Why hasn’t social business caught on more?

This is the fifth in the series of blog posts taken from our recent white paper called The Future of Social Business. You can read the previous post...

This is the fifth in the series of blog posts taken from our recent white paper called The Future of Social Business. The previous post was ‘Can social business be measured?‘ and you can download the full paper here.

Given the vast riches that are purportedly on offer for organisations that successfully implement social business strategies, plus the added benefits – such as customer and employee satisfaction – described in my previous post, you might wonder why every large company and institution isn’t doing it.

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that implementing social business requires a serious investment of time, money and commitment – and without much certainty of the outcome. In other words: it’s a risk. Chris Heuer, the founder of Social Media Club, sums this up succinctly in one line: “Most businesses are not going to be early adopters of massive transformations”.

Closely connected to this element of risk is the perceived lack of social business success stories. While there is some debate about what constitutes a case study in social business (as explored in our full white paper), there seem to be precious few pin-up examples of full, multi-department social business implementation with positive metrics to back them up. “When I talk to senior partners of our bigger clients”, says Heuer, “they all ask me the same thing: ‘who is the leading example of a social business?’ I try to explain where companies are doing well and where they are not, but inevitably, what they say is ‘when you have five companies that you have done this for successfully, come back to me’”.

Behind this desire for case studies is a natural need for reassurance. This has always been the case in social media, where the early adopters, such as Dell and Dominos Pizza – only took their radical steps forward after suffering some kind of reputational crisis.

Underlying this, though, there may also be skepticism in the boardroom of how social media, which is often perceived in terms of naval-gazing and chatter, can lead to positive business transformation. This may be down to lack of exposure to the medium and the benefits it offers, but it could also be down to the corporate mindset, in which innovation is often subjugated by everyday necessity. As Chris Heuer suggests, “I would love to see more senior leaders with that sort of vision, to give more of their direct reports and to give the leaders underneath them the direction, vision and resources to experiment more”.

Yet if forward-thinking managers within organisations want to implement social business strategies, surely it’s down to them to find the examples, identify the benefits and make their case to their bosses? Richard Hughes from BroadVision, who works with brands to develop enterprise social networks, is adamant that much of the problem is down to poor business planning:

“few organisations are actually tying their social media initiatives to real business objectives. In this context, is it any surprise that the CEO is going to be somewhat hostile?”

Another barrier to businesses pursuing greater openness and collaboration through social business relates to data security and privacy post-WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. As Richard Hughes puts it: “companies are under pressure to keep their data private and secure. One reaction to that is to lock everything down. Now, if you want to succeed in social business that is the worst thing you can do”.

This approach is likely to both reduce the likelihood that an organisation will start a social business project and, if it is commissioned, drastically limit its chances of success. Having worked on dozens of enterprise social network implementations, Hughes offers some fairly plain advice for companies considering initiating such projects: “If you are trying to find out if a company is suitable for social business, there is really only one question to ask: “Do you aspire to be more open and to empower your employees with more information? If the answer to that is ‘no’ then you are absolutely going to fail”.

Those organisations that do wish to become more open and collaborative may need to change how they operate in terms of secrecy. It might just be that they need to keep fewer secrets, or ones that are less devastating when (no longer if) they find their way into the public domain. This should lead naturally to more Open Innovation, a related business paradigm that, in an ideal world, should go hand-in-hand with social business.

Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that very few large organisations have announced social business initiatives, beyond piecemeal projects. The traditional inertia of established industries seems to be holding true and it’s likely that much of this comes down to finances. As Chris Heuer says, “When you’re making money and you’re not failing, there is little reason for anyone to change”.

Richard Huges

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