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.