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Sep 26, 2011

Social Business: Revolution or Differentiator?

Thank you Deb Lavoy for writing that Social Business blog that I have been meaning to write (Social Business Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does, Neither Does Enterprise 2.0). Procrastination pays! Deb did a better job than I could have done explaining that social business goes deeper than what we call "culture" as defined by the "corporate values" poster that you would see in a lunch area. You need to go below this surface culture right down to core attitudes about people and business.

Anything social is about people and their connections. To be authentic in social business, your business has revolve around people. You can't fake it. You can't talk about people as "resources" and then turn around expect them to feel like they are members of a community. Treat someone like a resource and he will behave like a resource. He will not invest his personal identity to advocate for an organization. He will save his personality and creativity for whatever community treats him like a person. That may include friendships he has formed at work but not to the organization itself.

The difference between my imaginary article and Deb's real one is a slight change in emphasis. I don't think Social Business will transform all companies. I don't think it is possible to run every business like a social business (although I would like to see every business try). The companies that don't go social will not necessarily just shrivel up and die. However, if one of their direct competitors makes the leap they will be operating at a distinct disadvantage.

Any business that has wide disparity in pay and privilege will have a hard time becoming a social business. People at the top who prosper from the exploitation of the bottom become a faces of the company that are easy to resent. Aggressive management that drives performance through reward/fear (the "coffee is for closers" culture) is an obstacle to social business; so are rigid roles and repetitive tasks that stifle individual expression. Anything that makes employees grumble to their peers after work will inhibit social business success. What people say over beers is what they will want say if you try to make them social. If you are frustrated by their silence. Consider that they are just being polite: "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it."

Does every business need these anti-social practices? I don't know; but the ones that do have them think they need them. Remember the testimonies defending executive pay during the financial crisis hearings? As managers, haven't we all experienced passing down pressure received from above? Anti-social business behavior is always justified by a need to be competitive and survive. If the customers only care about price (and not service, innovation, and connection) and the owners only care about growth and profits (like investors and shareholders do), the necessity of anti-social business behavior might be difficult to argue with. But if the company operates in an industry that values the human element of business (as in what humans can offer: ideas, problem solving, listening, trust, relationships, etc.), long-range competitiveness may depend on the ability to transform into a social business.