“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.” (http://www.ibm.com/smarterplanet/global/files/us__en_us__socialbusiness__epw14008usen.pdf [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” (http://www.britopian.com/2011/07/05/ibm-case-study-a-lesson-in-social-business-transormation/).


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?
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