‘Social Business’ isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either

Chris Heuer has written a polemic on the Brian Solis blog entitled ‘Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next!. Chris, a friend who I have known for years, seems determined to avoid the research of organizations like McKinsey or Gigaom Research and instead links to anecdotes from his pals at Adhocnium and small consulting firms, or rhetorical questions embedded in other posts.

It’s hard to summarize Heuer’s rambling piece, but let’s start with at the beginning. He makes his case,

Through my conversations with colleagues and executives at large enterprises, the words Social Business have not struck the right chord with leaders. The movement has failed to earn their faith, trust and budgets in a significant way. While the ideas behind the moniker are invaluable in defining the future of work, most large companies simply aren’t buying into or investing in Social Business transformation efforts in more than a piecemeal sort of way

Despite having a legion of analysts and advocates connected by and promoting the #socbiz hashtag, I believe it is time to proclaim that Social Business is dead, or at least dying before our very eyes. I am not alone in this position, having discussed this at length with my AdHocnium and Alynd colleagues. In fact, while arguing that Social Business isn’t dead in a post from January of this year, friend and well regarded analyst Michael Fauscette in effect reaches a very similar conclusion as mine. While Stowe Boyd still remains an ardent supporter of the impact and power of social in the enterprise as he notes in this GigaOm post citing McKinsey’s Social Economy report, I think it’s just time for us to find a phrase that is more attractive to corporate leadership.

It’s not that the ideas are losing or that the goals are without merit, they are. The problem is that the deeper meaning and richer context is being lost on executives who still think the word “social” indicates a frivolous time-wasting pursuit. To them, it’s about what someone ate for lunch. Or it’s that thing their teenagers do to ignore them at the dinner table. Despite the Arab Spring, the customer revolution and an increasingly connected society which turns to Twitter with every earthquake or news event, the idea of being a Social Business has failed to break through the care barrier in most C-Suites.

First of all, it seems that Heuer shares a confusion of social business with social media that is not that uncommon. The reasons for a business to adopt a more social orientation has little to do with the Arab Spring or Twitter spikes during meteorological events. It’s about the adoption of tools and techniques that allow businesses to better operate in the present economy, which is more uncertain and more volatile than the era that preceded it, and which is populated by people with different needs, pressures, and expectations than in the 20th century. It’s not about hitting the ‘right chord’ with C level execs.

As I said in an interview this week on the Bloomfire Blog,

What do you find interesting about the social media/social business space? 

The world of work is changing at an astonishing pace, based on three forces. The exploding scale of computing, in people’s hands and in the cloud, is one of the factors speeding the world up. That also impacts the workforce, which is increasingly distributed, decentralized, and discontinuous. And complexity of the economy and the tempo of competition have pushed us into a vastly different present than the past we have left behind. Social business is one factor — one toolkit — that plays in the new world of business, but there are a number of other complementary techniques and tools.

The rest of Heuer’s piece feels more like someone falling down the stairs than a reasoned dissection of the utility or inutility of the set of concepts that comprise social business.

However, my sense is that Heuer is half right, but he totally misses the deeper truths at work here. Social business isn’t dead, but it has become tired. It’s not longer even an edgy and emotive alternative to business-as-usual, and partly because of the half he gets wrong or never examines: today’s tools for social business. The world of business has moved ahead to accepting the class of contemporary technologies that embody the slightly better 2013-style of collaborative business, dominated by work management tools from Microsoft, Salesforce, IBM, Jive, and other established enterprise software vendors. To the extent that those tools and the practices that surround them define the social business, then they have become commonplace, not a profound redefinition of working together in new ways.

In  writings more recent that the January piece Heuer pointed to, I have made a strong case for the following trends, supported by a wide range of research here at GigaOM and other firms:

  1. C-level executives hope to gain another round of productivity from new technologies and practices that are grouped under the loose rubric of ‘social’.
  2. They believe that the mechanisms used in the past — demanding more work from employees, and routinization of work practices — cannot be used again, at least not to get any serious gains.
  3. The answer — if that is a question — is for organizations to adopt a new form factor for business, one that undoes the rules and loosens the ties that make businesses slow to learn, innovate, and respond.
  4. One of the toolsets to apply in this quest for the fast-and-loose business are ideas about working socially and tools to support that. However, the greatest advances are likely to be more closely linked to fundamentals of organizational culture, and the relationship of the individual to work and the organization, rather than a social business breakthrough, per se.

Perhaps, then, I could restate Heuer’s apocalyptic statement into something more practical and pragmatic: social business isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either. And simply getting the meaning of the term straightened out — if such a thing is possible, at this point — won’t add much, either. At the best, there are a set of ideas derived from the social revolution on the web — like pull versus push communication, and the benefits of defaulting to open, not closed, communication — that can be productively applied to make working socially easier and faster.

What is needed, though, is not a retreat to arguing about the term social business, but a movement forward, a movement embodied as a community of people committed to advancing new principles of learning, organization, leadership, and management, pushing forward into a new future of work.

To the extent that social business was a concept that a community of practitioners hoped would represent or spark a radical break with the past, it has fallen short. You can interpret that as a failure of the concept, or a sign of endurance of the mainstream notion of business, or perhaps even as a failed power grab by those most loudly advocating for ‘social business’-led change. But this does not mean that work isn’t changing, or that we do not need even more change — in our organizations and ourselves — in the months and years ahead. We do. It is essential to find new balance in a new normal, where the ground beneath our metaphorical feet is never steady and always shifting.

I am committed to help give such a movement a bit more definition, and in the following weeks I will be laying out some ideas about a loose community of people committed to the investigation of the future of work. I am launching an effort to do that called Chautauqua, named after the adult education movement of late 19th and early 20th century America. I hope to work with local groups across the country and internationally to explore a topic central to the future of work each month, in a model stolen (honestly) from the Pecha Kucha and Creative Mornings movements.

Heuer’s essay — which I only discovered today — has kind of jiggled my elbow, and all the pieces for Chatauqua are definitely not in place. Bear with me. Please sign up for a subscription to the mailing list, it will only be used to notify people of Chautauqua-related news, and will never be sold or used for other purposes. I hope to launch in a more well-articulated way in the next month or so, so lend your support: there will be options to get involved at all levels of interest.