Social Business

Stowe Boyd wrote today about his discomfort with the phrase Enterprise 2.0 and his preference for "social business" as a way of describing the changes we are seeing currently. While I understand Andrew McAfee's thinking when he came up with the phrase I'm with Stowe - it's too narrow, too corporate and too managerial!

Below is the text (warning this is the biggest blog post I have ever done) of an article I wrote recently which I am reproducing here as it seems pertinent to the promotion of the idea of social business

During a recent series of events for the Telegraph Business Club I felt mild disappointment when an economist claimed the recession was about to end. I explained this feeling to the audience in terms of regretting that too many people will assume that this means a return business as usual. Too many will simply carry on as they did before with the same attitudes that got us into a mess in the first place. Not enough people have felt uncomfortable for long enough to bring about real change.

Why do I believe this? Because I believe there is a fundamental change in how we do business heading our way. Driven by the networked communication tools flourishing on the web, tools like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, not only how we communicate with those who benefit from our services but also how we organise ourselves to produce them will be changed forever.

What I believe is happening, as more of our society becomes more connected and computing power and bandwidth become pervasive, is the equivalent of the advent of the printing press. Before the printing press “the truth” was pretty much under the control of the monarchy and the church. Without access to the ability to produce expensive and labour-intensive manuscripts most people’s ability to communicate was confined to word-of-mouth. With the advent of the printing press access to knowledge and understanding became widespread and the ability to instigate “mass communication” became more accessible to more of the population. Arguably the result was the questioning of the authority of the Church which led to the Reformation and ultimately the Enlightenment.

Social tools like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Wikis and Blogging are placing in the hands of everyone communication tools that give them access to global audiences within seconds with virtually no cost and no gatekeepers. This has never been possible on this scale before and no one really knows what the impact will be.

In terms of the full impact of those social technologies we’re discussing here when asked recently in an interview how long I thought it would be before the impact of these tools was apparent, I suggested 50 years. This may seem like an unrealistically long timescale but if you think about it the Internet has been around for the best part of 30 years and most people don’t know what the back button on their browser is for! If we are talking about the impact that a networked culture will have on our institutional and organisational lives than 50 years is possibly a conservative estimate. I wonder what our equivalent of the Enlightenment will be maybe 50 or 100 years after the similarly disruptive intervention of networked mass communication?

Being aware of these technologies is a very different thing from understanding them, actually using them, and knowing how to get the best out of them. This is before we even begin to touch on the subject of how to use them in a business context and how to “manage them”. The biggest change in communications, and possibly the most challenging for those called communications professionals, is a change in tone. Early bloggers talked a lot about authenticity, and about finding your voice. This was because a lot of writing until then, especially writing intended for public consumption, had a formal tone and language intended to convey authority. But in the conversational world of on-line communications authority has to be earned and is conferred by the readers.

To quote David Weinberger, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, “conversations can only take place between equals”. This is to say that, at the point of the conversation taking place, both parties have to be willing to stand on an equal footing and be prepared to listen to each other as much as to open up and communicate. Even if one party is the chief executive and the other a new secretary, or one is a large multi nation corporation’s communications team and the other is a customer who had the temerity to complain - if, for the purposes of the conversation, they aren’t prepared to accord each other equal respect, then it is not a conversation but one party talking at another.

It is certainly true that the predominant nature of these online conversational tools is personal. People tweet not organisations. In fact I would go further and say that people tweet for themselves! Devolving online social communication to others is a very risky business. Most likely people will realise that it’s not the authentic voice of the individual and become suspicious very quickly. Even if you manage to get away with it to begin with the risks of being discovered increase with the passage of time. Far better to encourage those who want to get involved to do so and coach them and help them to become more effective at online social communications.

In a world where the boundaries between an organisation and its customers are blurring the best advocates for your business, believe it or not, are very often your own staff or experts. If you are able to allow and encourage those who work for you to engage with your clients or customers then you are much more likely to engender the direct, person-to-person, conversations, that will make you so much more effective in the online world. This isn’t to say that you just suddenly unleash untutored and unskilled bloggers wild onto the Internet. In fact it is not in your staff’s interests to be placed in such a vulnerable position. Work with them to determine what sort of guidance they might need, what sort of policies may be appropriate, and how to give them the skills to communicate effectively on your behalf.

“The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed” - William Gibson

There are those who would claim that the views expressed here are just another re-hashing of cyber-utopianism that has been around since the start of the net. Certainly the hype of bubbles and bursts appears to be being played out again with the current “fad” of social media. But I would argue that what we are seeing is a much more gradual, long lasting and profound change in the way we see ourselves and each other driven by the proliferation of networked communication described above. There is a genie that has been let out of the bottle and while we may not see the full effects of its actions in our lifetime there is little doubt that things won’t ever be the same again.

So given that this change is headed your way, and in fact is almost certainly already beginning to happen inside and around your organisation, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to revert to “business as usual” and continue to run your business in a conventional command and control way and talk to those you serve as passive consumers? Or are you going to embrace this new networked world, learn the ropes, and get ahead of your competition by getting those conversations with your staff and your customers started as soon as you can?