“Social business is dead!” … “Whatever!”

Published as a guest post on briansolis.com, Friday 8th November 2013, in response to Chris Heuer's post "Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next!"


As he finished a game of Cut The Rope on his iPhone, my young godson asked what my phone was like when I was his age. I broke it down for him. I was in my twenties before someone offered to take north of ten thousand dollars for a basic digital camera, and not much less for a GPS device. And I got my first basic mobile phone (I explained that means just making phone calls and sending text messages) as I approached thirty.

A few days later, as she dispatched her umpteenth snapchat of the morning, my niece asked me why I obviously enjoy what I do for a living. Imagine a whole lifetime, I replied, during which the only innovation was a tweak to the angle of the plow shear.

Scientists and engineers have been good to us. We’ve come to expect serious technological innovation with the regularity of the seasons. So, just like Chris Heuer, I’m more than ready for corresponding organizational change.

Now.

As in right now!

Having reflected briefly on the vast progression of the Internet and the web, computing, mobile infrastructure and social media services – as if you needed a reminder – let’s look at what’s changed at the typical organization during this time, my adult lifetime. Or more pertinently what hasn’t.

The org structure and the titles sitting round the board table today are very much unchanged from two decades ago but for the addition of a c-title with an ‘I’ in the middle.

Indeed, it was twenty years ago that integrated marketing communications first emerged championing a customer-centric outlook to replace inward-looking habits. And two decades later, customer-centricity may be a new religion by diktat but not in practice. From my observations, the truly, fully, consistently, customer-centric organization remains in the minority. Under scrutiny, many claims of customer-centricity turn out to be little more than the prioritization of an organization-centric view of the customer, and many advocates of social business still feel compelled for this reason to list customer-centricity as a core social business behavior.

So how is it that social, mobile and related technologies can be adopted en masse and rapidly for our lives outside work, transforming how we express ourselves, maintain relationships and get on with our lives, yet organizational life remain so intransigent?

I believe the answer is relatively simple. Design.

The tectonic forces of the 20th Century led us to design organizations that resist change. Such entities excel at efficiency, at repetition, with varying facility to adopt incremental, evolutionary tweaks to the way things are. There was no facility to recognize the complexities of the marketplace and operations let alone deal with them. So the design worked well enough, particularly when the competition was designed similarly. It competed and survived to this present day by searching for ways to make things a few percent better with a few percent less resources.

Microsoft Yammer co-founder and CTO, Adam Pisoni, writes: “Our modern ‘scientific management’ corporations remained competitive by optimizing for efficiency, a result accomplished through greater specialization and driven by overlaying process and rigid structure across the business. In this way, we arrived at the cornerstone of the modern company – predictability. Success was built around predictable costs, revenues, customers, and employees. Inherent in the notion of predictability is a sense of control. For corporations, it seemed that harnessing this control while setting and meeting expectations would keep them on top forever.”

Yet what served us very well for the best part of a century now frustrates and disappoints us. Reifying the organization as more than the sum of its human parts for the moment, we have created a monster that won’t be tamed for the 21st Century. In actual fact, it is doing precisely what we trained it to do.

How can we break this deadlock? Here’s Chris’ advice: “While Stowe Boyd still remains an ardent supporter of the impact and power of social in the enterprise as he notes in this GigaOm post citing McKinsey’s Social Economy report, I think it’s just time for us to find a phrase that is more attractive to corporate leadership.”

Now I’m a keen student of persuasion and the power of language, but really? Will the monster cower and roll over for its tummy to be tickled upon the simple incantation of a new turn of phrase?

In Stowe’s response to Chris’ post, he reasserts this point of view: “One of the toolsets to apply in this quest for the fast-and-loose business are ideas about working socially and tools to support that. However, the greatest advances are likely to be more closely linked to fundamentals of organizational culture, and the relationship of the individual to work and the organization, rather than a social business breakthrough, per se.”

In other words, social business was never just about social media, despite many twitterings treating #socbiz and #socmed as synonyms. It’s about people being able to behave differently as a result of new technologies, indeed wanting to behave differently, centered around common purpose and shared values.

If you share my optimism and assume we’ll get somewhere called social business at some point, then there are only two ways this can happen. One. We change the monster. Two. The monster is killed off by new creations built as social business from scratch.

The latter will happen, is happening. But like Chris, Adam, Stowe and Brian, I’m impatient. I want to see many long-established organizations transform. And if not now, then most definitely this decade.

The only way I can see that happening is by tapping the monster’s own strength, using its strength against it rather than directly opposing it, a technique anyone skilled in jujitsu will recognize. In The Business of Influence (Wiley, 2011) and Attenzi – a social business story (2013), I determined that the appropriate strength to channel is performance management. If people (individually and collectively) perform as they are measured – as indeed Chris points out in his post in relation to senior executive remuneration – and if we wish the organization to behave differently, then we need to infect that performance measurement appropriately.

I suggest we do that by extending the organization’s capabilities for performance managing the flows of money, the flows of time, and the flows of material, to tracking, analysing and understanding the flows of influence.

Whether the eventuality is called social business or some future neologism I couldn’t really care less. What’s considerably more important is the simple fact that people designed organizations. And we can redesign them.

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