Will the social business succeed now?
I found myself pondering this question a lot these two days at Lotusphere/Connect.
First off, the tools are better, richer and enabled with more goodies than ever before. If anything, this alone should prove a positive for the social-business push. For today, the new social tools include fast cloud-analytic capabilities; servers that are massively more powerful; accessibility to vast data stores of traditional and new information is mind boggling; and, richer and more different types of data are solving heretofore unknown business problems. No doubt about it, the technology has clearly improved, adapted, expanded, and evolved.
People may not have changed that much though. Yes, most of us have smartphones today. We have different shopping habits. We showroom. We brag about ourselves on Facebook. But, physically and psychologically, I'd argue that we're mostly unchanged. If a person wasn't motivated to create and contribute content to an internal or external social network 20 years ago, are they going to now? Nah...
As before, there is a huge change-management, training, and motivation issue that can stop many a well-intentioned social or knowledge project dead in its tracks. Change is the biggest challenge here and it must be front and center in any discussion of new social initiatives.
Related to change is the network effect. Business leaders have to grasp what their role will be in making these new social systems a success. Several times at this conference I heard customers describe how employees valued the closeness that social systems brought between them and the leaders of their firm. The problem is that hierarchical, command-and-control firms don't like upward communication. Management in those firms likes communications that go one way: Down. They have "people" to communicate with subordinates. Social systems expose this and unless addressed appropriately, it will doom some new social-business experiments.
But, you say, isn't that a bit harsh, Brian? Nope. Just think how you feel when you write a letter to the CEO of a company and you get back form letter #326 from some flunky working there. You know the letter, "We appreciate input from our customers here at Company XYZ. Your feedback is important to us." I hate it when a business is dismissive to me. As an employee, I find a leader's dismissive attitude to workers a major morale problem and a reason for wanting to leave the company. In fact, the number one reason people have for changing employers is to get a better boss. But, if a boss won't join the social network, will the network succeed? It's doubtful. If the boss fobs off all of their network interaction to underlings, will the network succeed? Again, it's doubtful.
I have grave reservations about management changing to meet the requirements of a new social-driven work world. For example, how many of you work for a company where leaders have outsourced the content development of "their" company blog to outsiders? So, here are "leaders" who can't (or won't) articulate the company's vision in a blog post? These are the leaders who are too busy to communicate with the workforce or customers? These are the leaders who can't write or put together cogent thoughts? Outsourcing the leadership component of modern business' social systems is a prescription for failure.
What will drive greater adoption though is that the psychology of content creation has blossomed. Pinterest, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Facebook (to name but a precious few) rely on the fast, easy, and frequent additions to their social "content" that contributors make every minute. They've cracked the code that gets people to contribute, a lot and often, to their social networks. Businesses must learn the best practices from these firms so that adoption, permanent adoption, of the social systems is rapid, transformative, and game changing.
Related to the psychology point above is that it is often easier for people to contribute non-textual content to these networks. Pictures, video, music, drawings, and more are now acceptable and possible contributions to the shared data store. Take heed of the age-old expression that a picture is worth a thousand words. If someone doesn't like to write (or write well), can't they at least post pictures of the cool graphics people were drawing on the white board? Images can be some of the most powerful communication and collaboration tools there are. Now, we are surrounded by a rich abundance of tools to capture and share all of this non-traditional data.
So what's the bottom line now?
Today, I'd say the social business has a real, fighting chance. But the biggest challenge now won't be technical; it will be people. Business leaders must change and the social-business champions will need to understand people better than ever to get the adoption and value from these game changers.
But there's one other big point that needs to be made. The "social business" can't be a collection of tools sold by an integrator or software vendor. It has to be a solution that's desired or demanded by top executives. Sadly, some businesses will opt to be the social wallflowers hanging out in the shadows while the social butterflies will be everywhere. Which firm will your firm be? Are you sure your leaders want this, too?
Also read this piece I did early last year on the social business.
Disclosure: Years ago I was with Accenture (an 18-year veteran) and still own a few shares in the firm. In fact, they absolutely got the knowledge-management concept 20 odd years ago. IBM covered my hotel expense for this show.