system on a continuous basis.

Many executives glaze over at the idea of a “systemic change”, but executives put in place management and incentive systems all the time. In this new and rapidly developing context now is the time to instill the right mindset in dealing with these viruses and strengthen the corporate immune system.

For example, in the different but relevant context of external reputation management, research undertaken by Media Tenor (quoted in an HBR article on this subject) “suggests that a company needs to have at least a 35% share of voice in order to keep the proportion of negative stories to a minimum in normal times.” We believe that, at the very least, this applies equally to internal message management.

What are the component parts of this “internal voice” effort:

  • Responsive to changing memes by real time monitoring of employee engagement and feedback
  • Credible in the face of external counterfactuals through offering quick response and believable sources
  • Responsive to ideas circulating that are in opposition to the culture, strategy and brand of the company
  • Easily dispersed across porous boundaries
  • Consistent communications systems and messages that reach to customers, suppliers and external media
  • Utilizes tools that help you analyze the quality and consistency of your tone and content that customer, employees and regulators see
  • Powerful enough to positively motivate behaviors

On that last point, whether targeted on intrinsic or extrinsic motivations, the responses must tap into a set of rewards that speak to the drivers of employee behavior. They must reinforce the core messages of purpose, meaning and the “why” of your organization frequently and completely so that you build up a trust bank with your people and your customers.

For most organizations to establish these conditions will require wholesale changes in the systems and processes by which the corporate immune systems operate:

  • Technology
    • Without always-on internal digital tools that are the corporate equivalent of Google’s constant analysis of the flow of content across the internet, there is little chance of understanding the viral flow of memes flooding your organization. This is the baseline for establishing readiness, the equivalent of a thermometer that shows when an illness is taking hold.
    • Whilst the internal company environment has to combat the incoming from outside, the same technologies will undoubtedly provide productivity opportunities in the space of a few short years – this is now widely recognized but equally widely lacks adequate investment, as a 2022 Deloitte survey
  • Communications
    • The vaccine that responds to the thermometer’s warnings, should be a corporate communications department that is focused as much internally as it is traditionally on external messaging. On-line based companies design messaging campaigns and events to shift customers from free to paying users, from users of one product to users of many products. Their processes consist of automatic triggers as well as curated and customized responses, depending on the user potential. Organizations need to establish the capabilities, the processes and content to replicate this internally, building on the tools that provide the triggers for messaging events.
  • Leadership
    • Effective leadership teams today have the ability to monitor and react in real time. In some organizations this will be from the CEO.  In others, it will come from the office of the CEO.  In either case, this monitoring of internal labor and external customers should be done with the same level of organization as investor relations and/or risk management. Why?  Because this new set of symbolic relationships will have a massive impact on talent, customer and investors – as Jamie Dimon learned with his back-to-the-office decree. This too often underplayed skillset has now become a critical capability. A mindset focused on constant monitoring of mood and messages, an awareness of the internal and external shapers that employees are exposed to, and an always-on messaging capability is a foundational component of the corporate immune system.

We have sought to describe the critical need to combine new thinking and new ways of operating in relation to technology, communications and leadership. As we pondered the implications of this new world, we asked ourselves if there is a single factor, a crucial component of the vaccine, that all this hinges upon. We believe there is. Trust.


Our human immune systems are constantly monitoring and adjusting to changing conditions, so that we can have a high degree of trust that in most situations it will protect us. This incredible degree of effectiveness has developed over thousands of years. Unfortunately, digital time moves faster than evolutionary time, so that luxury is not available to modern day leaders. But the need to build up a trust bank with your people, customers and suppliers is the same and requires the frequent reinforcement of the core messages of purpose, meaning and the “why” of your organization.

Jeff Bezos once said “if you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.” This applies just as much within organizations. More than ever, consistency between the talk and walk of leaders within organizations is critical in building and sustaining that level of trust.


Redwood Advisory Partners has decades of experience supporting clients through the design and implementation of organizational transformations. Follow or connect with the founder, Stephen Redwood, on LinkedIn (where you can find other articles in this series) or visit You can contact Stephen directly by email at [email protected] 

John Sviokla is a partner at Manifold Inc. that combines venture, studio incubation, and corporate advisory capabilities on behalf of startups, partners, and clients. Connect with John on LinkedIn, visit Manifold.Group, or email him at [email protected].

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