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This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Monday
Sep212009

Social Business

Stowe Boyd wrote today about his discomfort with the phrase Enterprise 2.0 and his preference for "social business" as a way of describing the changes we are seeing currently. While I understand Andrew McAfee's thinking when he came up with the phrase I'm with Stowe - it's too narrow, too corporate and too managerial!

Below is the text (warning this is the biggest blog post I have ever done) of an article I wrote recently which I am reproducing here as it seems pertinent to the promotion of the idea of social business

During a recent series of events for the Telegraph Business Club I felt mild disappointment when an economist claimed the recession was about to end. I explained this feeling to the audience in terms of regretting that too many people will assume that this means a return business as usual. Too many will simply carry on as they did before with the same attitudes that got us into a mess in the first place. Not enough people have felt uncomfortable for long enough to bring about real change.

Why do I believe this? Because I believe there is a fundamental change in how we do business heading our way. Driven by the networked communication tools flourishing on the web, tools like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, not only how we communicate with those who benefit from our services but also how we organise ourselves to produce them will be changed forever.

What I believe is happening, as more of our society becomes more connected and computing power and bandwidth become pervasive, is the equivalent of the advent of the printing press. Before the printing press “the truth” was pretty much under the control of the monarchy and the church. Without access to the ability to produce expensive and labour-intensive manuscripts most people’s ability to communicate was confined to word-of-mouth. With the advent of the printing press access to knowledge and understanding became widespread and the ability to instigate “mass communication” became more accessible to more of the population. Arguably the result was the questioning of the authority of the Church which led to the Reformation and ultimately the Enlightenment.

Social tools like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Wikis and Blogging are placing in the hands of everyone communication tools that give them access to global audiences within seconds with virtually no cost and no gatekeepers. This has never been possible on this scale before and no one really knows what the impact will be.

In terms of the full impact of those social technologies we’re discussing here when asked recently in an interview how long I thought it would be before the impact of these tools was apparent, I suggested 50 years. This may seem like an unrealistically long timescale but if you think about it the Internet has been around for the best part of 30 years and most people don’t know what the back button on their browser is for! If we are talking about the impact that a networked culture will have on our institutional and organisational lives than 50 years is possibly a conservative estimate. I wonder what our equivalent of the Enlightenment will be maybe 50 or 100 years after the similarly disruptive intervention of networked mass communication?

Being aware of these technologies is a very different thing from understanding them, actually using them, and knowing how to get the best out of them. This is before we even begin to touch on the subject of how to use them in a business context and how to “manage them”. The biggest change in communications, and possibly the most challenging for those called communications professionals, is a change in tone. Early bloggers talked a lot about authenticity, and about finding your voice. This was because a lot of writing until then, especially writing intended for public consumption, had a formal tone and language intended to convey authority. But in the conversational world of on-line communications authority has to be earned and is conferred by the readers.

To quote David Weinberger, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, “conversations can only take place between equals”. This is to say that, at the point of the conversation taking place, both parties have to be willing to stand on an equal footing and be prepared to listen to each other as much as to open up and communicate. Even if one party is the chief executive and the other a new secretary, or one is a large multi nation corporation’s communications team and the other is a customer who had the temerity to complain - if, for the purposes of the conversation, they aren’t prepared to accord each other equal respect, then it is not a conversation but one party talking at another.

It is certainly true that the predominant nature of these online conversational tools is personal. People tweet not organisations. In fact I would go further and say that people tweet for themselves! Devolving online social communication to others is a very risky business. Most likely people will realise that it’s not the authentic voice of the individual and become suspicious very quickly. Even if you manage to get away with it to begin with the risks of being discovered increase with the passage of time. Far better to encourage those who want to get involved to do so and coach them and help them to become more effective at online social communications.

In a world where the boundaries between an organisation and its customers are blurring the best advocates for your business, believe it or not, are very often your own staff or experts. If you are able to allow and encourage those who work for you to engage with your clients or customers then you are much more likely to engender the direct, person-to-person, conversations, that will make you so much more effective in the online world. This isn’t to say that you just suddenly unleash untutored and unskilled bloggers wild onto the Internet. In fact it is not in your staff’s interests to be placed in such a vulnerable position. Work with them to determine what sort of guidance they might need, what sort of policies may be appropriate, and how to give them the skills to communicate effectively on your behalf.

“The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed” - William Gibson

There are those who would claim that the views expressed here are just another re-hashing of cyber-utopianism that has been around since the start of the net. Certainly the hype of dot.com bubbles and bursts appears to be being played out again with the current “fad” of social media. But I would argue that what we are seeing is a much more gradual, long lasting and profound change in the way we see ourselves and each other driven by the proliferation of networked communication described above. There is a genie that has been let out of the bottle and while we may not see the full effects of its actions in our lifetime there is little doubt that things won’t ever be the same again.

So given that this change is headed your way, and in fact is almost certainly already beginning to happen inside and around your organisation, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to revert to “business as usual” and continue to run your business in a conventional command and control way and talk to those you serve as passive consumers? Or are you going to embrace this new networked world, learn the ropes, and get ahead of your competition by getting those conversations with your staff and your customers started as soon as you can?

References (12)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    There´s way to much focus on conversations without taking into consideration that it is not the self-interested individuals but networks of trust you need to add value to in today´s socialized marketplace. It´s not about tactics, which will never be the key for success, but about leading the way by activating ...
  • Response
    I admit it - this blog is all but moribund. But I thought I'd sneak a post or two on here before James takes it away from me.The discussion about use of social software in businesses seems to have risen...
  • Response
    Hey great post. My name is Eric Douglas and I\'m the author of \"Leading at Lightspeed\" (my new book coming out!) Just wanted to say I enjoy your blog, and feel free to use any of the content from my Leading at Lightspeed blog (w/credit)! Regards, Eric
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Reader Comments (21)

I completely agree that the term Enterprise 2.0 is complex, overly "managerial" in tone, and overdue for replacement.

Terminology is important, especially in a relatively new domain of activity, such as that we are discussing here. However, for terminology to find broad acceptance and enter the mainstream, all stakeholders must believe it is neutral.

We need an agnostic term that technology vendors, customers, consultants, and analysts will all feel equally comfortable using and adopting. Terminology closely tied to a specific vendor or consulting company does not meet this agnosticism test.

"Social business design" is a term Dachis Group uses to distinguish itself in this market. Therefore, I believe the term is not neutral and should not replace the more generic phrase Enterprise 2.0.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Krigsman

Didn't know that about Dachis. But then anything worthwhile risks being co-opted and re-used.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Dachis uses that term as a of their marketing. Since they are heavily funded, the co-opting means "social business" will remain associated with their specific brand, to the detriment of competitors. I view that as a serious issue in this new market.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Krigsman

Ah, I shared that sense of disappointment at the premature welcoming of the end of recession. Like you, I'm hoping for rather bigger changes in attitude and no return to business as usual.

Don't care too much what we call the change, and very wary of anyone who thinks it's important to be honoured as the inventor of the label!

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJohnnie Moore

euan, what you're saying here seems right on - helpful to me to see your contextualizing - if, for example, "the truth" became something else when authority was liberated from the church, are we now seeing a further liberation, of truth from public institutions including gov., journalism, and other such "estates?"

A second, somewhat different question: what lies athwart the path of "social business" and the power to meld social speech with commerce is the venerable issue of the corporation as unperson. Corporations may be "citizens" in some societies, but they are not persons. To attempt to represent them as persons, or in the person of human speakers, to tweet as though one were both a social being and a financial and legal entity, seems an effort doomed to fall between the stools. How do you see this working?

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertom matrullo

Love the second paragraph Tom - spot on.

I think the idea of the corporation will start to recede to be replaced by networks of people more or less closely identified with a common purpose. There will be people who's job it is to maintain and develop that shared purpose and there will be those more focussed on delivering it but they will all be "just nodes in the network" with mutual dependancy and respect.

September 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterEuan

"integrated business" ... the "social" word has reached its sell-by date ... and is a kind of superficial concept for what is coming

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergregorylent

Still need something that reflects that this is about relationships and effectively power and not sure "integrated business" is big enough either!

September 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterEuan

That would be a large change (the receding of corporations to be replaced by human networks) - one that deserves a good deal of exploration. If you know of any books, articles, etc. exploring this transformation, I'd be interested.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertom matrullo

Well having just finished Manuel Castells' Communication Power I can recommend that. I am about to start Kevin Carson's Organization Theory which is billed as applying "the economic principles of individualist anarchism, as developed in Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, to the study of the large organization." so I'll let you know how I get on!

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

Carson is very interesting - I'll look forward to your thoughts. btw, his previous book is online, free, at http://mutualist.org/id47.html

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertom matrullo

Have you read Organization Theory?

September 21, 2009 | Registered CommenterEuan

Can't say I'm overly keen on 'social business' it kind of implies business wasn't social before.

Business became unsocial, and if you worked for some orgs positively anti-social for a bit post-war but really what we are seeing with these tools is a return to business or market as conversation on a much more equal footing - like it has been for most of the time markets have existed. The Industrial Age will be seen as a blip when human beings stopped being human for a while, and what we are doing now is reverting to type.

(Even then having met my wife at work and been to a number of christenings for 'Futuremedia babies' i would like to know what is was we were doing if it wasn't social :) )

Unfortunately I can't think of anything better!

PS just a hunch at the moment but my guess is the thing formerly known as leadership will evolve more quickly than the workforce in terms of using the tools so they will continue to lead the conversation. But they will be quieter, more equal leaders with more a greater degree of social awareness and empathy.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndy Tedd

Spot on Andy on all points.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEuan

One of the challenges with 'social' is treating any combination with the word as an entirely new concept. Too many good bloggers talk about the days before social networks. Were they here with the dinosaurs? (and I bet even they had their cliques) We've been socialising in networks of one form or another for centuries. It's the format that's different. And this time, it's a format that is enabling us to challenge how organisations function, what defines an industry, maybe one day even a country. The printing press disrupted the power of religion. The Internet is disrupting the power of industrialisation and governments. In 100 years time, will people look back in wonder/horror at the concept of 'human resource' and people voting once every 4 years or so to decide who makes all the decisions on a national scale?

I don't think your time estimations are conservative at all. Most clients I work with are still incredibly uncomfortable with trusting and letting individuals have a voice. I suspect most industries need to be fully disrupted for the change to start to sink in. Still believe the recession will have some positive outcomes in this respect and I don't think it's over yet awhile. Getting used to ignoring the experts, I remember throwing (virtual) marshmallows at the TV last year when they were still in denial about how bad the situation was. And looking beyond the UK, there are countries operating like the UK did before the Magna Carta was written let alone printed, with people put in classes, unable to move out of them on threat of death, and some forms of human life valued less than livestock. We've got a lot of disruption ahead of us and it will take many years for the dust to settle.

Eww, far too many 'I's for a response to a social matter and in danger of climbing onto a soap box :-) In short, great post!

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoining Dots

no, euan - I recall discussion of Carson years ago on a brilliant blog that no longer exists. Read some of his stuff then - glad to know he's getting some attention.

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertom matrullo

I'm not comfortable with the term 'social business', because all organisations are social, even if they're hierarchical and unequal. What people are talking about is how we can reorganise work when the workforce has access to social tools. There's as much information processing power in a Blackberry as NASA had to run the Apollo space program, so there are definitely opportunities to run things differrently.

A phrase that makes sense to me is "Peak Hierarchy". There are diminishing returns on bosses, supervisors and management of any kind. The existence of a managerial class is a leftover from industrial mass production, when there was huge capital investment in equipment, lots of jobs for operators who followed routines, and a small group of people who needed to think for themselves so that the company could respond to exceptions, variations and unexpected changes in the environment.

Nowadays, just about every job that exists requires the full range of 'literacies' as Howard Rheingold calls them. We all have to be able to absorb information and integrate it, to communicate clearly, improvise, and collaborate with our peers. Unless you're in MacDonalds, when you just have to accept that you can't ask for "no tomato", it's easier to pick the tomato out and throw it away. But some people will still tell you the old ways were better...

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGordon Rae

Love the post - I too struggle with the term "social business". I struggle with social media and the social web as well. It all implies - "party" and not serious and that we were not being social before [agree with all comments above on this. That said it is still better than enterprise 2.0

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdeb

Long post ;-) ... reminds me of someone you know, and past admonishments (criticism being too loaded a word, of course ;-)

Kevin Carson's thinking is very good, IMO.

But I would argue that what we are seeing is a much more gradual, long lasting and profound change in the way we see ourselves and each other driven by the proliferation of networked communication described above.

Yup.

Appreciate the concept of 'Peak Hierarchy' ..

September 23, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon H.

Hi Euan,

Sorry this comment is so late, but my own focus is on the social business rather than enterprise 2.0, hence I'm probably less interested in, and therefore use social media a bit less than, most people who have been participating in this discussion so far. Either that, or I'm just a slow thinker (which is possible too).

However, I'd like to start with a defence of E2.0:

I think I'm less convinced there needs to be such a radical shift as you. I don't think businesses need to be non-corporate or non-managerial in order to be personal and social. So I'm perhaps less bothered about the managerial tone of the Enterprise 2.0 term.

But I agree the shift is a big one. And as I noted in my comment to your Management 2.0 post, I think the 2.0 tag is useful because it does indicate a qualitative, not merely a quantitative change (because otherwise we'd be talking about 1.1).

I'm surprised you don't feel compelled by this argument. It might, after all, help people understand it isn't time to return to business as usual after all.

So given this, why do I prefer the phrase Social Business?

Well, my reasons are very similar to yours. And I think many of the challenges are red herrings. I don't think Dachis' use of the term is a problem (and I was using it before them). And I don't agree that it conveys the sense of 'party' (non one says this about social housing!).

However, my favourite term is 'Competitive Society'. You'll remember this is what I was calling my blog when we met last year (it started off as 'The New Social Business' but I moved it earlier this year to reflect my preferred terminology).

It's now moved again and I'm calling it Social Advantage. I write about some of the above in more depth at: http://blog.social-advantage.com/2009/09/my-further-thoughts-on-social-business.html.

Jon.

October 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon Ingham

Great post and great discussion. I don't really mind social business as a term (I know, I know... we've always been social but that hasn't be the primary operating construct so I do think it's a helpful differentiator). However, social business, in my mind, leaves out governments, non-profits, and other groups. I started calling it the social organization a couple of years ago (so much so that my blog is http://www.thesocialorganization.com).

And I too believe that the same way the Internet changed information organization from a hierarchical based system to a networked system, so too will human organizations change in that direction. From a theoretical perspective, there is always a bottom to a hierarchy which creates disproportionate opportunities depending on where one sits on the hierarchy. Networks do a much better job of recognizing and rewarding contribution - at least as it is seen as valuable to others. Makes me wonder who will reap the rewards of this emerging dynamic... who will loose power? Can huge organizations change fast enough to keep up or will new ones rise up to replace them. It's a fascinating time to be watching and it will be decades to work itself out - including changes to our educational institutions in order to appropriately prepare people for it.

Thanks for a fascinating conversation.

October 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Happe

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