Social Business And The Retreading Of Failed Business Metaphors

I was considering attending the Dachis Social Business Summit in Austin this past month, but a variety of conflicts made that difficult, so I punted. I was asked to speak there last year, but family issues – my mother’s cancer – made that impossible. Now, I am wondering if I would have heard anything new, if I had attended.

In 2009, I was excited by the concept of the social business, based on the wide acceptance of social tools in the open web and the premise that social network-based technologies might lead to new forms of collaboration, innovation, and transparency in business. I led a conference in April 2010 on social business, and brought together a dozen or so of the smartest people I know to muse on the impact that the social web is having on the world of business.

Zoom forward a year, and how things seem to have changed. Social business is a term in wide use, but it is not being held up in distinction to enterprise 2.0 (or the even earlier knowledge management), but pitched as the direct successor of these past failed, efforts. Or even worse, as just a synonym for enterprise 2.0, a field of inquiry that seems bogged down in endless discussions about barriers to adoption and ROI. Is this deja-vu all over again?

Luis Suarez falls in this camp, conflating every previous era of tool-driven business consultingology into one, as in KM, Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business: One and The Same:

For a good number of years you have probably heard me state how Enterprise 2.0 (Now morphed into Social Business) has started already to follow the same path that traditional Knowledge Management did back in the day. To the point where I have been mentioning how some of the key aspects from both Enterprise 2.0 and KM are, essentially, one and the same! Including making some of the very same mistakes KM went through back in the day. And that’s when it gets tricky, because, if you ask knowledge workers out there nowadays, their thoughts and opinions of traditional KM are no longer that positive anymore. Actually, quite the opposite! For a good number of years, KM has been enjoying, unjustly to be honest, a rather negative reputation, even more prevalent with the emergence of social computing within the Enterprise.

I think Luis and the others that are promoting this slight-of-hand are falling prey to the marketing machinery of enterprise software vendors and consulting companies.

It goes without saying that these players will fall upon whatever shiny new ideas come along, ideas that are taking attention away from their existing patter, and they will rapidly attempt to redefine the ideas to their purpose, which is to sell soap and lots of it.

At first, they try to deny the value in the new ideas – like The Social Business Naysayers in 2009 – but they will quickly shift to the new terms when they see it catching on in the marketplaces for ideas.

Don’t get me wrong: metaphors matter. They help frame a discussion, and give shape to otherwise difficult to distinguish alternatives. But if we get back to a more fundamental definition of social business, the reframing attempts of the marketers won’t work:

A social business is an organization designed consciously around sociality and social tools, as a response to a changed world and the emergence of the social web, including social media, social networks, and a long list of other advances.

By definition, social business can’t be the same as knowledge management, since there was no social web back in the day. There was, however, a large and active community of knowledge management software companies and consulting firms that wanted to contract to help companies apply that software. That pattern has persisted, for sure. And those companies, or others cut from the same cloth, are certainly interested in riding the new wave, and to do so they will respin their old rhetoric using new adjectives.

But they aren’t generally promoting a vision of radically re-conceived management and communications, like this:

Metaphorically, a social business will seem more like a village than an army, and where a lot of 20th management approaches will be obsolete. We can expect these features:

  • ubiquitous use of social tools, and social networks,
  • greater levels of personal autonomy,
  • self-organization of groups and projects,
  • very porous boundaries with the world,
  • high reliance on non-financial motivation, or personal meaning and purpose,
  • internal marketplaces for ideas and talent,
  • and senior management operating more like Hollywood producers or investors than autocrats.

That’s very, very different from what these salespeople are selling, which is 20th century business with some new streaming collaboration software and a reorganizing of the cubicles. Like a sketchy car salesman taking an old car with a worn out engine and slapping a new coat of paint on it, using this year’s color.

Meanwhile, organic change is seeping into businesses, simply because the social web is too effective and too seductive to be delayed. These consultants and software vendors will make money, but they aren’t the driver of change in this dynamically changing environment. If anything, they are more of a source of confusion than clarity; more heat than light.

If you want to see the future of the social business, look to the smallest and youngest companies: watch how they operate. They have the least stake in the software and practices that held companies together (and back) in the previous century. And look to the software that is youngest, as well: it has the least connection to the dim, dark days of knowledge management and enterprise 2.0.

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