Is Social Business Dead? The Argument Dissected

In recent weeks commentators have been debating whether social business is dead, sleeping or just waking up. As a pre-view to tomorrow’s webinar Is the Social Business Gold...

In recent weeks commentators have been debating whether social business is dead, sleeping or just waking up. As a pre-view to tomorrow’s webinar Is the Social Business Gold Rush Over? Justin Kirby collates and dissects the various view-points.

Chris Heuer’s recent article, Social Business is Dead, reflects the growing frustration among those at the sharp edge of social business. You’ll be able to hear more from Chris tomorrow in a free webinar. In the meantime here’s a cross-section of expert opinion representing the wider discussion generated by Chris’s article.

Social Business is Dead Photo

Bruce Lewin at Four Groups disagrees with the view that social business is dead:

… barring a few, noteworthy, IPO-centric exceptions, there never has been a gold rush in social media… Given the ongoing development of ‘social media technology’ and the increasing adoption of new hardware and services, … it may be more a case of continued steady growth, rather than a boom and bust scenario.

Others feel that the role of social media is a given:  Guy Stephens, IBM (who is speaking in tomorrow’s webinar) points out:

There is a certain inevitability about the notion of the social business … We have access to the most powerful tools of mass communication that we have ever had. We are not about to give this up.

– Guy Stephens, IBM

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the “Oh look! There’s another bright new shiny thing, I want that one, not this old one….” rush for novelty and innovation. Just because something is new does not mean it possesses utility or relevance. Equally, just because something is losing its sheen (“Social Business? So old hat, Darling”), … does not by definition mean it loses utility or relevance. …. The bit that is missed, I suspect, in social business terms, is that these are organisational, systemic, relationship changing interventions.

– Steve Hearsum, Roffey Park Institute

I think it’s a result of a reductionism – trying to simplify massive change to the selection and delivery of a series of social tools. This focus on the technical means the human element – the really important part of what those with their hearts in the right place were trying to achieve with social business – is inevitably missed out.

– David Cushman, The Social Partners

David feels that the solution lies in adopting the principles of ‘open business’.  The difference between the two at its simplest is that:

Social is about the tools, more about messages, and being customer centric; whereas Open is about behaviours, more about production, and making partners of customers.

For more on this topic see David’s next book, The 10 Principles of Open Business, or his full response here.


So what is a social business? Two suggestions from Richard Potter (Steria) and Guy Stephens (IBM)

It’s the state of a business successfully exploiting the value of a connected world.

– Richard Potter, Steria

However, Guy Stephens, suggests that:

It is difficult talking about social business without immediately falling into a language of cliches, appropriated words and somewhat playful word acrobatics – disruption, openness, trust, collaboration, participation, authenticity, transparency, decentralisation, reciprocity amongst the more mainstream ones. These words are bandied casually around like some charm or amulet in the belief that their mere mention will magically transform a business willing to listen into a ‘social business’.

Terminology and Methodology

There seems to be agreement that the term social business is problematic, not least because it can be confused with social media, but also because of its closeness to the term social enterprise.

Social Business’ is a difficult term for leaders (of a certain generation) to understand. … ‘Social business’ is not self-explanatory and invariably demands immediate qualification, but it has meaning beyond worthiness. It’s the state of a business successfully exploiting the value of a connected world. What you call it is up to you. –

– Richard Potter

Others point out that the term does not resonate with businesses:

Buzzwords come and go, and it seems to me that ‘social business’ never quite caught on. It has been used a lot in the industry but it’s not an agenda which resonates well with client organisations. CEOs are not hammering their fists on the boardroom table saying ‘Dammit we need this business to be more social!’

– Tom Nixon, Nixon McInnes


Others suggest that it over-simplifies the underlying principles of social business:

Speaking personally rather than in my professional role, calling something ‘social business’ probably isn’t helpful. A term like this makes it to easy to assume that a tool or platform will tick the box, when this is actually about a much harder shift in understanding.

Tim Lloyd, Department for Business

However, alternative terminology might not be the right way forward either:

The last thing we want to do to “social business” is come up with a new way of describing it. Post-digital business?! Please – no! … We know what we’re talking about, so let’s not get bogged down in semantics – let’s just get out there and make this change happen.

Jemima Gibbons, Social Media Strategist and Author


Current situation

In spite of the terminology debate some respondents feel social business is still a vital concept:

Tim Lloyd:

Social business is happening right now, almost everywhere. Just because an organisation doesn’t have Yammer, doesn’t mean it isn’t social. If their staff are talking to each other, finding clever ways to share information and ideas, and building networks, then it’s social. … The question is how do we ensure that this is acknowledged by organisations: that they know and understand they are a social business, and it isn’t something they can opt in or out of.

Tom Nixon:

Clients care about staying relevant and meaningful to customers in a connected world where there is more choice than ever before and business models are being disrupted by more agile competitors. They care about how they can drive performance by attracting, retaining and keeping motivated the best people, who have increasingly grown up with the Internet and have very different expectations about openness and empowerment.

The importance of social media in a business context is undeniable and unlikely to disappear:

Katy Howell, Immediate Future:

We hear it so often, that I think we don’t hear it anymore – social media has fundamentally changed the way we communicate. It has changed behaviours, cultures, communications! It isn’t about to disappear. It is no fad and certainly not a bubble.

This idea is elaborated on by Bruce Lewin who makes a distinction between internal and external perspectives on social media:

There’s no question that given an externally orientated view including marketing, sales and customer service, social media has transformed various processes, departments and skill sets, along with seeing the adoption of numerous technologies and systems.

Looking at social media from an internal perspective, one finds a very different scenario. Whilst external social media undoubtedly supports existing objectives, goals and the organisational status quo, internal social media is more ambiguous. This ambiguity then leads to more questions than answers, whilst simultaneously creating a fuzzy and ill-defined perception, benefits and business case in the process.

– Bruce Lewin

A number of commentators like Stowe Boyd echo this ambiguity with a view to exploring and understanding it. However, it is clear that businesses continue to struggle with finding ways to harness the power of social media in order to boost their efficiency and their profits. Katy Howell feels that the very nature of business might be an important factor in this:

What seems to have been forgotten in the rush to decry social media, is that business transformation takes time. On average a major shift in working practice, culture and structures take 10 years or more for large businesses. So why are we so surprised that the impact of social is going to take time … Somehow we expect that because technology changes so fast that people will change that quickly.

Katy Howell, Immediate Future

Another part of the problem here is the need to make a distinction between software vendors and service providers and their diverse perspectives, i.e.  Enterprise 2.0 solutions (social media software and collaboration tools); those adopting more ‘Humanist’ disciplines mentioned by Steve Hearsum above; and those who see an opportunity to extend their services internally, through social customer service and CRM from external digital marketing.

There is also a perceived lack of reliable case studies and best practice examples that champions of social business can use to secure buy-in within their organisations. As Luke Brynley-Jones, founder of Our Social Times and an advisor to many global brands, points out:

Social business has never been an easy sell. Marketing teams can cite social media successes and PR teams use reputational risk to be taken seriously. Where are the social business case studies? Nobody wants to restructure and re-think a massive organisation on the basis of theory alone.

– Luke Brynley-Jones, Our Social Times


So what does the future hold? The foremost factor in any debate about the future is summed up by the author Euan Semple:

… the Internet isn’t going away. The code that underpins the tools we use is powerful and transforming many aspects of our lives. We can expect it to transform our world of work and the institutions that govern us. It won’t happen over night but it will happen, and most people have little understanding of how it is going to happen and why.

-Euan Semple

However, managing the impact of social media, whether that be through the introduction of social businesses or other methodologies, is an issue that will no doubt continue to be a topic of many debates:

Guy Stephens: … when we realise that the ‘pixie dust’ doesn’t work, as is inevitably the case, we stand dumbfounded and incredulous. It wasn’t meant to be this difficult.

Tom Nixon: Addressing challenges like these, brought on by the world becoming more digitally connected, is the job to be done no matter what you label it.

Katy Howell suggests that it is also time for the social media industry to take a hard look at itself and its role:

We are seeing companies begin adoption beyond social media marketing. Boardrooms are interested and want to understand ‘social business’. There is no shortage of interest, yet money is not being diverted. Why? Because we as a social media industry also need change. It is no longer tolerable to avoid the ROI question or avoid extrapolating the business value. We have to get past the fluffy re-tweets and engagement metrics, and work hard to demonstrate business value. It isn’t easy, but then changing hearts and minds never was.

Katy Howell

Social Business Consultant Bian Salins adds:

I think boards can’t be bothered… unless they actively know and have evidence that it’s share price affecting… I personally have seen two businesses I’ve worked with… lose focus because of change in management or loss of the trail blazer/person driving the culture change and then go back to a very superficial interpretation of what a social business is/should be. That’s not to say that these business won’t be ahead of the curve when they realise that the need for a deeper structural and cultural change won’t go away – however they will only come to that realisation when they … see a diminishing return. When it hits them where it hurts most – they’ll make it happen.  

Bian Salins


Whose obsession is it anyway?

Some like Euan Semple feel that the debate about the future of social business is one that engages those working in social media, not businesses.

The recent pimping of “social media” and “social business” is the same old technology hucksterism that has plagued the industry since its inception. Many of those over-selling and under-delivering in this latest wave have no idea of the real challenges faced by people running large complex organisations, and it should come as no surprise when those busy people working hard to make a living shrug it all off.

Peter Kim of Dachis Group elaborates on the gold rush theme to point out that:

As adults, most of us have an abridged understanding of the gold rush story — accidental discovery, influx of prospectors and displacement of native people …  For businesspeople, the lesson learned is repeated over and over again: as a class of participants, it was the outfitters (e.g. Levi Strauss) that made big money, not the prospectors. It’s amazing to think about this story and watch the dynamics play out again in social business.

One only has to look at Yammer to see how software vendors can scale successfully. But what still seems to be missing is a scalable and predictable methodology along the lines of Six Sigma or Balanced Score Card.

The final words are from Chris Malone at Fidelum Partners and Guy Stephens at IBM who attempt to put the debate into perspective:

I would argue that social networks, communication and media are not a new business, but rather an age old one that was largely disrupted by the Industrial Revolution. The research we conducted for our book, The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products & Companies, strongly suggests that we are emerging from what we call The Middle Ages of Marketing and that eCommerce, social networks and mobile devices are ushering in a Relationship Renaissance that strongly resembles pre-Industrial commerce. 

Chris Malone

I think for the most part the underlying themes that come through in all the recent discussion are fairly similar … Unfortunately, we are the ones playing that old record over and over again. Customers/people simply play new ones each time, without any thought about the term being used. Their concern is not with ‘social business’; that is our infatuation, not theirs. The movement or shift, however it is defined (or not), will continue to evolve regardless of the debates and discussions we have on the sideline.

Guy Stephens


It’s interesting to note that there other disciplines that have managed to collaborate and even create an International Standard, such as Human-centred design. That’s why I take a more positive view about the debate that Chris has instigated. Headlines aside, it might actually bring about more collaboration within ‘social business’ circles even if it’s simply to look at where there is actual agreement initially. This might not result in everyone holding hands singing ‘we are the world’, but it could be the catalyst for increased adoption given the current challenges posed by client confusion and inertia.


Hear more from Chris Heuer, Guy Stephens, Richard Hughes (Broadvision) and Luke Brynley-Jones (Our Social Times) in a webinar tomorrow  – ‘ Is the Social Business Gold Rush Over ? ‘ – 4pm GMT. Book your free place here.

You can read the full responses collated and dissected from contributors, on my blog A Flux State, here

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  1. KeithMcMean Reply

    “It’s the state of a business successfully exploiting the value of a connected world.”
    – Richard Potter, Steria

    Should read:
    “It’s the state of a business successfully engaging in the value of a connected world.”
    – Keith McMEan, TSMA

  2. mark Reply

    Reason why IBM ‘social business’ isn’t working / won’t work is because of all the people it’s fired / got rid of without much social or human feelings.

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