Some of social media's staunchest advocates are waving a white flag. "Social media managers, it could be time to find a new title," cautions reporter Vickie Elmer on Quartz. "Social media jobs, once much vaunted, are now frequently regarded with skepticism, even contempt," writes Buzzfeed's Rob Fishman.
Behind the decline in social media managers is a sea change in the way that social media itself is used within organizations, according to industry analysts and former managers themselves. Once the exclusive domain of digital gurus, Twitter, Facebook (FB), and other tools are gradually becoming everyone's responsibility. "We are seeing an increased demand for social savvy candidates across the business -- from human resources to product to customer service," Amy Crow, Indeed's communication director told Quartz.
"As a business solution, social has evolved, moving well beyond the marketing department, to address business objectives across the organization," concludes a July 2013 report from MIT's Sloan Management Review, which surveyed more than 2,500 businesses in 99 countries. Another recent report from McKinsey pegs the collective value of extending social media company-wide at $1.3 trillion in improved productivity and customer awareness.
I remain skeptical.
In January 2010 I wrote: "Content without context in process is meaningless." It was part of an ongoing series of rants at the then notion of Enterprise 2.0. I was convinced that the then fashionable argument of retrofitting 'social' in what was often described in a vague manner was both a solution to an ill defined problem and predicated upon a theory of emergent collaboration that didn't make rational sense.
More dangerous were those who promulgated the idea that 'social' was going to lead to some sort of bottoms up revolutionary business nirvana. Quite what that was supposed to represent was never articulated in anything other than political terms but it spawned a sense of wonder among many who should have known better. Thankfully, that line of thinking never really took hold.
Here are links to the things I said at that time:
Enterprise 2.0: what a crock - August 2009
Enterprise 2.0: Totally unacceptable - January 2010
Enterprise 2.0 is beyond a crock - it's dead - November 2010
Needless to say, I wasn't a popular bunny on the E2.0 circuit. Some continue to believe that it is only a matter of adoption before the world turns and we end up with a collaborative environment akin to a Boy Scout Jamboree rooted in doing 'stuff' better. Good luck with that one.
What worries me today is that even now, the mistakes of the past are not informing the future.
Contrary to the sense of urgency depicted by those scrabbling to justify investments in social tools for service organizations, there remain precious few examples where it is proving transformational at scale. The notion that somehow 'we' have to demonstrate social skills remains laughable in the face of the fact that humans are inherently social anyway. Or are we?
The missing link
'Social' got off to a bad start with the idea that technology could solve all our problems. Technology has never been able to do that without a firm business objective. Even then, the relatively simple expedient of replacing transactional systems has been littered with failure. So what possible chance did anyone think that harnessing the incredibly complex pantheon of human behavior via social technologies was ever going to be successful?
So much of the way business is organized is rooted in ideas designed to treat people as machines where production takes place in an organized and defined fashion, reflective of time and motion. It worked very well for a long time. Even the emergence of service based economies and industries did nothing to change that modus operandi. Right now, today, you will find that the vast majority of people based projects operate on the notion of the billable hour rather than a stated outcome.
Slapping social lipstick on process pigs designed for that mechanical age doesn't make for a great strategy. As I have documented in the recent past, companies seem inept at best in listening to things that are in the public domain and continue blithely pumping out inane nonsense. Others shrug. Still others make it up as they go along.
It seems even the most diehard social mavens have woken up to the fact that getting the best out of social tools and the people who are required to use them requires something much more radical. It requires a complete rethinking of what 'value' represents and how it is earned. They believe, and with some justification, that value comes from relationship. That in turn requires the remaking of processes such that win-win-win (people, business, customer) outcomes rather than time filled are the strategic intent. Most people seem to understand that. Few have much idea how to get there. Why?
Tough times ahead
The reshaping of processes, the roles people now need to play and surfacing the extent to which people have permission to fail is daunting. Given the history of past technology failure, I wonder the extent to which organizations are battle weary. I wonder, even with the best of intentions, if it is simply too hard at this point in time.
I also wonder whether, as this extensive investigation suggests, our social tools have in fact had the reverse effect to that which many thought we'd see. Friends without benefits? If that's the new normal then as my good friend Jason Perlow says:
If you are a parent of a teen, then this should disturb the hell out of you.
And if these are the workforce of the near future....???
In this article I have examined one dimension of a very complex problem. Contrary to everything I am saying here, I do believe that the infusion of collaborative technologies inside business processes is a net good. Where I disagree with most people yapping about this topic comes in the 'how' of transformation.
Short of refactoring what we already have using a clean sheet of organizational paper, I continue to think that whatever the marketers might say - we're nowhere near ready or able to instantiate the kinds of change needed for success without taking on unacceptable risk.
I am, as always, prepared to be proven wrong.
Endnote - after I wrote this, a message on Facebook pointed me to an interesting comparison between hierarchical forms of organization and the flatter types implied by the E2 crowd. It is well worth the reading for a more academic approach to the topic.
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