Achieving the Promise of Social Business

by francine Hardaway on February 13, 2012

No, I am not offering a course in social business, I am taking one with a little help from my friends. if you want to know which of my friends contributed to my new-found knowledge, my Social Business shared circle on Google+ is here.  I owe a debt of gratitude to all the people who weighed in.


The journey began last weekend with a thread in which I asked “who are the best experts in social business,” and opened a discussion that lasted for a week, with brilliant participants taking the time not only to respond themselves, but also to alert others to the thread. I took on the responsibility of collating the input, so I have written a post for Fast Company “Four Things to Consider Before Becoming a Social Business,” and now I am doing a follow up. Each represents a different evolution in my thinking based on the contributed wisdom of my Social Business Circle.


1)The Definition of Social Business Isn’t Clear Yet


When people began weighing in on my question, the beginning of the thread was heavy with social media friends of mine. Now that’s partially because social media is my world, and partly because there’s an intuitive feeling that social business is a communications task. And then David Armano pointed out that there’s a big difference between social media and social business. Social media is a subset of social business. It is the way a social business communicates.


Someone else pointed out that as the thread continued, it seemed heavy with PR people. I believe that’s because when you are in public relations, either inside a company, as I was at Intel, or outside, as I was at the agency I owned for almost two decades, you become acutely aware of the disconnect between what a company is saying (or wants you to say on its behalf) and what it is actually doing, Things are slowly changing, but I used to be asked routinely to put lipstick on pigs. In fact, that’s why I left the business of public relations.



2) Startups and Small Businesses Are Social By Default


Those disconnects between what is said by the business and what is done in the business are smaller and often non-existent in startups and new businesses. And that’s because most startups can’t afford to hire. They do their own communicating, whether it’s tweeting or standing behind the counter at the store or serving the sandwich. If the product they ship arrives broken, they take it back, they fix it, they replace it.


As a business grows, it loses touch with its customers. And then there comes a point when it is in danger of losing touch with even its own employees. Oracle has 110,000 employees, and I’ve been told that one in every two arrived by acquisition. How, indeed, can these employees be “social” on the part of Oracle? (I’m not singling out Oracle here; I just happen to know the numbers.)



3)Think Internal Before External


And that’s why this week I have come to believe that the businesses Jeremiah Owyang spoke of in his landmark post as averaging 178 social media accounts each may have it all wrong. Indeed, Jeremiah himself wrote privately (not anymore) to me that he had been social at Hitachi, before social media even became an enterprise preoccupation. I have a feeling he meant social in his business practices, not his Twitterfeed since that was before Twitter.


The people who are seriously thinking about the issues around social business, such as IBM, Salesforce,Dell, and BASF, are thinking about it as an internal platform — as a methodology for dissolving the silos and territories that seem to sprout as businesses become more successful. They are thinking about how to extend the collaborative and transparent information-sharing practices we associate with marketing and PR to the secretive areas of supply chain, HR and legal.


After all, only when employees of a company can share with each other can they even think about presenting a social front to the external world. And if they did, why would they need 178 different social media accounts each?


Ethan McCarty of IBM says: “One point I’ve been on for a while is that a social business is able to enhance the benefit of human interactions in just about any business process (as opposed to trying to engineer the human interactions out of the business process.) For example, interacting with the sales team of a social business might include artifacts of human interactions reaching deep into that company’s supply chain or research division etc. A really sophisticated social business would have friendly and easily navigable visualizations of these artifacts of interactions etc. So this is to say that social business is a superset of interactions that includes social media — since media is just one dimension of interaction with an organization.”


Multinational companies may be further along in the process because they have so many issues of remote management and cultural integration. I asked CheeChin Liew of BASF how he got around coming changes in privacy and data sharing laws in the EU, and he responded ” the new laws do not effect our internal platform, yet. I am not an expert in legal systems, but for a multinational company like ours, we always have to find ways to follow and live with multiple sets of regulations or laws. It’s very challenging but not impossible.

In some sense, becoming social internally (like our case) is maybe the best way for a multinational to overcome such difficulties.” His presentation at Lotusphere 2012 is on the emergence of business networks and communities.


The Military is the Poster Child for Leading Large Scale Change


Perhaps the most counterintuitive learning of the last week was that the military has beaten the business community to the punch in changing its “business” structure to social. General David Petraeus is the thought leader in this field, known as Network Centric Warfare.


You have probably been taught, as I have, to think of the military as hierarchical. In fact, most of our management theories were borrowed from the hierarchical organization of the military, in which communication flowed top down, with redundancy in the middle to make sure the information always got there even if a single messenger was shot or captured.


That form of organization, however, was based on the one-to-many information pattern brought about by the printing press. The internet changed all that, shifting communication patterns globally and immediately from broadcast (one to many) to network (many to many).


The military had to deal with this big change after 9/11. We were attacked, and our intelligence was faulty. Our new enemy was not hierarchical and force-faced; it hid in caves and sneaked through security. We knew how to fight an army, not a network. Fortunately, the military figured out quickly than you can only fight a network with a network.


Most corporations are not faced with the dire emergency faced by the military, and are thus taking their time about becoming networked and social. But it is gradually dawning on them, that their continued existence depends on once again borrowing a management model from the military.


Network centric warfare is all about information superiority, not force superiority. It’s about the satellite layer above the earth than communicates with networked equipment and the people who operate it or analyze information.


The military codified its changed emphasis through a new doctrine. Here are the central tenets of the new doctrine, which appears to have kept us safe since 9/11:


A robustly networked force improves information sharing;

Information sharing and collaboration enhance quality of information and shared situational awareness (everyone knows what’s going on);

Shared situational awareness enables self-synchronization (everyone knows what to do even if there isn’t a manager around to tell them);

These together increase mission effectiveness.


Truthfully, this doctrine sounds a lot like a startup.







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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous February 14, 2012 at 6:40 am

From the days of the first corporation started in Sweden hundreds of years ago, it has been impossible for any one person to know everything about a company, and by extension, it has similarly been impossible for all of the knowledge about the company and its operations to be stored in any one place. Since people work in the real world, not out of procedural manuals, they resorted to politics. Not politics as in the Tammany Hall sense, but politics as a backchannel to get things done. One definition of office politics is simply how authority gets worked out on a practical, day-to-day basis. 

I mention this because traditional companies were almost all established on traditional concepts of politics. Startups and software companies in particular are using social approaches to reinvent the way employees deal with bottlenecks. Instead of orienting their business around what they think it will take to make the CEO (or their assistant) happy, they’re able to get real input from the field to understand what is really happening, essential for establishing a true sense of urgency. 

I’m pleased that the SCRM Pioneers have pivoted to this orientation. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts about social business. 

hardaway February 14, 2012 at 9:37 am

Brilliant! So the real use of social business could be the back channel!
Francine Hardaway, PhD
Stealthmode Partners

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