Is it all over for social? The root causes

Summary:Part 1 was about describing the problem and suggesting current analysis has been inadequate. This second part explores root cause issues and a possible solution. It won't be easy.

In part 1, I argued that while there are plenty of explanations as to why social has faltered, I suggested that we have not really understood the root cause problems. In this second part, I provide one explanation that suggests some solutions. Much of what I conclude is based upon the thinking of Sir Ken Robinson, who is recognized as a 'leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation.' I knew of Sir Ken, had skimmed some of his material and watched his 2006 TED Talk. (Hat tip to Frank Scavo for reminding me of this truly inspiring thinker.) 

Pedagogy provides the clues

Sir Ken's basic premise goes something like this: over the last 50 years, we (as in governments well meaning attempts to match education design to social need) have created a system that only rewards ever-higher educational achievement. In my day, a university degree guaranteed a professional career. Today, I know young people with three solid degrees and who are multi-lingual yet cannot get a job. In short, your first university degree is meaningless. Only yesterday, Vijay Vikayasankar tweeted:

The cab driver who took me to LAS was an economist. I was blown away by the quality of his thought process on world economy

Compounding the problem, the way in which we educate, is designed for an industrial, mechanistic age. The result is that we have stuffed our businesses with very well educated people who only understand command and control mechanisms that serve to treat people as machines following proscribed process. Creativity and innovation get crushed along the way. Anyone with a great idea is actively dis-suaded from speaking up. Contrary to what the revolutionaries thought, these structures are highly resistant to change because they have been developed over generations and across all industries and organisations.

Now let's turn to technology. The recent explosion in consumer apps and especially some of the truly beautiful and successful solutions have often been developed by people with very little (comparatively speaking) formal education. When tech companies are looking for coders, academic qualification counts very little. What matters are things like problem solving skills, design acumen, creativity and the ability to turn ideas into reality. Of course life is never quite that simple and it doesn't take long to surround such creativity with business processes that - guess what - were often developed back in the industrial age and are administered by people skilled in those processes. It takes a very strong, dedicated and enlightened management to really do things differently. 

I have concluded that we have created a situation where the dominant business model fears change, out of scope process, creativity and innovation. Companies will tell you that is untrue but then where is the evidence of structural change that is ringing in the changes social software promises to facilitate? If you accept that premise then it is only a short step to hypothesising that these conditions provide explanations as to why so little has changed. Call it culture if you like, but the root cause reasons are much deeper. 

Is it surprising then that despite more than 100 million people around the world having heard Sir Ken's message of what's happened, why and the solution that so little has changed? I don't think so. There are plenty of studies that demonstrate how hard it is for managers to take the necessary steps required to scrap their past training, reboot and then apply the new to the business. For many, it's just too risky. Sir Ken concludes that our systems of education and their outcomes have led to an insitutionalised view of the world that is no longer relevant to the complex and fast changing world. To quote from Sir Ken's book Out Of Our Minds: '...the economist J.K. Galbraith said: "The primary purpose of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable."' Where did that come from? A belief system and education environment locked to industrial age conditions. 

Quo vadis?

This explanation of root cause issues may seem depressing and I will not pretend there are any quick fixes. Euan Semple talks in generational terms. Sir Ken has a timeline of 50 to 100 years. The good news is that the hype around social software has at least raised awareness of the possible. The bad news is that if my observations are representative, business has most often tried to see cultural change as a linear process when in reality, it is unpredictable.

I could for instance never have imagined that having turned down the chance to attend a prestigious university to read politics, economics and philosophy that I would end up as a partner in a British firm of accountants. Or that 10 years later I would do a 180 and start writing. Or that 10 years later I would be doing this kind of thing and still using my professional training or the principles of philosophy I picked up when I finally studied for a degree in the social sciences. 

So when someone asks me is this 'stuff' fixable, I say an unequivocal 'yes.' It just won't be the way we might think today.

If you look around the interwebs there are plenty of people able to offer advice on this topic. The most recent and best example I have seen was an HP Vertica webinar showcasing how 'big data' was harnessed during the last US presidential election.  

Technology aside, the speaker, Chris WegrzynDirector of Data Architecture, Democratic National Committee (DNC) repeated time and again about how they worked hard to remove as many barriers to creativity as possible among a group of smart people who could learn but were not necessarily familiar with the technology. The way they went about their business and the technology choices were informed by the fact there was a hard stop deadline. The net result was the development of highly effective response mechanisms that proved effective in bringing out voters. 

Viewed more broadly, I argue that the DNC was in a form of pain that demanded a social approach. I'd equally argue that for most businesses, pain is the only real motivator that breaks through the barriers established by past experience. Business pain serves as a great leveller and often suggests simple solutions and at its heart, social software is simple. 

Having said that, I am hearing more and more talk about management desire to achieve positive outcomes rather than simply acquire enabling technologies. If that's true then it provides a good starting point for encouraging the creativity and innovation that is a pre-requisite for internal social change and for which Sir Ken believes we all have the capacity. 

Of course it is never that simple but I'd like to think this piece serves as a conversation starter. 

In the meantime, while Cowens might worry about Salesforce.com in the short term, I wonder whether all we are doing is seeing buyers taking a breather while they figure out the totality of what the social enterprise is about? If so then I'd argue the EIs have it wrong. Rather than express the current position in terms of Gartner-esque disillusionment, I'd rather describe it as a period of reflection. 

Topics: Social Enterprise

About

Dennis Howlett has been providing comment and analysis on enterprise software since 1991 in a variety of European trade and professional journals including CFO Magazine, The Economist and Information Week. Today, apart from being a full time blogger on innovation for professional services organisations, he is a founding member of Enterpri... Full Bio

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