There are many ways to look at something, just like the popular ‘elephant and blind men’ parable reminds us. Of the many disruptive forces in business today, social business is worth observing closely and from different angles. Many business enterprises have tried their hand at some form of social business by now. The definition of social business stretches wide and is not limited in its use at the corporate, government, non-profit or even personal level. One side of social business, Social Marketing, has already challenged many established paradigms. Some of the best minds on the subject, Seth Godin and Guy Kawasaki explain this so much more eloquently than I ever can. For social business ‘within the walls’ of an enterprise, the recently published Social Business by Design by Dion Hinchcliffe is a very good read. In addition to consultants, practitioners like Mike Gotta (Cisco) and Sandy Carter (IBM) are also worth following in this space. For the purposes of this post, I am sharing my take on enterprise social business through different lenses, each a looking glass in its own right :
Lens # 1: The Mirror - Companies are aware that their employees are now becoming significant consumers of technology outside the enterprise firewalls (whether their day to day jobs require engineering degrees or not) - some have gotten very tech savvy by osmosis given that they are surrounded by ever changing technology offerings. Outside of work, the same staff have become tech consumers who expect content delivery, interaction with experts, and an online relationship with their favored brands through online access and custom apps that are widely available on their mobile devices. Companies are also aware that their investment in embedding business systems into the organization has resulted in perfectly humming machines of productivity at the department level, but this has extracted the inevitable price of functional silos, that many times leave the enterprise less agile, well-informed and competitively positioned to respond to rapid changes in the marketplace. To reverse some of that, companies realize that they will need to re-humanize the organization and connect people with each other (even those of us in Knowledge Management recognize that there are practical limits to how much tacit knowledge can be codified in formal structured databases). Internal social networks will play a vital role in putting the soul back in the organization.
Lens # 2 : The Kaleidoscope - The patterns of use are different in companies, ranging from controlled ecosystems (especially in regulated industries) to viral adoption. The adoption (not coincidentally) heavily depends on which organizational group owns the roll-out. At the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston last week, the rich diversity of attendees from many of the traditional organizational departments (Communications, Marketing, Product Development, IT, HR, Innovation, Customer Service, Knowledge Management) signaled that these different functions are responding to the emerging power of social business. It is applicable to everyone and to make it fully successful in an organization, a multi-disciplinary approach is not only useful, but necessary.
Lens # 3 : The Microscope – Looking closer at how companies have rolled out social platforms (Facebook clones for the enterprise), most have used them as an extension of their employee directory to connect their people to each other. This will make some immediate impact and in time and if developed properly, these platforms will become a critical and must-have lifeline in large organizations with distributed teams in widely dispersed geographies that work together on complex interconnected projects (by the time that happens, social would have become an integral part of how work gets done, pretty much how most of us use email today). It is not that much more of a stretch to think that an employee’s social graph may become his/her new relational currency within the company. Companies should be very interested in this changing organizational dynamic and if they are aiming for success in this area, should introduce key behaviors, capabilities and incentives into the organization in parallel with (or even before) any Enterprise 2.0 initiatives. In addition to organizational readiness at the onset, an ongoing, well-supported and funded community management program is vital to the success of any social platform.
Lens # 4 : The Telescope – Now for a look into the far distance - say, a few years from now. If done well, social engagement within companies should drive better employee engagement through open two-way democratized communication and one that transcends organizational boundaries – geographical, functional silo, and even hierarchical structures. This will also lead to improved productivity brought on by connecting people-to-people and people-to-content. Social activity streams will be seamlessly integrated into and across traditional business applications of CRM, ERP, HR and others. Social collaboration outside the enterprise will mean that a continuous transparent dialogue with clients is possible through customer communities, an ideal form of engagement, free from the formality of sales cycles (in B2B) and free from the hefty burden of expensive, traditional one-way promotional campaigns (in B2C). A company’s organizational culture of customer service and marketing will be tested for its endurance given these new models of interaction with customers (potential and current).
Lens # 5 : The Loupe - And lastly, is social business the gem in the bag of current disruptive business forces? If so then what imperfections do enterprises need to consider. Precisely because this area is so new, companies will need to consider the business risks associated with weakly planned and executed social business strategies. The governance in this area is still forming and companies are likely to hold themselves back or go very slow, just so they can manage (or avoid) the unknown. Good advisors of social strategies will include the risk management aspect in their discussions. And finally, there is one more proof point that most corporate leadership will seek - the ROI. Even with all the recent attention on big data, harvesting social sentiment in a way that yields actionable business intelligence is still nascent (earlier post). Social business evangelists will need to prove the tangible benefits of improved sales and market share, along with the intangibles of world-class employee engagement and collaboration.
One of the hallmarks of Social business is that by its very nature, it moves fast – very fast. My favorite line from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is very apt here, ”It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”