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A moment’s reflection on social business

4 November 2013

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’. And yet, when we realise that the ‘pixie dust’ doesn’t work, as is inevitably the case, we stand dumfounded and incredulous. It wasn’t meant to be this difficult. I ask myself, in some kind of self-absorbed monologue (and yes there have been many): Why can’t others see the future that I see?

But despite these moments of self-indulgent reflection, there is a certain inevitability about the notion of the social business, which in time will transmogrify into simply – business. Regardless of which ‘school of social soundbite’ you subscribe to, there are two undercurrents, amongst others, which in a sense nullify the many protestations, hesitations and nervous discussions that exist towards social business today, and in a sense render the term social business meaningless anyway.

The first is that this shift is in the hands of people, not customers, not organisations, but people – you and me. We have access to the most powerful tools of mass communication that we have ever had. We are not about to give this up. In 2008, Clay Shirky wrote: “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Perhaps he states the case somewhat dramatically, but the point is made.

The second is that the people who are toing and froing today about social business – that’s you and me as well – are not the people who will be working, making decisions or buying the products and services that will exist in 10, 20 or 30 years time and beyond (well, hopefully not working or making decisions at any rate). By that time, the discussion about the ROI of social business or the definition of what a social business is will hopefully and mercifully be no more than a faint memory consigned to some earnest PhD student’s research somewhere, if indeed, the discussion was ever really warranted anyway.

What gives me hope, in all of this, is that these undertows are taking place outside of the organisation, at the margins, at the edges. This is the marketplace of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Here, we are all equals, talking, discussing, exchanging as equals. The hierarchy has no place here. But what needs to be realised is that this shift takes place on both a personal and corporate level. The two are inextricably intertwined, and yet we somehow fail to recognise this. So often I have seen decision-makers who don’t get social on a personal level create seemingly impregnable fortresses against social in their workplace fiefdoms. The digital literacies we intuitively learn when browsing the internet at home are the same that we need and use at work.

Perhaps in the final analysis, the answer lies somewhere between Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, Eliot’s ‘not with a bang but a whimper’ and Lu Hsun’s cry of ‘Stupid yellow race, wake up’. Whether the bubble bursts or not is a moot point.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 November 2013 9:34 pm

    Hello Guy
    It occurs to me that there is nothing inevitable except death.

    When it comes to the domain of ideas there are parallels with the domain of new product introductions. My research into new product introductions suggest that only a fraction of new products proposer when introduced into the world of customers. This is so even though considerable time-money-effort is expended by people in ensuring only promising (carefully researched and tested) products are launched.

    Yes, social media has taken off. And notice that people using social media and interacting through social media has not required academic treatises, white papers, Powerpoint presentations, seminars, books etc. People have simply adopted social media tools as the found them useful: a contribution to their lives.

    Now contrast this with social business. What shows up in this domain? A lot of talk, a lot of fear mongering, a lot of talk on business benefits – a lot of preaching on the benefits and necessity of social business. This brings to mind my encounters with ‘missionaries of religion’ – the chaps that knock on my door and want to convince me that there religion is the path to my salvation.

    I say business is ‘technological’ not ‘social’ in its very being. A ‘technological’ way of being is concerned with seeing everything (including human beings) as resources. And the concern is with extraction, manipulation, processing, efficiency and optimisation. A ‘social’ way of being is concerned with conversation, relatedness, sharing, co-creating, creativity, randomness, flexibility, give and take ….. Notice the contrast?

    For social business to show up as a reality it will take a transformation in our way of being in the world – not just business. This may happen and it may not.


  2. 7 November 2013 1:15 am

    Let’s get to the point. The crux and heart of the matter:

    What we need is antibodies; some peaceful idea that binds to our “imperialism and command and control receptors”. Because we can all agree that this King of the Mountain shit has got to go; a lucky few get to spend a bit of time on top, but everybody spends most of their existence getting pissed on from a great height. So why do we continue doing it?

    Social business is about humanising corporations. It’s that simple.

    And you know what? Companies (may) will realise they can make more money if money isn’t the only thing on their mind.

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