The Future of Social Business – Part 1: What is Social Business?

In an excerpt from his recent White Paper on the Future of Social Business, Our Social Times founder, Luke Brynley-Jones explores the foundations of social business.

Future of Social Business

In an excerpt from his recent White Paper on the Future of Social Business, Our Social Times founder, Luke Brynley-Jones explores the foundations of social business.

Future of Social Business

During 2013 I hosted two webinars, sponsored by BroadVision, on the topics of Creating an Integrated Social Business Strategy and Social Business: Moving Beyond Engagement. Both of these explored the development of social business theory, and both recordings are really worth listening to, but the elephant in the room was always about social business implementation, or perceived lack of it.

So, what could I do? I asked the mercurial Chris Heuer, Partner at social business consultancy, Ahhocnium, and Founder of social Media Club – which has over 500,000 members globally – Guy Stephens, Social Customer Care – Managing Consultant at IBM, a regular speaker and writer on this topic, and Richard Hughes, Social Strategy Director at BroadVision, to join me for a third webinar, in November 2013, with the express purpose of tackling the question of whether social business is simply a buzz phrase or something more significant. We titled this, provocatively, Is the Social Business Gold Rush Over?

The recording is available online, but I’ve also written it up as a White Paper that highlights the most salient points, puts them in context (and gives some extra background information) and attempts to bring some order to our discussion. You’ll be pleased to hear that, in the writing process, I managed to whittle it down to eight core topics:

  1. What is social business?
  2. Hype or reality?
  3. Does social business start outside or inside the business?
  4. Can social business be measured? (What’s the ROI?)
  5. Why hasn’t social business caught on more?
  6. Where are the case studies?
  7. Is social business the best term?
  8. Is social business dead, sleeping or just waking up?

The White Paper is available to download here and we’re going to be publishing each chapter through a series of blog posts. These will also be syndicated to other sites, but you can read it here first, of course. To kick off the series, we start at the beginning with: What is Social Business?

What is Social Business?

The phrase ‘social business’ first appeared in the context of organisations starting to use collaborative technologies for purposes other than marketing five or six years ago. Peter Kim of the Dachis Group claims to have coined the phrase in a blog post published early in 2009. His belief that, “nobody will change the world with social media marketing… [because] marketing has too much short-term focus to employ social technologies to their full potential”, provides a telling insight into how #socbiz differs from social media.

When we talk about social business we start to look beyond an organisation’s desire to simply reach more people more cost-effectively. It also hints at a more strategic use of social technology, which Gartner describes as “any technology that facilitates social interactions and is enabled by a communications capability, such as the Internet or a mobile device”, citing wikis, blogs and social networks – both external (such as Facebook and Twitter) and internal (Enterprise Social Networks, or ESNs) – as examples, as well as less obvious technologies, such as web conferencing.

The obvious point being that these technologies go beyond the confines of social media and include tools designed not just for word-of- mouth sharing, but also for efficiency, knowledge management, CRM and cost-saving. Social business analyst, Ray Wang, produced one
of the most commonly cited definitions for social business: “a series of design principles, techniques and technologies that create, extend, and enable individuals to engage, transact with, and influence each other through social media interfaces”.

While IBM offers the rather more cumbersome description of “a business that embraces networks of people to create business value. Social businesses more fully integrate the collective knowledge of people-centric networks to accelerate decision-making, strengthen business processes, and increase innovation that matters.”

And yet, unlike most new phrases in technology, a set definition of social business continues to elude consensus. As Chris Heuer pointed out early in our webinar: “we still don’t have a clear context for the phrase ‘social business’. Is it something you do? Something you become? Or does it describe a set of activities?” Inevitably, then, this became our first point for discussion.

In an extensive pre-webinar blog post in which Branded Content Marketing author Justin Kirby collated the views of a selection of respected industry sources, Richard Potter, Director of Innovation at Steria, offered a succinct definition of social business as “the state of a business successfully exploiting the value of a connected world”.

While this resonated with two of our webinar speakers, Richard Hughes felt it did little to further discussion, saying: “Richard Potter’s definition
is lacking in detail and that lack of detail leads everyone to apply their own interpretation to it”. This highlighted the challenge the industry faces in communicating the concept of social business, as Richard Hughes went on to explain: “We’re all being trained to try to define everything we do in one hundred and forty characters or less and that’s not always very helpful because you leave a lot of ambiguity”.

While avoiding falling into the trap of proposing 
his own summary definition, Richard provided an insight into how he describes social business to his clients at BroadVision: “in my view social business is about applying social media and social networking techniques to get real work done. Now, that might be a marketing department engaging with its customers; it might be a product department engaging with perspective customers and co-creation; it might
 be staff collaborating internally; it might be an organization collaborating with its business partners”.

According to Richard, getting real work done in each of these instances is likely to require a different approach, different tools, techniques and skills, as well as different forms of measurement in order to achieve different objectives, albeit, perhaps with a common goal. And yet, for some advocates of social business, this pragmatic approach doesn’t go far enough.

Chris Heuer, among others, sees social business as 
a transformative process through which businesses can move away from being impersonal, top-down and inefficient entities, driven largely by personal gain, towards becoming more collaborative, inclusive and effective organisations – a process from which all the stakeholders can benefit. Chris readily admits that this approach can sound 
a little idealistic, but he’s bullish about the logic behind it.

Alluding to recent examples of large corporations that have failed to evolve to a more open and connected society and have, subsequently succumbed to financial ruin or scandal (or both), he makes a compelling case for change: “in a connected society where we have virtually unlimited access to unlimited knowledge, how can we persist in allowing organisations to keep doing things wrong? We know better, we can fix it, we can make it better, and we can design a different system”.

When pushed to describe this system, Heuer suggests the adoption of a set of over-arching principles through which the organisation can evolve into a social business: “to co-create value with their customers, to focus on creating shared value, to empower individuals and take a much more humanistic approach, to allow for systems that are more adaptive, learning, growing and evolving”. He is also scathing of companies that restrict access to collaborative tools, adding as a principle the need “to create a culture inside the organization that understands that the firewall that keeps hackers out can also restrict data, information-sharing and value- creation”.

Social Business Strategies

While it’s hard to argue with the sentiment of these principles and, doubtless, many large corporations aspire to achieve them without going through radical business transformation, some would argue that they aren’t an essential component of social business. As Richard Hughes points out: “there are two different approaches emerging, one is the very big vision and the other is more pragmatic step-by-step approach, but they are both trying to achieve the same aims”.

The first group would seem to comprise those who promote social business transformation through a set of underlying principles, facilitated by the adoption 
- internally and externally – of a suite of social technologies that aim to re-build the organisation according to it’s most open, fluid and efficient communication flows. Chris Heuer is a proponent
of this vision, as is Philip Sheldrake, author of The Business of Influence and, more recently, Attenzi: A Social Business Story – which offers a fascinating, if fictional, case study of the social business process in action.

The second group, which includes Richard Hughes and, I would think, a large number of social business solution-providers, recommends a more pragmatic, piece-by-piece approach. This is at least partly borne out of the experience of trying to sell the concept of social business within large organisations, which can be extremely daunting. As Richard says: “a big company is simply not going to change that much, that quickly”. Adding: “I think going in and telling them they have to change like that is a sure fire way of failing”.

There may be a difference in approach, but there’s also no doubt that both sides are moving in the same direction. “I think we are all talking about the same thing but on different levels”, says Hughes. While Heuer concedes: “we need to fix a broken system… but I do agree that you sometimes have to start at the tactical level to get there”.

As always, I’d welcome your comments and input on this. It is, of course, an evolving topic. Next week I’ll be exploring: Social Business, Hype or Reality? In the meantime, make sure your tune in for our next webinar, How to Create a Successful Enterprise Social Network.

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4 comments

  1. Justin Kirby wonders about the future of social business — Gigaom Research Reply

    […] on Lee Bryant’s thinking, and then explores some aspects of a report I have not yet read, Future of Social Business: Is the Gold Rush Over? by Luke Burley-Jones. He writes about that report, and then goes […]

  2. Sheldrake Reply

    Hi Luke, thanks for the shout. Looks like an interesting study and I look forward to reading what’s coming up.

    I will just comment here on your polarization of the plan of attack for social business, so to speak. You contrast those calling for revolution with those advocating “piece-by-piece”. Of course, rarely are all positions so polarized. Moreover, I do not call for revolution, but more rapid evolution, and I hope you’ll see that’s not splitting hairs! I do so for the simple and pragmatic appreciation that successful revolutions (by which I mean rapid change over a short time) are very rare indeed. Large organisations don’t change like that.

    I note that you attribute my perspective with the word “transformation”, so forgive me if you don’t consider that quite synonymous with revolution.

    Coincidentally, I posted about this important point last week: http://eulr.co/1htl5tM

    1. Luke Brynley-Jones Reply

      Thanks Philip. I think my point was not so much about the speed of change as the requirement (or not) for an overall vision. The pragmatists, as we could call them, are happy with piecemeal change that doesn’t necessarily conform to a big picture vision, while the visionaries, in which camp I have you, prefer to work towards an agreed vision of what social business should deliver. Perhaps (in fact, I’m sure!) you aren’t so easily categorised, but I think there is a genuine difference in approach here.

      1. Sheldrake Reply

        Ah gotcha. Thanks for clarifying.

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