Are we done with social?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy May 5, 2013
The notion of the 'social enterprise' seems to be fading. It hasn't worked as a concept except among a very small number of businesses. Instead, we are seeing competing ideas emerging. One is the 'customer company' which we will return to later. The other is 'networked enterprise,' a concept with a more expansive vision.

When Marc Benioff, CEO recently dropped the 'social enterprise' moniker, there was a quiet but collective sigh of relief among some of the cognoscenti. Instead, Benioff started test driving the idea of the 'customer company,' a concept to which we will return in a later post.

Dion Hinchcliffe tries to keep the social flame alive with this post where he argues:

A surprisingly few number of people engage significantly with the companies they care about via social media, as little as 4% according to new research, despite the vast majority of businesses investing in or planning to invest in various forms of social media this year.

As a provocateur on this topic, Hinchcliffe couches the problem in terms that are designed to make business people believe they're missing some sort of boat. My take: if that research is indicative of a general trend (and that is far from certain given the sample size) then things are far worse than I speculated they might be back in 2010. At the time I said:

On the one hand you have people who think it is about collaboration while others portray the topic as an extension to sales and marketing. It could be both but very often you will see the answers co-mingled as though they are one and the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fairness to Hinchcliffe, he tries to offer cogent reasons as to why social has not taken off. But in doing so, he makes the provocateur's fatal mistake of believing in his own rhetoric just a bit too much and without balancing against any real critical thinking. Instead of enumerating demonstrable success factors, understanding that business managers concentrate on hard benefits and recognizing that the fundamentals of culture run deep in any business, he states that success is an issue of top down commitment and having thriving communities.

Sameer Patel on the other hand sees the direction much more clearly. He says  in relation to some McKinsey research:

Most striking to me though is that the report looks at the state of Networked Enterprises but measures the performance of traditional social business and community capabilities. Maybe it’s just me but I hold the concept of Networked Enterprises to a much higher standard and its tragic when the two are confused.

Networked enterprises are designed from the ground up to wrap the best minds around business process, intent, data and content in a contextually relevant way.

The Networked Enteprise - a palliative?

The concept of the 'networked enterprise' jibes much more closely with how I view this topic. In this vision, business has the potential to progressively apply social concepts to everyday problems in a way that has less of an obviously disruptive impact than a simple top down commitment and dictat to building social channels.

Technology companies seem to have understood this better in recent times, embedding social and activity streams into the everyday compute processes that people manage. That's step one on the tech side. However, the much larger problem comes in solving the 'what's in it for me?' problem. I find that even those who have understood this issue for a long time, struggle to articulate a 'how to' set of steps that can be readily replicated across or inside industries.

Business cultures are as variable as the number of businesses on the planet. Simply because Company X achieved certain results is no guide to what might be possible elsewhere, even in adjacent business types. Understanding that alone should be enough to help avoid the most common mistakes. Check what Colleen Kettenhofen has to say on this topic in terms of the way many businesses approach change.

What's up Doc?

My current concern is that today's business cultures generally do not favor change. We seem to have created a rigidity that favors the unthinking compute processes to which many are enslaved. In turn, we fail to reward creativity such that people see creative activities as a valuable part of what they can meaningfully contribute.

On the other hand, we also seem to have fallen into the trap of believing that consumer feedback is the only thing that matters in the pursuit of better service provision or that the success of a few projects represent a trajectory for the future. Of course feedback is valuable and we should take notice when a particular campaign works, attempting to unpick the causes for success. But whatever happened to invention or the exercise of imagination as a guiding principle in the exercise of work?

Exemplary service

In all this, has anyone spotted the disconnect? I'll give an example.

The other month I was on my way to Melbourne from New Orleans. What I didn't know was that the Australian law on visas changed the day I was due to arrive. In short, I wasn't flying anywhere without a visa. And to make matters worse, I could find no way to apply online. The checkin assistant couldn't solve the problem from her terminal even though there was a process in place. It's a classic case of process change not being as well executed as it might be. It happens all the time.

I'm panicking, she's as cool as a cucumber. The assistant left her desk, went in the back of the checkin area and 45 minutes later emerged with my visa. She is employee number 40 at American Airlines, one of the most reviled airlines in the US, yet for me, she represents the highest traditions in customer service.

I am betting that on reading this, most companies would react in one of two ways:

  1. Delighted that a distressed customer got what they needed 
  2. Horrified at the cost of sorting out the needs of one customer 

...with nothing much in between. What was in it for the checkin person? According to her: 'My job is to get you on your way.' In other words, solving the puzzle is reward in itself. Nothing could be simpler and yet many of us don't get that experience when it matters nor do we recognize its value to the employee.

Next steps

My sense is that as we move forward with the 'digital enterprise' agenda, there is a real opportunity to learn from past failed efforts. If business managers can clearly articulate the 'what's in it for me' for everyone in the value chain then there is a much better chance of win-win-win success. That means the embedding of 'social' (whatever that means) into both the internal and externalized processes by which we operate. If done well, then I can see a time when this will allow us to re-imagine business in a net-positive manner. It may be that an expansive vision, while appearing unmanageable serves as a better way to explain why the 'networked enterprise' make sense. What do you think?


  • Has 'social' been an interesting but ultimately failed idea?
  • If so then what can we learn?
  • Is the topic of culture immutable?
  • Does the networked enterprise represent a logical continuation of the broader thinking around social concepts?
  • Is the idea of a networked enterprise fuelling past failure by layering complexity?
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