The language of social business

The latest question from Michael Cook (Organizational Development Talks: OrgDevTalk) continues from our last one:

Wow, your response to my last question was a deep and wide one indeed. I think I may need to put some more definite boundaries around where my concerns lie. First, the line from your last response that captured my interest was this: “To stay engaged with interconnected markets, business must get more social.”  I am thinking about some of my clients and approaching them with the thought that they need to have their businesses become more social. Just to test my own understanding it seems to me that by using the term social, especially in view of the IBM quote you referenced, that you mean to say highly connective, many options for connectivity are now a must for the value proposition of any organization. I imagine you mean more than that but am I in the right ballpark?

What I think I need is some language that creates a new context for the term social because I am afraid my clients will consider the remark naive. ‘Business is business and social is social.’ This would be their natural response, thinking that “social” means not results focused. I know you are using the term in a context that may be transparent to you but I can assure you that my clients do not share the same transparency.

What I need to do is be able to connect your conversation to the critical relationship between companies and customers and show how social media plays an important part in sustaining these relationships into the future. Can you give me a couple of concrete examples where this connection was made using social media that I might be able to share?

Secondly, when I read through your response to my last question I notice that you did not directly address the last part of my question where I asked about the right time to bring a technical expert into a conversation with a client. I suspect it is at the level of strategic value because I know most of my clients would not have an extensive interest in the technology itself but more the outcomes it might leverage. Again, am I on the right track here?

Does social mean highly connective? It’s much more than that. Social means human. It is an understanding that relationships and networks are complex. Our industrial management models are based on a belief that our structures are merely complicated. Here’s an explanation from

The main difference between predictable systems and complex systems is our approach to understanding them. We can understand simple and complicated systems by taking them apart and analyzing the details. However, we cannot understand complex systems by applying the same strategy of reductionism. But we can achieve some understanding by watching and studying how the whole system operates.

What’s important for managers is that this also works the other way around. We create complicated systems by first designing the parts, and then putting them together. This works well for mechanical things, like buildings, watches and Quattro Stagioni pizzas. But it doesn’t work for complex systems, like brains, software development teams, and the local pizzeria. We cannot build a system from scratch and expect it to become complex in the way that we intended. Complex systems defy attempts to be created in an engineering effort.

Social means the bonds that keep us together. Much of it is about trust. If I trust you, I might ask you for advice, so trust is essential for collaboration. We lose it if we try to micro-manage knowledge work. A framework like wirearchy is much better for complex environments than our traditional models of command & control, functional management and enforced adoption of work practices. Wirearchy: a dynamic multi-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

The argument that ‘business is business and social is social’ makes little sense today. Business is social because it involves people. Business must be more social the more complex the work and the greater the need for collaboration. We foster innovation through social interactions. The idea that a lone person working in a lab can come up with a brilliant idea is largely unfounded. Connections between people drive innovation, says Tim Kastelle; “Connecting ideas is the core of innovation, but without connecting ideas to people, there is no innovation at all.

How does social media connect companies and customers? There are many case studies on social media for marketing and customer service available online . However, as my colleague Jane Hart writes:

There are many examples of how enterprises/organisations (profits and non-profits) are using social media for EXTERNAL marketing, customer support, etc, but few real-life case studies of strategic approaches to its use INTERNALLY for social and collaborative learning and/or performance and productivity improvement.

Making organizations more effective is what really interests me.

When working with clients, I would bring in technical expertise as late as possible. Technology is more often a business constraint than an enabler, especially internal IT departments. They will tell you what you can’t do. Determine the business requirements first and make sure they’re clear. Then figure out how to enable them with technology. Don’t let the IT tail wag the business dog. As Steve Woodruff writes, social media is not a business strategy. That also means that a self-proclaimed “social media strategist” should not be developing your business strategy.

3 Responses to “The language of social business”

  1. virginia Yonkers

    What you are talking about is a cultural change that I fear many businesses (especially those long established or located in more provincial areas) are not ready for.

    I come across the resistance to using “social” in a business context in my own classroom where my students are very familiar with social media. Culturally, they draw the line between “social” and “commercial” not understanding that the line is artificial.

    So perhaps the term “social” as Michael Cook points out, is loaded with preconceptions and there needs to be new language to express the ideas (as you point out, there is the human connection). As I read through your post the term “relational” came to mind.

    • Harold Jarche

      “Collaboration” is a term that almost any business will accept. We’re currently working with a very large, traditional client whose management has accepted the need for more social, informal, working smarter approaches. It’s getting easier to sell “social” as more case studies and examples become available.


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