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Employee engagement, social business, collaboration: are we getting it?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy November 4, 2013
We seem to have reached something of an impasse on the broad topic of social business. So what comes next and will it be better than the last time?

emp engagement

At last week's CCE2013 event, a lively panel chaired by Alan Lepofsky addressed the topic of age in the workplace. By that I mean the panel opined on a not too distant future when there could be five generations in the workplace. Five?  The mind boggles. Anyhoo, the graphic above gives you a flavor of what was discussed far better than my crabby notes.

I have the odd problem with this - not least the question mark about over 40s not adapting too well to the 'new' workplace and its social environment. I've not seen direct evidence of this although I'm sure someone will correct me. The same goes for some of the claims made about millennials. One or two anecdotes doth not a trend make yet so often that's how these things get conflated. For my part it seems that those who are thinking creatively about this topic are more likely to be those with grey beards. But then my lens is often a bit different to that of the mavens.

The bigger problem I see comes not from the tactical assertions and changes proposed by the panellists. It comes from a failure to recognize that management has ignored all the hype and broohaha around this topic. Good for them I say.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the words of Chris Heuer, one of the pioneer 'social' mavens. He did a stint at Deloitte on 'social media/business' but has since moved on. And despite the realization that it's all gone horribly wrong, Heuer still misses the point. He says:

In a world that is driven by leaders seeking to create, get ahead of, or respond to market trends and the latest buzz, Social Business has never really broken free. Whenever asked to name an exemplar of a great social business, or someone doing it well, most analysts struggle. “No one is completely there yet.” “Ford and IBM are getting close.”

IBM? Are you kidding me? There are pieces of IBM that may be getting there (we have a great example coming up on video) but large swathes of the company are driven by promises to Wall Street rather than promises to make IBM the great company it once was. Ford? Listen to this from Social Media Today which awarded Ford a Social Enterprise Shaker Award:

“Social has become the common ground between communications, marketing, customer service, IT, product development and more at Ford,” said Scott Monty from Ford’s global digital communications team. “It has given us the ability to understand consumers better and more quickly than ever and to integrate what we’ve learned into our business processes, allowing us to make the fuel efficient, technologically advanced cars and trucks that people want and value.”

Am I hearing anything about a social business in the context of the future of work here? Not as far as I can tell. It's sad that laudable though Ford's achievements may be, we see something that misses the point. I suppose that's inevitable in an industry segment that feels it necessary to dress up self congratulation in the name of an award to a highly visible brand like Ford as a way of legitimizing its existence.

Back to Heuer. As he goes through the problems, he notes:

Given my personal history and close professional connection to social media,  enterprise 2.0 and social business, you may be wondering what’s next? For the first time in nearly 10 years, I don’t know how to properly reference this movement or our desired end state. It’s why I supported Bill Briggs’ push towards the Postdigital moniker, it described what’s next while referencing what is now. Certainly there is a Work Revolution happening as more employees are realizing the power they have to create change in ways both large and small.

I give Heuer full marks for admitting he's clueless but I give zero marks for jumping on the next topic for bloviation.

Talking about 'revolution' and 'employee...power' in the way he has is as alienating as the concept of 'social business' was from the outset. Those managements that ran for the hills first time around ain't coming back down to have another load of fluffy crap lobbed in their direction.

And then I came across this graphic from the Institute of the Future via Jon Husband who kicked off an interesting discussion around the topic. The graphic was first published in 2011 based upon studies conducted during 2010.

future of work

This is not about the types of work but about the skills that will be needed for whatever types of work follow. I've heard arguments that it is already out of date but then I look at a few of the skills needed such as 'cross cultural competency' and sigh. Can you imagine less than a 98% fail rate on that one? Virtual collaboration? It's certainly possible but much harder to make real than is often imagined because taking out the need for face time is only one part of the equation. Novel and adaptive thinking is a really difficult one because as far as I can tell, we're doing precious little to encourage critical thinking which is one of the important steps towards thinking in an adaptive manner.

That last problem comes through very clearly in media where it is difficult to find people who are willing to take positions based upon informed sense making. In one of our recent internal discussions, we concluded that we might end up having to fashion our own people to achieve that goal. and check this out from a colleague looking to fill a post.

But let's assume for one minute that the stars are aligned for the skills needed per IOTF. Perhaps not quite in the timeframe they imagine but a little further out. Then what of this elusive thing called 'employee engagement?' Why would we do it? The future of work panel seem to think it is about coming across as empathetic coaches rather than tyrannical slave drivers. That would be a good start. But then Euen Semple  cuts across the BS to address a familiar reality:

Even if you have internal social platforms what is the right way to connect with staff? Maybe they are already active and already have extensive networks. Isn’t this potentially the worst case scenario of looking like a Dad dancing at a disco?

My sense is we still need to be much clearer about aims, objectives and desired outcomes before worrying about whether an unseen boss is lurking over a Facebook profile. In that sense I prefer the idea of working towards industry specific purposeful collaboration to achieve stated goals where there is something in it for everyone rather than taking sides in what often looks like a binary argument at best and solutions looking for non-existent problems at worst.

Once we get to that point, then I would hope we can then get the Chris Heuer's of the world to apply their considerable experience and understanding to the real problems and not just those being dreamed up by marketing departments.

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