I’ve been working on the Socialogy series for a few months, so I thought I would take a pause and look at the high points so far.
The basic premise was — and remains — to talk with smart people about socialogy which I define this way:
Socialogy is the theory and practice behind social business, its tools and techniques, and their impact on business culture, structure, operations, and people.
In every interview I ask the guest a final consistent question —
‘How do you think a scientifically-grounded understanding of people as social beings will change business in the future and how?’
— but that isn’t always the most interesting take away from our time together. It’s a very difficult task to pick a single takeaway from the interviews, but I’ll try.
Jennifer and I wandered around in particulars — co-working, the modern open office, and so so — but then she hit on a very powerful generalization about social business that is almost haunting. She said,
Our digital social space […] creates new emergent behaviors in users. For businesses, the purpose of understanding this social context is to describe and possibly predict its future evolution. In other words, understanding these emergent behaviors helps businesses innovate faster, and thus achieve competitive advantage.
This could be the most fundamental rationale for the adopt of social business practice and technologies.
Will’s consulting business is one of the most democratic and open organizations in the world, and we started with that. The thing that was totally unexpected was this: I asked him what work was like when everyone in the company knows how much everyone else is making. And he said this:
I think life in an democratic organization is probably a little bit more serious: the effect of taking responsibility for more. You can’t sit in the corner and bitch about someone else’s problem, and the fact that so-and-so isn’t doing their job. One of the flip sides of working more democratically we all have to take responsibility for what’s going on.
The payback for democracy isn’t freedom from care but higher responsibility. This gibes with Maslow’s notion of transpersonal, that our highest aspiration and fulfillment come from accepting that we are responsible for the welfare of those others we are connected to. That starts with taking more responsibility for the work we are connected through.
The thing that has stuck with me most from the discussion with Euan, and which supports Will’s thoughts on responsibility, is the idea that companies can grow to the point where responsibility gets lost, or diffused:
ES: […] In business, so many of our attitudes are still conditioned by the protestant work ethic. Prior to the first World War, you had a very stable world with the church and the state. Then Darwin came along and that all started to fall apart. Then you had big stories like fascism and communism, that in a sense replacing that middle class need, [Erich] Fromm’s fear of freedom. ‘They don’t like responsibility.’ So that was another two big stories to keep em happy. After that story fell apart it gave way to consumerism, ‘buy stuff till you die.’
SB: Yeah, like Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor saying ‘People don’t want freedom.’
ES: That’s right. After those stories fell apart, after the second World War, the consumer mindset was born, and now that’s dying. I feel we need a new big story. And I remember you talking about this, at one of the Reboot conferences, as a movement. That makes me jumpy because the trouble with movements is they end up with cabals, and doctrine, and dogma, and you’re back to where we are now. The anarchist in me is interested how we can collectively take this relatively unique opportunity to make it right.
SB: I think the way to do that is to avoid the collective and attack it as a connective: a loose federation. Like your term ‘trojan mice’. Instead of one big thing you have thousands of little things.
ES: I suppose that’s how one could run a business. The limits of that become strained at scale in the big corporates. But then, I often think big companies are a temporary aberration anyway. They’re not an inevitability. The consequences of big corporations are things the recent flap in the UK with the horse meat. [Horse meat was found in food products labeled as beef.] Big companies get so stretched, and so process driven that no one takes responsibility. One of my hopes — I’ve been joking about this with [the grocery chain] Tesco — they have internal systems [to monitor food] but if they had a robust and pervasive enough network so that when someone said ‘Has anyone noticed that horse meat?’, the system would have responded and dealt with it.
I closed that interview with a thought,
We don’t think about the future as some abstract place filled with anonymous, faceless, nameless individuals. We think about posterity, a future world with actual people, people connected to us. Kenneth Boulding said that a society that fails in its connection to posterity will ultimately fail, because there would be no optimism left.
John has had a powerful impact on my thinking, and this interview was another instance of that. This is an extremely powerful — almost subversive — distillation of socialogy from John:
If you take seriously the notion of the individual as the center of the action then you really do need to leverage the scientific work that’s going on in very broad fields. I can think of three fields that are critical to driving success in the next era. One is neuroscience and cognitive science. Second is complex adaptive systems and the science of complexity. Third is social network analysis: how do networks form, and how do they evolve?
John also produced this great observation about the inverse relationship of company size and passion:
One of the things we are focusing on is the notion of passion as a key driver of performance. Based on the research we’ve done, passion is very low in business in general and it’s inversely proportionate to the size of the business. So, the larger the business the smaller the passion. But there is still passion in these big businesses, but it’s often are found on the edge of the enterprise.
John’s interview is jammed with this sort of deep analysis of what he and his colleagues at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge are up to.
Deb and I hurtled through a lot of issues, like control and leadership, but she posed a critical question about social business practice getting in its own way:
Just because you are networked doesn’t mean it necessarily helps you understand, or realize your needs more effectively.
I said a few months ago that soon technology will stop blaming culture for why technology’s failing. One of the dangers that the social business movement faces is a desire to prove that it works so bad that it doesn’t allow dis-confirming information, and that blocks the evolution of social business. By saying ‘networks are inherently good’ and ‘if you have a network good things will happen’… while these are not entirely wrong but they get in the way of asking deeper and harder questions, questions we might not know the answers to.
That is a statement I will return to again and again. We can let our dogma blind us, if we aren’t careful.
Brian is one of my oldest and best friends, and so we tend to finish each other’s sentences, so I was not surprised that we agree about the limitations of big data. Brian said,
No matter how smart we get with predictive algorithms it doesn’t matter, because without understanding social science, without aligning with a bigger mission or vision with what we are trying to do — something that is going to matter to people — we are just managing businesses the way we always have. We are not moving in any new direction.
Brian makes the case for empathy: the application of any insights derived from analysis of large bodies of data ultimately need to be grounded in an understanding of people, an understanding of what it is like to be a customer of an employee. Number crunching alone won’t be enough.
Justin and I started the discussion building on the points that Brain made in an earlier post in the series, and based on an interview that Justin conducted with me. But Justin’s most interesting observations, from my perspective, are those he made about the intersection of lean startup thinking and social business:
We are already seeing the language of these disciplines permeate through business speak (minimal viable product. lean, agile, responsiveness, etc), it’s not a big leap to see how their practice could be adapted as a method for the diffusion of social business innovation.
I agree, and I have written some on the concepts of lean social, and I think there is real meat there.
The series has been immensely rewarding for me on an intellectual basis, as well as emotionally. The participants have invested themselves in the project and provided deep and stimulating answers to troublesome issues underlying the transition to what I am now thinking of as the emergent business, which includes but transcends social.
Stowe Boyd, Beyond Social: The Rise Of The Emergent Business
The next generation of business — business in the postnormal — may best be characterized as emergent. It will reflect the volatility, complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity of our economics and society, and in a “like cures like” fashion, business will be defined by properties that may have been impossible to expect based on just looking at the individual aspects of business organization, tools, or culture. This is the time of the emergent business, then, and social is just one of many forces that are being internalized and joined together.
And by definition, we can’t state unequivocally how emergent businesses will operate next year, the year after, or five years later. We can speculate, report on experiments, and do ethnological fieldwork, but we can’t analyze our way to a “how to” or an architectural diagram.
And that is the book that I am hoping complete in August. It will be approximately 100 pages, with each of its chapters short enough to be read in one sitting. About that, more to follow.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.