Social Business Isn’t Over – We’ve Only Just Begun

For several years, we had been hearing how Enterprise 2.0 or Social Business is the “Next Big Thing”. Then, all of a sudden, the wind changed and a series...

For several years, we had been hearing how Enterprise 2.0 or Social Business is the “Next Big Thing”. Then, all of a sudden, the wind changed and a series of “social business is dead” articles appeared, arguing that we should stop talking about “social this”, or “2.0 that”.

Social Business - We've Only Just Begun

This is a post by Richard Hughes, Director of Social Strategy at Broadvision and author of The Business Communication Revolution.

These articles divide into two main themes. The first suggests that social business has failed to live up to its own hype and that most companies are too intransigent to embrace the new way of working that social business needs to succeed. The second type presents almost the opposite view, that social technology has become mainstream and is just assumed to be inherent in everything we do now. Both of these extremes are wrong.

Part of the problem here is the very nature of the technology and business visionaries who heralded the arrival of this social business nirvana. Visionaries, by definition, aim to tell you what’s coming next. They don’t tend to hang around to see whether it actually happened or not. But when you talk to real companies considering social business initiatives, many are just getting to the end of the exploration phase, and only now starting to apply it seriously.

The tendency of thought leaders to declare something as “dead” and move on to the next “Next Big Thing” is deeply unhelpful and creates and ever-widening chasm between what the media write, and what happens in the real world.

As Bill Gates famously said, most people overestimate what you can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what you can accomplish in a decade. Using social business technology to improve the way we work is definitely one of those “between one and ten years” projects. Simply installing social business products in your company is not going have a meaningful impact on the way you communicate unless it is accompanied with cultural change. And that cultural change is not going to happen overnight. But equally, it seems inconceivable that in 2020 we’ll all still be using email as our primary tool for internal and external business communication.

Terminology is often blamed for the difficulty in introducing social business into companies. The social bloggerati have spent far too much time in tedious squabbles over which labels to use, none of which has left us with any sort of commonly-accepted lexicon. Terms like “enterprise social media”, “social business”, “enterprise 2.0”, “enterprise social networking” and “social CRM” are often used interchangeably, describing both internal and external company communication. And on top of that, we get lazy, inaccurate terms like “Facebook for business” and “Twitter for business” as metaphors for internal social networks that have nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter. Amidst all this confusion, is it any wonder that senior managers remain sceptical or downright hostile to social business initiatives?

It is important not to lose sight of our overall goal. “Social business” is not our aim – it is merely a means to an end. Our ultimate goal is better communication and collaboration between a company and its customers, between a company and its business partners, and between employees of the company. Social networks are a means of reaching that goal, with three different types of networks all playing a crucial part of any integrated social business strategy.

So, ask your CEO if he or she cares about social business, and you may well be disappointed by their response. Ask if they care about better communication both inside and outside the company, and you may very well get a different answer. Indeed, after talking to many companies about the potential of social business, I am increasingly convinced that there is really only one question that matters – “do you aspire to more open and efficient communication between your employees, customers and business partners?” Social business initiatives are highly unlikely to succeed in companies where the answer is “no, we’d like to keep more secrets”. Even in companies that do aspire to more open communication, there are plenty of cultural and organisational issues to overcome, but at least the overall objective is clear. Social business projects are a means of achieving that goal by applying social networking to “real work”, whether that be internal collaboration, improved supply chain communication, or customer engagement.

Ultimately, you can call it what you like – social business, social media, enterprise 2.0 – it doesn’t matter, as long as you keep the overall goal in mind and ensure that social initiatives are supporting real work, not frivolous chatter. As more and more companies realise this, we may be reaching the end of the beginning, but we’ve only just begun to reap the potential benefit of social business.

Richard will be talking about this, alongside Chris Heuer and Guy Stephens (IBM) in our webinar – ‘ Is the Social Business Gold Rush Over’ – on the 12th November at 3pm. Register for free here.

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    Martin Hill-Wilson Reply

    Could not agree more. When ‘xxx if dead’ stuff comes out it just reveals a lack of historical perspective.

    The mission has been called many things over the years and the change of labels often acts to confuse. ‘Social Business’ etc is just the latest addition to the business transformation dictionary.

    The root cause from my perspective is superficial engagement with the underlying challenge and a desire to see ‘quick wins’ as the end goal. The trouble is the full set of benefits are always weak at this point and so a certain impatience sets in and butterfly minds seek the next nectar pot to get high on. Put more simply we suffer from a fear of innovation and a willingness to invest in a new idea without ‘evidence’ it is worth it.

    Vision and ideas form and expand at a different speed to new behaviour and ‘best practice’. The journey between the two is seldom linear nor ‘pure’ since making stuff happen is much harder than dreaming stuff up.

    Those that announce this stuff could do well to get an education and return to debate with a better sense of the milestones.

    For what it is worth my sense of where we are at is that the drivers for change (from organisations and customers) continues to build momentum. 1st generation solutions (a collaboration platform for employees and Hootsuite for social customer service) got the game in play then slammed into incumbent business culture.

    We are currently raising awareness of what now needs unpicking/developing (silos, goaling/rewards, integrated infrastructures). Early adopters will invest, explore and then report back for the next wave to learn from.

    Transformation manifests as waves of evolving practice. From this perspective, only the first cocoon has died. The experiment is very much alive.