How to fix the social anything bind

Social CRM and social business are the buzzwords of the day - in some circles. But after years of hand waving, the message still isn't getting through. Why?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Most everyone who has done post grad studies will have come across Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is a staple of many related fields of social study and is regularly trotted out; sometimes in original format, sometimes worked over, all to prove a point.

Earlier today I saw ex-Gartner analyst Estaban Kolsky railing at those in the social anything space who use Maslow's theory as a justification for their theories:

Maslow knew that humans cannot be customer-centric (at least most of us), he just never quite said it in those words.

To be customer centric you need to be at the very least realized at the level of job security (second layer in the above pyramid).  If you are not realized with job security, you are not going to progress to the next level.

This is the barrier for organizations becoming customer-centric: employees that are not secure in their jobs.  Mind you, it is not entirely their fault (again, in most cases) since their main aim is not to please their customer but rather please their bosses.  In turn, those bosses are there to please their bosses, who are there to justify their bonuses — usually tied to efficiency metrics not related to customer effectiveness and customer-centricity.

Estaban's position touches upon a number of issues that cross many disciplines and lines of thinking that are not easily aligned or resolved. His last observation for example speaks to the quarterly reporting and performance driven culture that motivates many CEOs. Some observers believe that has been a major contributor to the economic recession and call for an entirely new order.

At Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque for instance constantly talks about zombie economies and the needs to be 'amazing' as opposed to being purely numbers driven. Stripped of its political and economic overtones. Mr Haque's argument sounds a lot like the essence of where the social anything crowd would like us all to arrive.

For example, Blake of blueKiwi holds up Zappos culture of 'happiness' as a beacon to which business should aspire. She also notes that:

When I asked an old friend–who was an executive director–what makes people show up for work, he told me fear. I politely disagreed and I still do. Fear paralyzes workers. It is demotivating. How many of you have worked alongside employees who don’t show up for work even when they do?

Knowledge work requires critical thinking, problem solving and focus. Companies with mentally checked-out employees see their sales will fail.

We’ve known this for a few years. A report released back in 2007 noted companies with low levels of engagement saw operating income drop more than 32 percent and earnings per share drop over 11 percent (Towers Perrin).

Herein lies the problem. One positive example becomes a generalization followed by an interpretation of a pre-recession report that paints a picture the messenger wants to hear in order to complete an argument. It's a dangerous approach to any topic unless you understand the biases involved. Why?

When Mark Hurd was ousted from HP one of the speculative reasons offered was that underneath the salacious shenanigans, his employee approval ratings were appalling. In a wide ranging analysis I noted that while Mr Hurd had overseen a period of stock price improvement:

Enter stage left Chuck House of Stamford who is quoted on SAI as saying about Hurd:

He was profane, a bully, autocratic, threatening, demeaning, vindictive, and rude. Blogs over the weekend by current employees said “Hooray, the tyrant is gone!” I couldn’t contain my glee on the 11pm news — best news for HP in a very long time!

I speculated that Mr Hurd's management style was leading to a situation where H-P would fulfill Blake's prediction. We will never know. But taking Mr Haque's and Ms Blake's arguments together, it is easy to see the disconnects that make social anything so difficult. Mr Hurd delivered results even while apparently trampling on anyone who got in the way. How does that square with social anything? What we do know is that cultures are remarkably resilient to change but that when change comes, it almost always comes from the top.

We are starting to see a re-invigorated SAP. Commenters left and right are talking about an 'amazing turnaround.' Bob Evans, one of SAP's fiercest critics says:

Pushing the company far beyond its roots in rigid ERP applications created in massive, Newtonian development processes, SAP co-CEOs Bill McDermott and Jim Hagemann Snabe have blown out the company's stuffy and inflexible culture and myopic management perspective.

In my dealings with SAP since messrs Snabe and McDermott were appointed, it is clear there is a new mood at the company but it ain't a done deal. That company has plenty of clean up to do and we have yet to see how any changes filter back into SAP's results.

The social anything wisdom would have us believe that in SAP's case, results should follow the kinds of change to which Bob Evans alludes. So what about the 99% of the rest of industry? That's the crunch question.

For all that the social anything crowd might talk about the need for change, Estaban Kolsky is likely right except in one crucial regard. He says:

Bottom Line: Organizations cannot be customer-centric until the top-bosses embrace the concept, get compensated for it, and enforce adoption across the organization.

I don't see forced adoption working anytime anywhere. Change occurs when leaders lead by example. Simply drinking the Kool-Aid, even at the top is not enough. By all means use Maslow as a crutch for understanding the layers but if anyone thinks that an organization will suddenly leap from Level 2 Safety to Level 4 Esteem then they understand nothing about organizational or psychological development. You can have the cognitive understanding of an Einstein but unless that is matched by genuine behavioral change then social anything is going nowhere. Where to from here:

  • Education is not going to help. The world is full of well educated tyrants.
  • Holding up the examples of new businesses like Zappos does not work. There is nothing in the way a Zappos operates to which an existing businesses can relate. By all means explain the differences but leave it at that. Let management work through this for themselves. It might make a model for the future.
  • Tools are not going to help. No amount of layering social tools will encourage staff who are stuck unless they see those tools as a way of relieving stress that is not tied to concerns about management.
  • Talking about cultural change will not work. This is not about culture, it is about behavior. The two are related but different.
  • A continuing emphasis on top line performance wont work. Selling more by simply layering social elements does not work for the reasons outlined and a lot more besides.

My sense is that there is only one thing that truly shakes up established businesses: a crisis. Crises provide the window of opportunity for genuine change to take hold. SAP was faced with a crisis when it made changes at the top. The early results appear positive. Looking back in history, IBM almost collapsed in the early 1990s before bringing in new management. I can argue that H-P faced a crisis and is now looking to change. See where I am going?

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