Todd Wilms has an interesting perspective on the effect of social media on corporations. As a Senior Director in SAP’s 35-person social media team, he sees both the incredible velocity of change in communications and marketing that he says makes “you feel like the ground is shifting out from underneath you—because it is.” Wilms spoke this week at the Online Media Summit in San Diego about the fast pace of change in social media—and frankly the glacial pace of change within corporations that slows or stops social media initiatives. He points to the long, difficult road of change ahead for social media practitioners, more often inside their own company than with customers.

Wilms says success inside SAP has come from small initiatives, feeding senior management information, and most of all embracing and having empathy with customers. Customers can be reached through social media, says Wilms. But it’s important to understand the customer journey is no longer a funnel. It’s more a set of “chutes and ladders that go all over the place.”

Mapping this customer journey so that you can touch customers whenever and wherever they choose to participate can be daunting. But Wilms says start with simple plans and then evolve them. “Find out where the customers are online,” he says. “Find where they go when they’re researching questions, and where they congregate and start there. It’s important to start with small prototypes for two reasons. First, you give yourself a chance to find out about your customers and social media in a low visibility situation from management. Second, you can bring proof from successful small projects to management in order to get buy in and support.”

Wilms and his team wanted to reach chief financial officers, who often are gatekeepers of big software decisions for companies like SAP. The SAP social media team started in the usual places—they looked at, for example. What they found at first was discouraging—CFO’s aren’t online much and they don’t as a rule participate in B2B social media. The answer? Look at the people surrounding and supporting the CFO. There are accounts receivable personnel, supply chain managers, IT business analysts and all of them provide important input to the CFO on buying decisions, and they all are passionately interested in finding answers to their problems through social media and search. By providing these people with the right kind of content and engagement, SAP was able to create a successful project for reaching CFOs. While the CFO challenge was complicated and hard to answer at first, an issue at least as tough faces even successful social media teams. The plain truth, Wilms says, is that without senior management providing “air cover,” in the form of support, encouragement, budget and evangelism, corporate culture will not change.

You may be great at your job, but without executive sponsorship there’s no hope of getting real change in an organization. Wilms feels many executives if they’re aware of social media, are “stuck in a nostalgia for 2007,” the way social media was when it first burst into the public consciousness. Hence a lot of execs don’t see social media as anything more than a set of marketing tactics, another way to get the message out. “Don’t push against your corporate culture,” says Wilms, “pull it.” This means working with people to understand concerns.

One suggestion might be to go to the naysayers in the organization and be very open with them, invite them to voice their criticisms and see if there’s a way they can be recruited to help solve the underlying problems. “And if you can see all of the problems you’re facing then something’s wrong,” warns Wilms. “That means that your executive sponsors aren’t moving the big obstacles out of the way before you encounter them. “ “We’ve got (at SAP) a CMO who’s blogged once a week,” he says, “for five years–with two weeks off that whole time. He’s somebody who gets social media, and works for it in the company.” Another way the SAP social media team was able to move the corporate culture was to look around among SAP’s 53,000 employees and find the people who were already active in social media, who had already embraced it. These people were made “ambassadors,” and given both special recognition and opportunities to lead, but also training and encouragement. The result was an invaluable network of people throughout the company who were champions for social media. Finally, it’s important to persistently evolve expectations in the organization.

Wilms quotes Aristotle, who said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore is not an act, but a habit.” For executives who demand clear ROI from social media the message has to be, “Social is not another channel to sell. It’s a new way to engage with customers. We can find new customers through engagement in social media.” “We can also over time change the perceptions about us, so when it comes time, they chose us.”