Moving toward a third way of work: leaving the first and second behind

Chris Heuer’s ‘Social Business is dead!’ article has led to a cascade of other articles, some of which are made up of comments of a dozen or more thinkers and practitioners on the topic.

I wrote a long post,‘Social Business’ isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either, that led to a lot of discussion of Twitter and elsewhere. My thesis is laid out in the title, but here’s the meat of my response:

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 now characterize the central flow of what I see emerging in business — that new balance in a new normal — as the third way of work, about which I have started to write here. (Expect a longer piece this week, laying that all out.)

Justin Kirby polled a number of folks and collated into Is Social Business Dead? The Argument Dissected.  David Cushman offered this insight,

I think it’s a result of a reductionism – trying to simplify massive change to the selection and delivery of a series of social tools. This focus on the technical means the human element – the really important part of what those with their hearts in the right place were trying to achieve with social business – is inevitably missed out.

Euan Semple adds some pepper to the pot,

The recent pimping of “social media” and “social business” is the same old technology hucksterism that has plagued the industry since its inception. Many of those over-selling and under-delivering in this latest wave have no idea of the real challenges faced by people running large complex organisations, and it should come as no surprise when those busy people working hard to make a living shrug it all off.

I stumbled across a piece from a week earlier, which acts as a backdrop to the whole affair, called What next for Social Business? by David Terrar, also pulling togethers thoughts from clutch of others from an event on 7 November. Terrar summarizes the speakers, like Luis Suarez, who prefectly captures the core message of social business:

Luis’s premise is that a social business is (or should be) an open business.  He talked about the culture change required to move from the old way of doing things to this new way of collaboration and sharing using social tools.  He talked in terms of a 30 year time frame – and he’s right, this is a major change that will happen slowly, but it’s happening.  He used his own company, IBM, as an example – they’ve been doing social business internally well before the existence of Facebook.  He talked Open Business and mentioned@davidcushman.  He explained an Open Business uses its resources to discover people who share its purpose, and then bring them together to realise that purpose.  He talked about the hierarchy and the wirearchycoexisting in a networked company.  He talked about accountability, and getting rid of layers, and providing incentives for employees to share.  He explained how managers need to transform in to leaders, and talked about the need for transparency.  His conclusion, with a touch of Mafia style – Open Business is “Just” Business, it’s the only way to go.

Philip Sheldrake took on the task of directly responding to Chris Heuer’s post, as I did, and points directly at the argument going on between Chris and me:

The tectonic forces of the 20th Century led us to design organizations that resist change. Such entities excel at efficiency, at repetition, with varying facility to adopt incremental, evolutionary tweaks to the way things are. There was no facility to recognize the complexities of the marketplace and operations let alone deal with them. So the design worked well enough, particularly when the competition was designed similarly. It competed and survived to this present day by searching for ways to make things a few percent better with a few percent less resources.

Microsoft Yammer co-founder and CTO, Adam Pisoni, writes: “Our modern ‘scientific management’ corporations remained competitive by optimizing for efficiency, a result accomplished through greater specialization and driven by overlaying process and rigid structure across the business. In this way, we arrived at the cornerstone of the modern company – predictability. Success was built around predictable costs, revenues, customers, and employees. Inherent in the notion of predictability is a sense of control. For corporations, it seemed that harnessing this control while setting and meeting expectations would keep them on top forever.”

Yet what served us very well for the best part of a century now frustrates and disappoints us. Reifying the organization as more than the sum of its human parts for the moment, we have created a monster that won’t be tamed for the 21st Century. In actual fact, it is doing precisely what we trained it to do.

How can we break this deadlock? Here’s Chris’ advice: “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.”

Now I’m a keen student of persuasion and the power of language, but really? Will the monster cower and roll over for its tummy to be tickled upon the simple incantation of a new turn of phrase?

In Stowe’s response to Chris’ post, he reasserts this point of view: “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.”

In other words, social business was never just about social media, despite many twitterings treating #socbiz and #socmed as synonyms. It’s about people being able to behave differently as a result of new technologies, indeed wanting to behave differently, centered around common purpose and shared values.

 The Bottom Line

My interpretation of this brouhaha is that there are a number of people — social business experts and consultants — who have affiliated their professional brands and personal identities to the notion of social business as the apotheosis of an ethos about a more democratic and open style of business. That’s fine as far as it goes.

However, as others with different beliefs about social — about where it begins and ends — have started to use the term in very different ways, or as people are adopting social tools without adopting the democratic principles, these practitioners have grown disenchanted.

Personally, I think — as I said — that many of the ideas that underlie ‘social business’ are helpful, especially those dealing with the deep logic of human social networks, rather than narrow methods derived from social media practices.

The focus of my investigations in recent years has been to track the changing world of work, and work will always have a future. The concept of the future of work is therefore timeless, unlike time-bound terms like Web 2.0, anything with an e- suffix, and soon, anything with the adjective ‘smart’ in front of it.

What may be the most difficult thing for the social business cadre to accept is that the core principles of social have already been assimilated into the world of business, perhaps as deeply as they can be at present. What is before us is a new era, where other, post-social innovations will arise, and findings from other schools of thought — cognitive psychology, bioeconomics, and social anthropology — become part of the mix.

Social is altogether too tied to a second way of working, I believe. A way better than the first, in many ways, but still too close to the old, industrial models to be more than a bridge into the next. A third way of work is ahead of us, and it’s more than just social. Much more.