How social business grew up

The management concepts that have evolved as social media has transformed global communication are now resulting in meaningful changes in the enterprise.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Who would have thought that social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn would ultimately end up having such a profound impact on the way we think about and run our businesses? The story of this journey, called by many social business, revolves around the deep application to our organizations of the ideas that made social media such a potent and popular way of communicating globally.

The imperative for doing so has become quite clear. According to recent estimates, by 2020 there will be over 7 billion people and businesses -- along with at least at least 30 billion devices -- all connected together digitally. In other words, most of the planet. Businesses not fully engaged with this most relevant marketplace will miss the larger opportunity.

Does social business really offer the best route forward to improve our businesses and make them more digital?

For many organizations, however, the social business journey has sometimes been a rocky one, as the underlying notions weren't explicitly designed to make it easy for enterprises to adopt. But bit-by-bit, year-by-year, social media has seeped into just about everything our enterprises do, including customer care, marketing, product development, operations, knowledge work, and even our supply chains.

As those of you who have followed the story on this blog over the years probably know, we now talk a lot less these days about the revolution that social media will cause inside our organizations. Instead, we're spending a lot more time actually dealing with the results of pervasive social media. This typically involves raising awareness, educating leadership, trying to figure out what department should be in charge of social business, rethinking business processes in a much more fragmented yet connected operating environment, acquiring budget as social business operations grow, measuring results, and so on.


We've thus moved well beyond the notional and now come into full contact with issues surrounding the social enterprise.

In retrospect, the challenge at first was simple: Our workforces badly needed more modern and time effective ways of collaborating. Our customers wanted better support and engagement from us using the digital channels they prefer.  Our business partners could greatly benefit from shared knowledge, information, and collaboration, especially when things went wrong.

Yet along the way this question often came up: Does social business really offer the best route forward to improve our businesses and make them more digital?

For a while, it was fairly challenging to demonstrate that social business really was a better way of managing and running our organizations. Fortunately, while there were the inevitable missteps here and there, many -- if not most -- companies that have invested significantly have consistently reported benefits, even though most of them are still on the journey and only starting to reap rewards.

Looking back at the data we have now, those employing social business ideas and technology early on demonstrated they create value in many ways, from addressing operational concerns like productivity, efficiency, cost reduction, and higher margins to more strategic concerns like improved innovation, higher customer satisfaction, and better competitiveness. This data is there for anyone to see these days from a number of credible sources, such as last year's excellent MIT Deloitte study on the topic or McKinsey's global social technology survey data.

Thus I'm pleased to report that basic questions around the why and the value of becoming a social business has largely fallen by the wayside. Most organizations that I speak to these days now worry much more about the how, particularly as the higher value aspects tend to require significant shifts in culture, structure, and process. So while we're at the end of the beginning with social business, most of us still have plenty of work to do.

The proliferation of engagement platforms & channels

One challenge that continues to get worse is the inexorable advancement of the digital world itself. The IT industry and the world of socila media did not sit still while we grappled with the initial tools and techniques of social business. In fact, our choices of tools, platforms, and even entire paradigms for engagement, have grown dramatically in the last several years. This has been further exacerbated by channel fragmentation which ensures we need solutions that provide easier ways to engage across all our stakeholders (worker, partner, and customer) in all the relevant channels (Web, mobile, apps, social, IoT, etc.)

If you've been following ZDNet colleague Paul Greenberg's fascinating CRM Idol the last few years, you know how many startups are hoping to provide a new integrated solution for your stakeholder engagement needs. His latest musings on CRM and the toolbox of management tools we need to support our stakeholder engagement needs today is sobering. But he gets it right in observing that proliferation is driving us to converge all this into a sort of 'hub of engagement' that will enable us to manage and control digital collaboration across myriad channels, while reducing duplication and inconsistency:

Social channels are now inclusive in CRM systems and thinking – incorporated with the more traditional operational aspects of CRM systems and thinking. It’s the operational hub with pipes that are driven into the other areas around customer engagement.

Thus, external engagement is centralizing de facto into hubs to manage complexity and provide consistency. However, we must take this beyond the customer silo, as I've long believed that social business is part of a full continuum of all stakeholders.  Instead, what we're actually witnessing is a larger overall pattern where organizations are desperate to centralize most or all forms of engagement more broadly as it has steadily continued to scale up both in volume and variety year-after-year.

In fact, we originally saw evidence of this desire to create 'hubs' for engagement with the introduction of the social media command center, which began flourshing within B2C companies about three years ago. We've long had centralized community management teams (both internal and external) and now social media centers of excellence. These responses came about because social/community quickly became the most challenging, high volume, and fragmented environment organizations faced and thus required new approaches to tackle.

It was in this corporate response to organize better for the realities of social business -- meaning figuring out how to cope effectively as an organization with the many emerging new forms of high-scale omni-channel digital engagement -- where the model has been forced to grow up. A good example of this is the Community Roundtable's latest report on community management, which I explored last month. It shows just how much things have changed recently and how  better preparedness, resourcing, and solid organization directly effects positive outcomes when it comes to social business.

Related: Are social media silos holding back business results?

But the industry has also begun to realize that the focus only on new social channels and approaches, without thinking about legacy technology or new forms digital, led to a sort of social myopia. In addition, although the ideas of social business require changes to both management and culture, an abrupt change in most organizations wasn't going to happen overnight. In other words, social business must advance and flourish, but within a complex pre-existing environment where it would have to compete and frequently reconcile itself with the traditional enterprise, including legacy digital, and emerging new technologies.

This is where we are today, and frankly, I think it's good place. Social business has become a more powerful and effective way of operating, as the preponderance of evidence today indicates. But it must mature to grow its relevance and effectiveness as it's situated within the realities of the contemporary organization. Unfortunately, most enterprises are currently experiencing profound shifts in how they absorb and employ technology. New digital channels are emerging nearly daily, new engagement technologies are entering the market nearly as often, and employees now often choose individually the devices, technologies, and ways of employing them at work. It's in this chaotic sea of change that social business must succeed.

So my perspective is that social business itself, at least for now, is the next-generation management construct for modern organizations. There are few other competing or compelling constructs so aligned with the technology world, and we must not forget that technology is now driving much of the business world.

Key Realizations as Social Business Grows Up

For its part, the practice of social business has matured considerably in the last two years. We've learned a lot along the sometimes difficult but necessary journey, to become the organizing structure for the next generation of stakeholder engagement. As we proceed to what I believe is a new plateau of progress, there are some aspects we're seeing emerge today that will help us move forward the state of the art:

  • The new modes of management that social business encourages works in the non-digital world as well. It turns out that many social business concepts work well even without the technology or in non-digital channels. Self-organization, autonomy to solve problems, and open participation are actually valuable in most business activities. This has been borne out with interesting examples of leading organizations embodying the ideas without the technology, supporting that social business has a strong foundational basis.
  • Enterprise without strong communities -- or the management construct for communities -- are unable to significantly produce results with social business. The future of work likes in cultivating participants that can provide the right knowledge or work at the right time from a potential set of networked contributors within at least three distinct operational arenas. The larger your network of potentially engaged people, the richer the business outcome. Community management is the key to keeping such environments operating and engaged with the right consituents. You won't have much social engagement without this function.
  • Today's low levels of employee engagement can be addressed by social business. Good examples of this include Don Pontrefact's work at TELUS where he used social business to increase employee engagement from 53% to 83%.
  • To mature and sustain themselves, enterprises are creating "engagement hubs" (see figure above) that will ultimately connect all channels and all stakeholders successfully to create necessary business outcomes. This is required to successfully cope with -- and potentially even take advangtage of -- channel fragmentation, social silos, economies of scale (staff & resources both), and a constant stream of new engagement technologies in a managed, scaled, and consistent manner.
  • Organizations that haven't laid down the foundation for maturity in the first generation of social business likely will lack sufficient maturity to capitalize on the second wave, which will be much larger. As mentioned at the start, we're just now starting to build deep digital connections with our constituents, and the rest of the world. Many more people/channels/devices are about to arrive. The window is closing for a number of reasons if you haven't already started building a strong foundation for social business.
  • You can't buy into social business through acquiring technology. This has been one of the starkest lessons as enterprises have added more and more social features to their application portfolios, often with little business planning. Instead, we must start with how to think about and manage working through networks of connected people to attain business goals. The most significant shortfalls of social business initatives has been when organizations focus on social business technology first, without thinking about what they're trying to accomplish in new ways for their business.

The reality is that the term social business itself will continue to hold less and less meaning as more organizations just use the tools and ideas, and it steadily becomes the norm. While this point has been made before, I think we need to understand that digital engagement is a moving target.

Hitting this moving target also becoming more and more important and so I've previously used the term next generation enterprise as the stand-in concept for this constantly shifting future objective. I'll be exploring what a next generation enterprise should look like this year in more detail shortly. In the meantime, we must continue to organize better for social business and bring the latest lessons to bear, as it enables new business possibilities simply not possible with older ways of working.

Additional Reading:

Emerging tech is transforming the workplace

Why you should treat customer care like it’s your core product

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