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“Want to Get Social?”

In the most paradoxical of ways, we hear the word “social” everywhere when actual physical social activity is probably at an all-time low. People are busy! Who has time to socialize? I recently stayed with a family whose children are eight and twelve and all four family members brought their gizmo of choice to the dinner table: an iPad for Mom, a laptop each for the Dad and Daughter, and an iPod Touch for the eight year old Son. I realized I had to go get my iPhone if I was not going to be “rude” and interrupt by actually socializing. (To be fair, when someone in the family found something that was too good not to share, they brought it to me or to their parent, etc. and said, “Hey, look at this!” And we briefly enjoyed Ooo-ing and Ah-ing before going back to whatever we were doing online.) The dinner was delicious (Chinese Take-Out). I got into the spirit of the thing and realized the future is going to be similar to the past in that I remember watching TV with my parents and siblings and eating TV Dinners while watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but now everyone is just on a different and much more interactive page!

On G+, we recently had an intensely interesting thread. I soon realized I could not keep up! Fantastic ideas about the future of social business were flying by: the best of those in the know were sharing links that reminded me of the sharing at that dining table with a modern family except no one could possibly read all those links and maintain a coherent understanding of the conversation even though the ideas were so interesting that I realized I had to “capture” them as best I could and then get back to the discussion once I had time to digest the content.

The biggest surprise for me was that the word “social” is now being used in so many ways that it is getting difficult to––as Wikipedia would say––disambiguate.

Social Business And Profit Sharing
A social business would be defined by Wikipedia as one where everyone participates in whatever the business at hand and then receives equal parts of the profits. That social business could be a group as diverse as a poor community pooling their resources to create a profit stream for their mutual benefit––all the way to a very wealthy group deciding to join in a collaborative venture that will help them all achieve some socially valuable goal, while––at the same time––sharing any financial profits of their good works: that is, doing well by doing good. Hold that in mind while reading IBM’s ideas about “Social.”

IBM’s Vision of Social Business As Part of a Classic Business
In the link in the thread which began this intriguing discusssion, IBM had a terrific article not quite in synch with the above definition, essentially saying that social business is now de rigueur in ALL business and that it must be engaged and engaging, transparent and nimble, but that “social business” is still part of a classic business model. A good summary of their well-written White Paper is, “A Social Business enables its employees – and customers – to more easily find the information and expertise they seek. It helps groups of people bind together into communities of shared interest and coordinate their efforts to deliver better business results faster. It encourages, supports and takes advantage of innovation and idea creation and builds on the intelligence of the crowd.” ( [All quotations about IBM’s White Paper are from this link.]) It is important to re-emphasize that IBM is describing this as part of regular business (i.e., owners, etc., are going to be partaking of more than an equal share of the profits). In Social Business there will be a people-centric approach that relies on networks, social and real-time collaboration, mobility, but, finally, integration back into the classic business model. All of the above relies on relationships of trust: “At the same time, this trust must be balanced with an appropriate level of governance or discipline that sets the parameters of appropriate actions. This is a very delicate balance and one with which some companies struggle.” That is, one would indeed expect “struggle” where “sharing” and “trust” are going to be balanced with unequal amounts of profit! The possibilities for misunderstanding and misuse (by untrustworthy people) seem obvious to me.

Social Business Demands a New Approach to Business, Period
The IBM White Paper makes a point to make these obvious possibilities clear: “Becoming a Social Business is not simply a matter of deploying some collaboration tools and hoping for the best. It is a long-term strategic approach to shaping a business culture and is highly dependent on executive leadership and effective corporate strategy, including business processes, risk management, leadership development, financial controls and business analytics. Realizing the potential value of Social Business is predicated on an organization’s ability to recognize and design for this transformation.” In other words, businesses will have to change their profit structure to capture the profitability of social business. If it is business as usual plus social? It is just not going to work going forward.

What The Transformation Looks Like
The article ends with three ways Social Business can be transformative: it can “1) Deepen customer relationships, 2) Drive operational efficiencies, and 3) Optimize the workforce.” Fascinating to me, the problems that would arise by deepening customer relationships is immediately addressed, “Understanding the importance and knowing how to act on it are two different things.” Wow, is that hammering it home! I think anyone who has ever negotiated with a client would be able to immediately see the Social Business problems facing a for-profit company! One would love to deepen the relationship but how does one do that in a “trust” environment but still make more profit! One way of course is as old as the “Suggestion Box,” except these “suggestions” are now coming from clients in all sorts of online venues; and now are also actively researched by IBM (on Facebook, etc.) and taken into serious consideration. Obviously, this is changing the roles of managers who are going to be expected to be able to bring all these “suggestions” together to create solutions not just at the end of the product-line, but all the way through production.

My Take on IBM White Paper
This is definitely one of the best-written articles on integrating social media in business. What is most impressive is that the author(s) give a shout-out to all the problems that “social” is going to cause in a classic business model. It makes me excited to think about the future: my guess is that, just as the authors suggest, this will not be an easy transition, but the benefits are so clear that the paper ends with, “We predict the path to becoming a Social Business is inevitable.”

The Ideas Continue: Case in Point
One of the many reasons it was so difficult to stay “with” this thread is that the ideas were so intensely well worked out. Most of us are used to getting links to articles that are speculative but these links connected to the kind of information one usually has to attend two or three high-level conferences to attain.

When one reads that IBM’s clients were able to save hundreds of millions of dollars by paying attention to . . . their own people? That’s new. That changes the way people see business itself. A case study of one of IBM’s clients is instructive about how hard this transition will be for most traditional businesses: “We’ve learned many valuable lessons along our social business transformation journey. One of the biggest lessons learned was that social business transformation involves more changes to culture than technology. Remember that your employees are your most important asset. Shift your focus from documents, project plans and other temporary artifacts to the source of the energy, creativity and decision making that moves the business forward: people” (


What is the Business of Business?
I’m a philosophy and psychology teacher and these papers are bringing up the kind of issues that would be more likely to come up in discussions in my classroom, especially the focus on changing the corporate culture to a human-centric one. That we are reading about these ideas in IBM White Papers and Case Studies? That’s a sign that we are at the beginning of a sea change in our understanding of why we create businesses. Following is my favorite all-time quote is from Samual Johnson that sums up why we work: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which all enterprise and labor tends.” If businesses plan to make everyone count, to collaborate and focus on increasing human capital, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more happiness in our society at large. What do you think?
Linas Vepstas's profile photoGlia - The Social Glue's profile photoPeter Feltham's profile photoMeg Tufano's profile photo
Please note that IBM has been running a "social business" since at least the 1950's, and this trend was particularly strengthened in the 1990's with the explosive growth of IBM Global Services and the Price-Waterhouse services business. So of course, IBM is preaching this kind of stuff, its in their genetics. The reason for this is that, at the multi-million dollar high-end, this is how business is done.

Let me explain by analogy: if you plan to build a high-rise, do you think you go to "Yea Ol Blueprint Shoppe", get some plans, and then wander over to the "General Contractors" aisle? Err, no, it will be an intensely social and long-lasting exchange between you, dozens of architects, planners, general contractors and the like, all the way down to almost (but not quite) the level of the individual construction workers.

So likewise the purchase and installation of complex computer systems. The fact that so many large software development projects go so disasterously wrong, or late, or over-budget is a huge incentive to try something, anything, to reign in the risk of project failure. One obvious way to minimize risk is to discuss and re-discuss and triple-review every item, every topic, every decision, every plan. More communication==better results is the naive way of putting this theory. So, yeah, IBM is gonna be hugely social; that is, ultimately, how it makes its money.

(Its also why IBM mainframes don't actually power any of the cloud-computing clouds ... talk is not cheap; talk is incredibly expensive. But that's a whole nuther topic...)
Err, so for example, you paraphrase: "When one reads that IBM’s clients were able to save hundreds of millions of dollars by paying attention to . . . their own people?" Well, yeah, duhh. One giant cause or project failure is a few weenies/executives/consultants who design some system on the back of some napkin, toss it over the wall, pay millions to get it built, and then foist it on the company rank-n-file, who realize its an unusable piece of crapola-ware within weeks. ROI is less than zero, since now the rank-n-file are pissed at the execs.

Early solutions to the above involved having the architects go out and interview the rank-n-file, before the project started. That did help, but the results were often like the "Homermobile" Simpsons episode. So then you hired consultants to sit with the rank-n-file, and physically observe what they were doing, and try to emulate that. Which is better but .. you don't really want a build a system that does things exactly the same as the old way of doing things; what you want is a better way of doing things. And that's a problem that's a lot harder to solve. Thus, if over-the-wall doesn't work, and interviewing doesn't work, and use-case-study doesn't work, then, hey, maybe social media? What's there to loose?
+Linas Vepstas What you are describing is "intelligence"! We--each of us--can only know what we know, the reason why someone with a great deal of prejudice cannot "see" the big idea, the great solution, etc. as it is being expressed by someone unexpected. My experience with successful people in almost all kinds of endeavors is they keep their minds open to the possibility that (a) they could be wrong; and (b) that it pays to listen to and actively seek diverse ideas. The MOST successful just seem to want to be a part of something that is elegant and well-conceived and they don't much care who gets the credit. That saying that there's always room at the top is probably because truly successful people got that way by promoting the people in their realm of influence to reach their own goals, expand their expertise. Pretty soon, they're going to be surrounded by engaged experts! Fascinating!
Well, but +Meg Tufano, not to be argumentative, but .. what you say seems self-contradictory. The whole point of social networking is to empower those who are not "successful", and who are not at the top, who are not influential, and don't see the "big idea" (and co-incidentally, might not be open-minded, bright, or have other positive traits).

Here's an example: when building/remodelling a house, the flow of command tends to be owner -> architect -> general contractor -> project manager -> subcontractor -> workmen although there is plenty of cross-talk. As the owner, I quickly discovered that it pays to bypass the chain of command, and talk to the subcontractor and/or workmen directly, esp. if they are craftsmen. This is because the architect/general contractor can promise you the moon, and, although very good at the "big picture", and are open-minded, successful, and have all these positive qualities, they, frankly, just are not experts in the low-level details. They are experts only at the "big picture", experts at being "open-minded", seeing the "great solution", etc. But they are not the guys who are actually going to install the shit.

And when you talk to the guy who is actually gonna have to do the work, and he's this narrow-minded, cranky jerk who simply doesn't care about the "big picture", and you ask him about some detail, and he says "Nahh, you don't do it like that. That would be stupid. Nobody does it like that, and if you did, it would crack here, here and here, and you'd be calling me back in a year to fix it and do it right." well .. who you gonna listen to now? Mr. Successful Big Picture Guy? (who is probably flip-flopping his opinion even as he hears these words?) No, you are going to listen to the small-time, prejudiced, closed-minded asshole who actually knows what he's talking about.

I mean, you're only going to listen to him for installing the kitchen sink, and not for installing the bookshelves; that's someone else's job. Someone else's expertise. Mr. small-time is not the guy to design your house. But if you blow off his input, if you don't talk to him, and ask him to do something stupid, he'll think "OK, so they want me to do it this stupid way, and since they're paying me, whatever, I'll do it the stupid shitty way. Who cares."

Turns out that lots of programmers and engineers are like the narrow-minded small-time craftsman. They'll happily do it wrong, because that's what the boss asked for. When the project blows up, they don't care, they already got paid. They're gone. They don't have to live with the mess. And this is, I think, what IBM is taking about. To have a successful project, you've got to have the low-ranked individuals communicating and making positive decisions, and this is a lot harder than what most might think. Its not at all automatic, and its one reason that big companies get moribund and bogged down -- everyone gets paid to do it the stupid way, and frankly, they kind-of don't care.

(Incidentally, this is why executives encourage all those dippy touchy-feely morale-boosting bullshit sessions that everyone loathes. The execs understand the problem of bad communication, they just aren't sure how to foster good communication, and if social media is this year's answer .. so be it.)
+Linas Vepstas Love the example! I've lived that from both sides (as a builder and as the homeowner trying to build a custom home). I think there are kinds of work that need a top-down approach: building a house would be one of them. Yes, one needs "input" from all the different trades, but (to anyone who does not have experience, please listen to this next piece of advice) the blueprint reigns supreme. You can yack away to the guy putting in the soft wood floors (I used heart pine in my house and it took practically an Act of Congress to get my builder to agree to put them in) and he or she can say anything ; and you can ask the builder to put in XYZ and he or she can say anything; but if it's not specified in the blueprint, chances are it will not happen. The "executive" work goes into the planning. Building a house is not rocket science! ;') But even in rocket science, 99.9% of the work is in the planning and design.

On the other end, working for a custom home builder, my job was to be in constant communication with the client, to go over every detail with them so we were on the same page. If it was in the book, it got into the blueprints before the foundation was poured (my job was to make sure of that) and so there was very little time lost to miscommunication; and almost no changes on the fly (the most expensive place for a change to occur for a builder).

One of the huge problems in communications where everyone has their "input" is exactly what you point out: even those whose best work is unrelated to communication can get a word in edgewise. Everyone can talk! Quite often the person with the "big idea" is not the executive "type." They can perhaps see something that would be really great for the enterprise, but they are not able to see the steps leading to its achievement. Or, as is often the case in my classroom, a student who thinks he or she understands the material, actually is addressing something completely different because of the prejudices or experiences with which they come to it. Ferreting out those prejudices and still allowing the person to feel valued for their contributions is the "art" of "herding" a classroom discussion and, often, a business meeting.

When one gets to "social business," I think I am beginning to understand from your comments that it really can only work when one is dealing with tech-related businesses, and then maybe not so well there either, depending on what is being worked on. My best understanding of how social efficiences come to play in business is the example of a Thanksgiving dinner: people arrive with X, they see that the table needs setting, they start doing it, others arrive, see what's needed and start pitching in where they are needed. That, in effect, is how I've been understanding the new "social" models.

Thanks for sharing your view that this is just the new new thing in trying to create a model for good communication. My guess from both the IBM White Paper and from yours and others' comments is that there is always going to be the need for someone who is good at putting the whole thing together in clear prose and with good models. In other words, there will always be a need for people with good organizational skills.
Ah, well, I guess my analogies have a limit. I was trying to get across the reasons for abysmal project statistics. And they really are abysmal: last time I looked (its been a while, and I don't follow this stuff closely, so my numbers may be off...) but it was something like 1/2 to 3/4 of all projects are cancelled before completion, usually because they're recognized as abject failures. Of the remainder, 1/2 to 3/4ths are both late and over-budget. I think that something like 5% of all projects come in on-time & under budget. I know these numbers are horrific; it was shocking the first time I saw them.

There are many, many reasons for this, everything from unrealistic "blueprints" to plans that don't meet customer requirements, the lack of plans, failure to review plans, etc. and this is where the analogy with building construction breaks down; the construction industry doesn't have these problems.

Basically, successful projects are not top-down, nor are they bottom-up, they're both. The goal here is not to get a "big idea" from an underling; its to actually get people to actually agree on what is being built, and whether it is even feasible. Communication is key; lack of communication is project failure. As I say, with numbers like the above, executives are desperate for anything that has even a hint of working.

(Huh, as I re-read above, I realize that the above success rate is roughly comparable to the success rate for VC-funded startups. I think that's no accident; in many ways the're very similar.)
Very interesting insight, +Linas Vepstas . Your 5% number for projects that come in on time, and on budget, sounds about right for the custom home business, and with some core root analysis, I would be the reasons for this are fairly similar.
+Linas Vepstas Now I know why my builder was successful: he put communication high up on his list of "must do's." We usually came in at or under budget and I thought that was just business-as-usual (because it was our "usual.") [My own house came in at 5% over budget (;').] Thanks for the info.

Funny story: a neighbor started to build her house about two months before I arrived in Tennessee from Long Island. I have no idea what in the world she was thinking, but she had no blueprints at all . I noticed her "job site" and went to talk to her about all the dangers she was ignoring (if she had been a professional builder, OSHA would have closed down her site). Piles of dangerous stuff everywhere. Carpenters' kids running around the site IN BARE FEET!!!! Huge window openings with no protections so a worker could accidentally fall from the second floor. On and on. I tried to get her to see that having a plan would be a good idea (;')), but she decided she wanted Boston Bay windows AFTER she had poured her foundation. You know what happened. (The entire front of her house fell off.) It was like watching a comedy show.
Heh. My impression is that many/most systems projects do the equivalent of adding bay windows much too late in the project. I have noticed that, over the last few decades, there has arisen a new professional title & society: the "Certified Project Manager", and that bigger projects seem to have them. I presume this prevents some of the more bone-headed mistakes.
+Linas Vepstas My husband is a scientist, but he works with engineers and they have a saying (I forget the abbreviation), but it means, "Good idea, but too f**** late." ;')
+Linas Vepstas My husband just got home and reminded me of the cleaned up version: Good Idea Cut-Off Date: GICOD! ;')
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