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4 Big Barriers to Social Media Adoption: Key Research Findings

The results of a unique and ground-breaking research study (n=644+) indicate four main barriers to increased adoption of social technologies in organizations: lack of knowledge and understanding, unprepared leadership, fear, and the absence of a well-grounded business case. This post highlights those findings and offers recommendations for overcoming the barriers. It also provides a link to a free report with details on the study and its results and invites more people to contribute to the ongoing research.

In early 2012 Silverman Research initiated a unique study that asked people to weigh in on an important Digital Era question: What do you think are the main barriers for organisations in embracing social media practices and what ideas do you have for overcoming them? We quickly embraced the project, called the Social Media Garden, becoming a supporter and advocate. With over 640 participants, the study’€™s initial results are both enlightening and edifying, offering great food for thought for both leaders and laggards.

This Denovati SMART Blog guest post from Michael Silverman was originally published on our old blog in the summer of 2012. It highlights the key findings of the research (which unfortunately are still true today) and provides a link to a free report that offers more details about both the results and the 2.0 research methodology that generated them. We hope you find the results and the report as valuable as we do, and that you’€™ll share them with others in your organizations and in your professional networks. You can also explore the Social Media Garden directly to get a sense of how the methodology works and the detailed responses people have shared. You can even participate by evaluating the responses of others and adding your own insights. The Garden, which now has over 700 participants, will remain open indefinitely.


The advance of social technologies is making organisations slowly wake up to a harsh reality: the control they have enjoyed over communications for so long is diminishing and this poses some difficult challenges. The objective of this research study was to provide some helpful advice to people who are developing, or expanding, the use of social media in organizations. The study was sponsored by Unilever to help push forward the social media agenda in organizations, and to build on their efforts to “social mediatize” the way they work across the company.

The study identified four main, interrelated barriers to social media adoption in organisations:

  1. Lack of knowledge and understanding
  2. Fear
  3. Absence of a well-grounded business case
  4. Unprepared leadership

This post provides a brief overview of the research methodology and highlights the key findings. A more detailed analysis is provided in the full report, which can be accessed and downloaded for free via SlideShare.

Methodology and Participants

There is a mounting body of research on the use of social media in organizations; however, none of these studies have been conducted using social media methodologies. Capturing people’€™s interactions through social technology, and applying the latest text analytics, offers a new and rich source of insight.

The Garden is a collaborative environment that displays comments using data visualisation instead of a traditional list-based format. Conversations displayed in lists can quickly lead to information overload, so the Garden employs advanced statistics to produce an intuitive graphical map. In addition to allowing participants to navigate the discussion more easily, the visualisation also ensures that each participant has an equal chance of being heard. Participants;€™ ratings of each others’€™ comments are used to give prominence to the most insightful comments without the need for a moderator.

Once you enter the Garden, it works like this:

  1. You begin by evaluating three comments by other participants, which you select from the existing “€œblooms.”
  2. After evaluating these comments, you express your own agreement on five broad statements about social media (e.g., Productivity: I believe that allowing the use of external social media sites at work makes people less productive). Your responses to these statements determine the position of your own “€œbloom” in the Garden.
  3. You then write a response to a discussion question, in this case: What do you think are the main barriers for organisations in embracing social media practices and what ideas do you have for overcoming them?
  4. Through The Garden’€™s visualisation, you can see where you stand in relation to other participants.
  5. You can then read, rate and respond to the comments of other participants -€“ and see which comments are resonating with the community.

A short instructional video can be seen here

Click here to read the original blog post that provides an overview of the Social Media Garden

As an open-access study, the project was publicized via various Social Business, HR and Communications channels and communities. A convenience sampling approach was appropriate given the question asked in the study could be adequately answered by people with an interest in, or experience with, the use of social media. However, this does mean that participants are more likely to be involved with social media than the population at large.

Note: Although the Garden remains open, the analysis reported here is based on the first 644 responses.


Responses to the five positioning statements are shown in Chart 1. The data for these questions was collected using sliders (a visual analogue scale). Each bar shows a histogram of responses, as well as the distribution curve, so that both the spread of opinion and percentage agree/disagree can be seen.

Chart 1
Overall responses to positioning statements (n=644)

(click to enlarge)

The main points to note are that only around a quarter of participants agree that allowing the use of social media sites at work makes people less productive. There is strong consensus that leadership is more important than technology in embracing social media, yet it would appear that there is still uncertainty about exactly who should be taking the lead -€“ only a third think HR should take the lead.

All comments were included in a text analysis from which 16 themes emerged (see Chart 2 below).

Chart 2
Main barriers for organisations in embracing social media practices

(click to enlarge)

There is strong consensus that the biggest barriers to social media adoption are lack of knowledge and understanding, as well as leadership. Conversely, generational differences and the issues of trust and employee abuse were not frequently mentioned.

We can add further insight to these findings by grouping participants based on the content of their written comments and then looking at how those groups score on various quantitative measures – in this case, how involved those people are with social media, how much their comments about these issues resonated with the community and the sentiment contained within those comments. This is shown in Chart 3 below.

Chart 3
Prevalence of barriers by overall rating, involvement with social media and sentiment

(click to enlarge)

While there were many comments about the lack of knowledge and understanding as barriers to social media adoption, these tended to be written by people with relatively lower levels of involvement with social media. People who had the highest levels of involvement with social media were more likely to make comments about the challenges associated with creating a compelling business case. And, more importantly, comments about the business case were rated most highly by the community. Increased involvement with social media also correlated with the identification of the barrier of inadequate leadership, as well as trust, fear, communication and culture.

Looking at the analysis as a whole, the four most important barriers to social media adoption were explored in more detail: Difficulties in creating a robust business case, lack of knowledge and understanding about social media, a failure of leadership to accept new ways of working and fear of the unknown.

Chart 4
Interconnectivity between the four main barriers to social media adoption

(click to enlarge)

It must be recognized that there is overlap and interconnectivity between the barriers to social media adoption. For example, in the four barriers outlined above, a lack of knowledge and understanding might well be considered an antecedent of fear, leadership apprehension and business case shortcomings. Likewise, leaders can lack knowledge and understanding, which makes them overestimate risk and become dismissive of, otherwise, valid business cases. People who are looking for support in facilitating the adoption of social technologies should review these barriers and consider the relationships between them with regard to their specific purpose and organisational context. It’s important to note that none of the barriers to social media adoption work in isolation.

The research question also asked participants to suggest ideas about how these barriers could be overcome. This allows highly-rated practical suggestions to be identified, for example (click on each quote to enlarge):


The main message to take away from this study is that there are 16 barriers that prevent organizations from embracing social technologies (see Chart 2). Although there will be lots of overlap and interaction between these barriers, 16 barriers is a lot of issues for practitioners to think about and navigate. However, all of these barriers to social media adoption appear to have one thing in common: a resistance to change (or put more bluntly, excuses for maintaining the status quo). With the occasional exception of resources and security issues, perhaps the only genuine barrier to social media adoption is leadership. The barriers identified in this study exert their influence either as causes or consequences of leadership inaction – it is, therefore, with leadership that opportunity knocks. To make strategic decisions, leaders must grasp the wider implications of these technological advances. The ability of leaders to recognise organisational and environmental shifts, and educate themselves accordingly, will help organisations deal with these sociocultural changes.

The Social Media Garden will remain open for participation and exploration. Please have a look around and add your insights to the mix. We also welcome your feedback on the Garden methodology and the results to date.

Michael Silverman is Managing Director of Silverman Research, a company specializing in applying social media principles to social research. A psychologist and organizational research specialist, he was previously Global Head of Employee Research at Unilever.

For more information please contact: [email protected]

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