Last Thursday I attended the the Social Business Summit in London, organized by the Dachis Group, the great people at Headshift, and Somesso. Lee Bryant was so kind to invite me to participate and I gladly accepted. This because I think the term ‘social business design’ which was the topic of the event is pointing at something very important, and very much in tune with my general attitude to social media: that it’s not for communication only, but that it is a way of effectively organizing knowledge work that fits basic human characteristics and behaviour.
‘Social Business Design’ as exercise
If you take social media up a level to ‘social business design‘ it means discussing how to take the network metaphor and the new affordances it brings into organizations wholesale, while realizing what non-technological consequences the technology causes.
However, even though we didn’t talk all that much about technology (and so avoided that pitfall at least), we never took that as a starting point, but ended up talking from the current business perspective mostly, using the jaded jargon that comes with that. Innovation management, internal communications, development and strategy, a sharing culture, anyone? It all becomes meaningless if you do not make it concrete and tangible beyond that point. It also makes anything new or different about your ‘social business design’ completely invisible if you don’t allow yourself to escape or redefine the language that comes with the incumbent way of doing things.
Even though both Jeff Dachis and JP Rangaswami in their kick-off talks asked a number of excellent and challenging questions, skillfully trying to set us on the right path, those questions did not carry over into the sessions I took part in afterwards. Even though the event was meant as a kind of ‘future backwards‘ session on how we can try and achieve the type of business structures we envision five or ten years from now, we mostly discussed it from a ‘history forward’ perspective, trying to steer ahead by looking in the rear-view mirror for guidance.
Organization and individual
If you look at social media, you see that the tools are all centered on the individual in the context of her interaction with the groups she’s part of, and that the collective aggregate of that makes for interesting new affordances. So when it comes to social business design why didn’t we look at the individual professional and her context and groups both within and without the organization she works in, and what organizational structures are needed for that? If you do that a whole range of different questions come into play than we now discussed. How are people connected? Are the groups a professional is part of ‘healthy’ in terms of communities of practice? Are our professionals part of the conversations and flows they should at least be part of considering our organizational strategy and goals? Is our organization part of the professional identity of our people? Lots of cues exist in sociology, anthropology, learning theory and complexity theory that would be extremely valuable in such a discussion.
Instead we never left the abstract organizational level, sticking to the default language that comes with that.
I found it almost impossible to begin pointing out why I thought that was fruitless, or bring forward the things that I think are pertinent to a discussion like this. The ‘old’ words simply got in the way. Such as talking in ‘us’ versus ‘them’ terminology and wording interventions as something to be done to employees to ‘get them to adopt’ something. Such as using dehumanized terms like ‘strategic communications’ when talking about of all things social (!) media.
Knowledge and sharing
So we talked about sharing by discussing what we can do about ‘hoarders’ and ‘hermits’. In place of letting go of our notion of knowledge as an object and seeing it as a social construct in each interaction (connectivism anyone?). In place of realizing that if somebody is not willing to share something with you, you are probably asking all the wrong questions and should try coming up with better ones. I think coming up with good questions to help people share is a very practical approach, but it was brushed aside as a philosophical rathole you don’t want to go down. It all seemed so mid-90’s Knowledge Management.
Tools of choice
So we talked about how corporate systems might integrate social media tools into sharepoint and ERP-software, but not about the notion that it is quickly becoming ridiculous that IT departments should be prescribing what tools professionals should use at all, and not just stick to managing and securing the data flowing through those tools. We let craftsmen and artisans pick the tools they think fit the task at hand and their personal skills best, but we still don’t allow our professionals in knowledge intensive environments to do so.
So we never talked about what type of information you need and can collect about the network structures in your organization or within the ecosystem your business is part of, and how to align your actions and interventions with that. Even though tools for that are already widely available. So we never got around to how production of goods and delivery of services can be different from the conveyor belt metaphor if you switch to the network metaphor. In fact the term ‘co-creation’ wasn’t even mentioned once, even though that involving stakeholders in your primary process should already be a well-known notion for the participants and cases are not hard to come by even in my own work.
So we never went deeper than ‘culture is hard to change’ and going there is ‘opening a can of worms’, while we already should be aware that culture is but the sum of individual behaviours, and nothing is more contagious than effective behaviour so cultural change propagates and scales itself. Some kept calling for ‘scale’ saying that 1 on 1 steps to help people to become better at sharing or to affect cultural change doesn’t scale and would never work for let’s say a multinational company, or across diverse cultures like our Western one, and those of Asia. As if we didn’t just live through the first decade (!) of social media, a group of tools that do nothing else than scaling the type of interaction we used to only have with a few people to a global scale, involving a majority of all internet users regardless of their location on this globe!
What’s a result?
So we never went beyond the suggestion that maybe instead of tracking employees time (introduced with the conveyor belt metaphor) we should start tracking results. We never got around to what ‘results’ actually are in the networked age, and how we should go about measuring them in complex environments. Especially knowing how bad we humans are both at thinking in causal chains of more than two steps even without there being multiple factors in play and feedback loops, which is the norm in a networked environment.
Or given how bad we are at finding ways to measure intangibles. We don’t even get measuring results right yet when it comes to tangible metrics, always forgetting that the measurement changes the game and is therefore an intervention too. In fact the complexity aspect met with the same throwaway fate as culture (i.e. another can of worms best left unopened).
Considering the invited participants and the qualities and experience they brought we could have done and should have done way more than we did. I for one am sorry I could not see my way into the discussion to put this forward at the event itself (it even led me to this). I did learn a lot though nevertheless, about the path we still need to go, about how to try and frame or not frame the accompanying discussion. It disappointed me during the event, but right now it rather makes me wonder about the consequences, and worried about the state we’re in.
A very talented and experienced bunch of people got invited to the Social Business Summit, but that summit proved too hard to climb. In fact I think we never really made it properly through the foothills, though there were those that already greatly admired the view even from there.