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.

Dehumanized language
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.

Networked structures
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).

Summit unattained
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.

12 reactions on “The Unattained Summit of Social Business

  1. Excellent post with incisive questions about the foundations of social business. I still find the best framework for social business is Jon Husband’s Wirearchy, “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.
    Social business is just a mechanism, in my opinion. What we need is a foundation that enables democratic business. Of course, this runs counter to the “business leader as hero” model, to which many subscribe. Social business design is not the answer, it is just a means that needs a real vision – an empowered, participative, responsible workforce. This is as revolutionary as democracy was in the late 18th century.

  2. Ton, you’ve nailed one of my concerns about Enterprise 2.0 / Social Media / Government 2.0 adoption. There’s a tendency to try and treat organisations and groups not using social media as ignorant or, even worse, the enemy. This results in calls for mandates and other political instruments which are really just attempts to railroad people who don’t agree. We’re using some of the less desirable tricks of the old world in an attempt to create the new, which just seems wrong. Or, as I said in The changing role of government:

    You don’t create peace by starting a war, and nor do you create open and collaborative government through top down directives. We can do better.

    This talks to your point about the challenge of cultural change, which is both easy and hard. Try and force a culture to change and it will push back. Show the culture a new way of working — a more productive, interesting, rewarding … way — and the change will often go viral.
    Which brings us back to the question of push vs. pull models. Should we try and imagine a future and then create it? Or should be history forward, harvesting analogies from the past to guide our actions in the future? I suspect both are wrong.
    It naive to think that we have any sense of where the future will take us, as a quick browse of Paleo-Future will show us. Nor can we expect much guidance from the past as the shift we’re looking for is changing the rules of engagement within business, limiting the quantity and quality of any precedents we might find.
    The real challenge here is one of engagement: how can we engage our broader community (reaching beyond existing social media converts) and discover the future together? I like to compare two of the major approaches to Government 2.0. The U.S. has adopted a top-down approach, where the true believers in the Whitehouse are trying to force the non-believer to change. Social Media policy is developed in head office, distributed as tablets from the mount. Critics Contrast this with Australia, where the Government 2.0 policy team’s first step was to start a blog where they could share their thoughts and progress, developing the policy (effectively) in the open. Where the U.S. effort resulted in the expected snarky responses and scepticism from the non-believers, the AU approach resulted in significant community and public service buy in, and even the non-believers are rolling up their sleeves to get on with implementation.
    Of course, using a more collaborative approach requires us to give up some control. The future we (believers and non-beliveres) arrive at (together) will not be the future that we (the believers) designed. Perhaps this is the real problem; change is something we do to other people, not something we accept ourselves. We need to put some skin in the game.

  3. right on. this kind of independent commentary was needed. i shared your feelings through the discourse, which left me oddly feeling at loss and unable to connect. so no, i wouldn’t say i *admired* the view, as you quoted me, but i surely *enjoyed* it, really hoping we can build on that and ideas will follow.
    it was a surprise for me that it still seems to be so early days, after all these “Enterprise 2.0” events going on for years. it was like a pioneer party, where people are just happy to congregate and agree in vague terms, feeling to be part of an exclusive club. but maybe we are too impatient.
    maybe it’s still necessary to build the social foundation for discussing the kind of complex questions you rightly suggest. and it is this bunch of people that will have to achieve that.
    “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.”
    i really think we should take it like that: as something to build on. but true, first step is not to be satisfied. we urgently need to review the reasons why the Enterprise 2.0 / Social Business discourse in general seems to be stagnating.

  4. Thanks Ton for a great post and comments, which have sent me scurrying across the internet following the great links. Learing a lot… and then feeling a bit disorientated.
    And then thinking, isn’t that sort of the point about social meeja? That on a scale of chatting to friends and colleagues it’s very natural and human… but that it can be taken to excess, when it becomes disorientating, and that’s not comfortable.
    Hence the understandable urge to have the cake and eat it: reap all the massive potential but squeeze it into the neat boxes of the past, with all it’s deadening language, so it can be controlled.
    I think I’d rather practice getting comfortable with the discomfort, than imagine there is some fixed summit to be reached in 5 years or whatever timescale. (And loved the link on Paleo-Futures in that respect.)
    There is no summit, no single fixed point above the fray from which the smart strategists can survey the masses. And future business will emerge in some not-very predictable way; it won’t be “designed” by anyone so I think the whole notion of “social business design” is potentially a linguistic pitfall. Albeit one into which some at the top of hierarchies might pay lots of money to fall.

  5. Peter’s ..
    The real challenge here is one of engagement: how can we engage our broader community (reaching beyond existing social media converts) and discover the future together?
    Exactly ! .. with double emphasis on REA: engagement with truly different values and structure.
    That means getting deep into things like assumptions about self-interest driving behaviour (or re-defining the sources of fulfilling self-interest), or about remuneration and performance management systems that reward or punish people .. etc.

  6. I think the whole notion of “social business design” is potentially a linguistic pitfall
    I agree with this, too. The potential is clearly there, IMHO, for “social” (now appended to almost every purposeful activity humans do using the Web) to become one of the biggest (and maybe most meaningless), ‘buzz’ terms of all time ?

  7. Thanks guys for your comments and extensions.
    Re: Jon, on social as the most meaningless buzz word of all time.
    Yes that is a possibility. I increasingly find that all of these words, social, networked, co-creation, community etc. only basically mean ‘not the mindless conveyor belt mentality we’ve been using for knowledge work in the past decades’ But that last bit we can’t seem to acknowledge to ourselves, fearing it’s all been a waste of time. Which is partly true, but also not true as we did achieve results, but now have to ask at what (human) costs, and how to bring those costs down very fast with what is now possible.
    I came to the above notion, when I was asked recently to describe what ‘co-creation’ means to me. After thinking about it I came to the conclusion that co-creation is simply how we work all the time, and always have been, except in that one situation: organizations where we made the conveyor belt mentality dominant.
    Time we put back the conveyor belt into the niche it is actually useful in, and not let it spread to other niches and situations anymore.

  8. I came to the above notion, when I was asked recently to describe what ‘co-creation’ means to me. After thinking about it I came to the conclusion that co-creation is simply how we work all the time, and always have been, except in that one situation: organizations where we made the conveyor belt mentality dominant.
    Time we put back the conveyor belt into the niche it is actually useful in, and not let it spread to other niches and situations anymore.

    Exactly !! mass production and mass assembly etc. were extremely useful in their time, for their purpose, and are still useful for what they are useful for … but as the dominant metaphor for society, business models and organizational structures … well, that’s an important question to explore deeply and exhaustively .. not gloss over by calling everything ‘social”. Which might well lead to not changing very much ?

  9. Hello Ton,
    My social media knowledge stopped at the very old fashioned way – emails and occassional forums (by choice since I do not have the needs) but I am always interested in what is going on with social medias.
    Very nice post as usual, but I do have a question: if the tool is targetted to the user, what would be the design be with an organization where there are different needs, different groups?

  10. @Cindy
    Thanks for dropping by! 🙂 I think the tools are not just targeted to the individual, they’re targeted to the individual in the context of the groups she belongs to. (So easy group forming is also part of the tools, as it is a key affordance of the internet itself).
    I see organizations as ‘just another group’, and organizational structures as (temporary) tools. Orgs are groups with their specific needs and sub-groups. I expect to see org designs that take into account that they are a ‘group’ overlapping with many other groups where the individuals (employees) are the point of overlap. In other words: organizations that form themselves as network.
    We tend to see orgs as a ‘box’ with predefined slots where you put people in. You could also see them as a group of connected individuals that have established roles (functions) and flows (processes).
    I think the biggest mistake orgs can make these days is thinking that they are a bubble different from the outside world, instead of a group in the outside world.
    I think another big mistake orgs can make these days is thinking those networkstructures don’t already exist within their walls, where in fact it’s the networkstructures that make an org work, and not the established hierarchy. See slides 18, 19, and 20 of this slideset by me.
    Those three pics by Valdis Krebs depict the same organization. Would you agree that picture 19 leads to different views on how to achieve goals than 18, and slide 20 makes it different once again? Also note that these pictures only take internal connections into account. So a 4th picture that brings in the connections to elsewhere, overlap with other groups, will change the view on how to reach organizational goals yet again.
    In other words: design for the actual complexity that exists, not use a simple but fictional structure when you know reality of work is already very different in practice.

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