There have always been debates about how we label the shift in business technology and associated practice that we were part of for the past ten years; but our view has always been that what you do matters more than the label you choose, so we have been fairly ambivalent about the terms we have used to describe it.

In the beginning, we used to talk about working with social software (blogs, wikis, social networks, etc). Later, riffing on the Web 2.0 terminology that Tim O’Reilly and his organisation promoted as a shorthand for the new, read-write, two-way web, Professor Andrew McAfee and others talked about E2.0 – i.e. Web 2.0 for the enterprise. But this felt like it was describing a subset of technology, rather than an area of business change, so when we were acquired by Dachis Group we operated under the term Social Business, which was intended to describe the people and process elements of building modern businesses, as well as the novel technology that underpinned it. This term seemed to resonate and was picked up and championed by IBM and others to describe what they were also doing in this space.

Along the way, we have always spoken about our real goal being to humanise the enterprise and help explore what the operating system for Twenty-First Century organisations might look like, rather than just to encourage the adoption of a new class of tools. What we meant by this is that the practice of business, on the whole, has become too process-driven and insufficiently personal, both inside organisations and in terms of how they relate to their customers and partners. Why does this matter? Principally, because this method of orchestrating human labour and creating value for customers is both highly inefficient, requiring lots of management and controls, but also because it is often deeply unsatisfactory for the people involved. We believe people are willing and able to give much more of themselves, and to create more value for the organisation, if we allow them to operate within more grown-up, mutually-beneficial structures and systems, and also if they believe in something. We have learned so much in recent decades about evolution, adaptive systems, human behaviour and motivation, network theory and other cross-disciplinary fields, but it is remarkable how little of this thinking has made its way into the practice of how we design and run organisations. But describing all that in a simple label is not easy, so ‘social business’ was a useful shorthand.

Whilst new technology adoption is not the goal, it is important to understand the key role it plays in the shift we are talking about. The affordances of new, social, networked technology are what makes new forms of organisation or society possible. The IT department has historically played a central role in shoring up old structures of the command and control organisation that was the norm in the middle of the last century. Successive waves of new technology, such as the network, the PC, email and latterly the web and social networks, have been resisted and finally assimilated into the existing culture of centralised control. Anybody carrying a corporate ‘brick’ laptop that takes 10 minutes to boot and does not allow installation of non-standard tools knows what a joyless and pointless approach this is. At a time when teenagers adopt new tools, and find new uses for them on an almost weekly basis, many highly-paid and intelligent business people are sometimes still waiting for the high priests of internal technology to tell them it is ok to use social tools that have been in existence for a decade. At home, we are free to connect, explore and make the most of cloud-based (often free) tools that are powerful enough in some instances to help bring down dictators or create new global trends, whilst at work, too many people are still treated like untrustworthy children and prohibited from using them. So yes, the change we seek is about making business better and more value-producing as a whole, but let’s not forget how hard the battle in the basement has been to even bring these new technologies into the workplace. And it is not over by a long way.

Social technology is necessary but not sufficient. People will not magically change their ways of working because they use new tools. This is why we have spent years patiently working through the complex organisational design, cultural and other issues that are the real determinants of whether change happens or not, and whether it is positive. Change of this kind can take three, five or even ten years to succeed, so for most companies who have taken this journey, it is too early to judge. And if the projects we have worked on are indicative, some of the most potentially transformative projects are in traditional industrial and manufacturing firms as well as more knowledge-intensive organisations such as in professional services.

But despite the initial flurry of excitement around using the word ‘social’ in relation to business, this also created resistance from those whose interests continued to be aligned with middle management and middle-tier enterprise IT, which ironically includes many of the consultants trying to make a living from speaking about social technology, since these people are often the buyers of their services. Partly as a result, some practitioners have shied away from the term ‘social’, believing it scares the corporate horses, for whom it perhaps sounds too unbusinesslike. There have been long debates about whether this work would be more successful if we aimed only to introduce new tools into existing management structures and processes, and not try to convince organisations that they need to think more deeply about their implications for organisational culture and design. So, whilst some people continue to talk about social business, others now also talk about Open Business, Connected Business, Collaborative Business and a range of other related terms (NB: I am not suggesting people necessarily adopt these terms for the reasons outlined above – they are perfectly good labels in themselves).

Also, rather unhelpfully, a few consultancies and analysts conflate social business and social media. Social media as a whole is an amazing phenomenon, especially when used by people rather than corporations; but social media marketing, which aims to deliver marketing content via new “channels” is slightly less interesting and in many cases just traditional broadcast marketing dressed up in new clothes. You may be able to acquire more customers for a lame product or service using cupcakes on Facebook and kitten videos, but it is a better long-term strategy to make your product or service awesome, and that is where ‘social’ can create deeper value when used to change the whole way the organisation works and engages with its ecosystem. Altimeter’s e-book The 7 Success Factors of Social Business Strategy is one example of this conflation of ideas. What it is really talking about is how to go beyond simple social media marketing tactics, begin to organise them strategically and win support for this within the company as a whole. Despite the advice being sometimes rather generic and 2×2-grid-simplistic, it does this quite well. But it has almost nothing at all to say about how to become a social business in any deeper sense than just doing social media marketing better. To be fair, the e-book’s role is presumably to create demand for Altimeter’s consulting methodology, and I am sure their advice would be of benefit to many companies.

Overall, ‘social’ is not a bad shorthand for what we and many others have been trying to do, but no label is perfect. It has connotations of people sharing and connecting, which is clearly a large part of what we have advocated businesses to adopt, and suggests a more networked, self-organising fabric that is being weaved between companies’ existing silos and cascading hierarchies, similar to John Kotter’s dual operating system model. But at the same time, it has always felt like the term ‘social’ will begin to fall away as the technology, techniques and structures it refers to become the new normal. At the end of the day, we are interested in building more effective, more valuable companies, rather than pushing for more talking, sharing or collaboration per se. Open Business sounds good, but not all great businesses are open (Apple being a good example). Collaboration and Collaborative Business are also interesting terms, but I think a lot of the value of social technology lies not just in direct collaboration, but in ambient sharing, aggregation and connected environments that go way beyond people directly working with each other.

Tempting as it might be to invent a new term and build a consulting practice around it, I don’t think this really matters as much as taking the ideas, techniques, experience and affordances that have emerged over the last ten years and try to use them to create new and better businesses that might still be around a hundred years from now. Call it what you like, but it will doubtless involve elements of the ideas and thinking behind open business, collaborative business, social media, E2.0 and social business, so we are rooting for all those people pushing these ideas forward. But if you are consulting to organisations that think they want to change, please don’t water down your ideas just to make it easier to sell billable days. Tell it like it is. Sometimes companies simply cannot get there from where they are, due to cultural issues, politics or because of deep last-century thinking in IT and HR, for example, and no amount of celebrity keynotes or consulting discovery projects will change that. Sometimes it will be new startup competitors who show them the way. But in almost every case, if a company is only reliant on outside consultants and cannot adapt their own working culture or build their own internal capacity, they are unlikely to make the change, regardless of the label we use to describe it.

We have served our time in the implementation trenches, and whilst we still think organisations need a lot of help in putting these ideas into practice, we want to focus our energies on the challenge of designing new organisational structures that are natively social, networked, connected, etc., either as special vehicles for existing companies or as stand-alone competitors to them, hence this reflection on where we have come from.

(Photo credit: Yvonne n)