Move over Enterprise 2.0, it's now Social Business Design

Given the relatively friendly pounding I took over my Enterprise 2.0 - what a crock post, it's gratifying to see that it has stirred some interesting interpretations and thoughts on the topic.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Given the relatively friendly pounding I took over my Enterprise 2.0 - what a crock post, it's gratifying to see that it has stirred some interesting interpretations and thoughts on the topic. That's always good and especially pleasing when one considers that most blog posts are the equivalent of digital fish wrap: something that's readily disposable and as forgettable as yesterday's news. But all frivolity aside, this is a serious business, one that is consuming a lot of cycles and will be chewing up much consulting time as different firms make plays in this space. I'd hate to think user companies are wasting their money along the way when there are so many important things driving IT's attention. The good  news is that at last, a few well intentioned people have moved the conversation forward to something I can understand, even though I remain far from convinced.

First up is Stowe Boyd, who, in commenting on my polemic said:

The world in which work exists has changed fairly drastically in recent years, and so we are seeing a fundamental reset in the nature of work. On a secondary level, this translates into changes in how people communicate, coordinate, and collaborate, and this, then, leads to changes in information technology and related practices. Note, however, that talking about the secondary effects of these global business and social changes in and of themselves is, from my point of view, not a very illuminating exercise at the best, and at the worst, completely misleading.

In a way, you could interpret Den[n]is’ polemic as making a similar point, but I don’t think that his perceptions are based on the sense of a sweeping change in the world of business, but rather the views that the timeless nature of business operations have nothing to do with knowledge management.

That's a moderately accurate assessment of my position though the only reset I see comes in the length of the dole queue. I don't see the sweeping changes of which Stowe speaks but a protectionism on the part of employees hoping they won't be pink slipped any time soon. But then I'm aware that Stowe's approach is based on what appears to be a political agenda exemplified in this part of his post:

In essence, forward-looking companies will devise something like a constitution and a bill of rights that attempt to lay out a worldview about the purpose of the firm, what it stands for, how it will treat its customers, what is expected from employees, and what the social contract between the company and individuals — employees and customers — is.

That's problematic at many levels. I've never walked into a company yet where the democratic ideals of which Stowe speaks are even vaguely evident. I keep coming back to what motivates people. It sure ain't no sense of altruism towards their fellow man. If it was then we wouldn't have the whiff of fraud immediately prior to the Dell acquisition of Perot Systems. Or the cynical use of TARP funds to line top bankers' pockets or the 199 subprime related lawsuits. Or the asinine emails I get from people only caring about an SAP Certification because it might mean a huge paycheck somewhere down the line. Or the almost complete failure by governments to convince many of us that global warming is a reality we need to deal with on anything other than economic grounds. Here's what I mean:

Much as I admire the tenacity and work of social activists of which our own James Farrar is one, I can't help but think that the notion of appealing to people's sense of social conscience is an enterprise dead end. This is something James understands only too well. So for instance when I see that Redmonk's James Governor is putting his weight behind Responsible Enterprise 2.0 I find myself wishing they'd drop the 2.0 bit. Haven't we seen that enterprise has been anything but responsible the last 10-15 years? I also wish I could see a strong sense of realism in the opening arguments. As someone who in another guise is deeply concerned about the accounting profession and its paucity of ethics, I truly admire people who take the moral and ethical high ground. Of itself that won't command management attention. There have to be clear, consistent proofs that sustainable and responsible business IS good for the pocketbook. This is a generational problem that won't be solved in the next 5, 10 or even 20 years. Unless Armageddon strikes - as it did on 9/11 with the current outcomes that Andrew McAfee eloquently describes.

Technology may accelerate the adoption of some of the ideals but it will only come when people see it is in their economic interests to do so. It isn't that difficult to understand but a nightmare for management to take on board unless either driven or forced to do so.

Oliver Marks recognizes the problem only too well. In his discussion about social business, Oliver says:

The ‘new normal’ of technology and business decentralization is arguably coalescing around an open knowledge model online. Cohen quotes this line from Thomas W. Malone’s book The Future of Work:

“But one aspect of the future is less certain: Will this be a world that is not only more efficient economically, but also better for the people who live in it?”

This sounds remarkably like a political call to action, democracy style. All great democratic parties rely on strong leadership and vision which instills belief and confidence - and to get there a core team has to design a system that will answer big questions like the one above. Answering that question with a highly specific strategy and roadmap of how to get there is the path for future great companies.

Wow - I can almost hear the trumpets of collective victory being sounded and maybe Oliver is right but I believe after years of talking about this stuff we're miles off getting it right. Until you can truly reverse Nielsen's 90/9/1 rule of participation inequality it's hard to see how the social dial shifts perceptibly in the direction Stowe and others believe is upon us.

Then we have Jevon MacDonald, an Irregular who is now a partner at Dachis Group. In his post entitled: The Attention Question in Social Business, Jevon concludes:

We need to stop designing tools and platforms which are simply meant to allow people to connect, share and collaborate more. In doing this we are being incredibly irresponsible with the resource we value most. Instead we need to design for business intent and utilize our efficiencies as tools to help solve real business problems.

It is only by creating more efficient ways for workers to do the job they are expected to do that we can create the space and time they need in order to create emergent outcomes. This applies not only to software, but strategy as well. As people become more efficient through the use of Social Business tools, the surplus attention that they create needs to be protected through policy.

It is only through the application of both technological and strategic efforts that you can do both, and that we can avoid falling victim to Jevons’ Paradox.

The tech point is well made, the echoes of Google's free time obvious, but the supporting argument suggests a lack of understanding in some areas and is almost totally devoid of any factual evidence.

I pinged Jevon on the Twitter back channel indicating that efficiency is only part of the issue. You'll find armies of SAP, Oracle, IBM and other process engineers nodding furiously at this idea because it is not new. Process efficiency is top and center in the minds of those trying to eek out the value they thought they'd achieved with ERP but have only partially realized. Business process engineering is big business and rightly so. Standard ERP software has maybe reached 30-40% of what a business really needs to be process efficient let alone effective. Even our good friends at SAP will admit to that, agreeing there is no way a single software company can (currently and maybe not in my lifetime) blanket all industry processes but trying nonetheless to develop an ecosystem that will fill the white spaces. What on earth the social business design people think they're going to achieve that's any better is a mystery to me.

Here's a big part of the problem. When we all embarked on the technology driven ERP journey sometime around 1991-2 it was predicated on the idea of business process re-engineering as articulated by Michael Hammer. At least that was the theory. Hammer's ideas however were bastardized and BPR became a byword for cost reduction. That was a great seller and spawned the consulting industry's meteoric growth in the 90's. However, it lead to a string of failures that to this day keep Mike Krigsman busy with tales of woe. If we look back to 1993, Hammer had plenty to say about the topic citing 19 reasons for BPR failure:

  1. Trying to fix a process instead of changing it
  2. Not focusing on business processes
  3. Ignoring everything except process redesign [e.g. reorganisation, reward system, labour relationships, redefinition of responsibility and authority]
  4. Neglecting people's values and beliefs [need to reward behaviour that exhibits new values and behaviour]
  5. Be willing to settle for minor results
  6. Quitting too early
  7. Placing prior constraints on the definition of the problem and the scope for re-engineering effort.
  8. Allowing existing corporate cultures and management attitudes to prevent Reengineering from getting started. [e.g. consensus, short termism, bias against conflict]
  9. Trying to make Reengineering happen from the bottom up
  10. Assigning someone who doesn't understand Reengineering to lead the effort.
  11. Skimping on the resources to Reengineer
  12. Burying Reengineering in the middle of the corporate agenda.
  13. Dissipating energy across a great many Reengineering projects.
  14. Attempting to Reengineer when the CEO is 2 years from retirement
  15. Failing to distinguish Reengineering from other business improvement programs [e.g. quality improvement, strategic alignment, right-sizing, customer-supplier partnerships, innovation, empowerment, etc.]
  16. Concentrating exclusively on design [forgetting implementation]
  17. Trying to make Reengineering happen without making anyone unhappy.
  18. Pulling back when people resist making Reengineering changes
  19. Dragging the effort out [1 year is long enough]

A few years into spending billions of dollars on ERP and Hammer had already identified failings. 16 years on and what have we learned? Very little because as some of us know, companies of all kinds make irrational technology decisions with which they have to live.

In the current quest to find memes and meaning to whatever Enterprise 2.0 is supposed to represent I'm getting a strong sense of deja vue. I suspect that Stowe, Oliver and Jevon are quietly acknowledging that despite Andrew McAfee's best efforts, the movement is publicly devoid of much that is meaningful except in terms of some fanciful and politicized world of Gen Y'ers being allowed to run riot. OK - that's harsh given that there are successes and value to be found. But...moving the moniker to the next fashionable thing: social business design doesn't solve the underlying problems of irrational business decisions predicated on marketing promise or the fundamental difficulties that management faces when trying to bring change.

Instead of listening to the siren sound of the next meme's drumbeat by self interested activists, how about getting back to some basics? It's old fashioned perhaps but it works. How about fixing the things that are already broken rather than trying to impart forced march change? That's in essence what Stewart Mader was saying in his guest post here last week:

What has worked for me, time and time again, is to work my way through an organization team by team, department by department, and find out what day to day problems people want to solve.

He's a busy guy and it's easy to understand why. How about looking at the problem of barely repeatable processes as my pal Sig Rinde has been quietly doing this last few years? That's where real, sustainable value is unlocked. Not in some outward facing social media campaign.

In closing I want to say something about emergent behaviors and outcomes. This is where I think the theorists are all over the map. Management hates uncertainty and talking about social this and that in the same breath as emergence is selling daydreams. By putting the tech first but giving it a social dimension they often look like a solution trying to find a problem. Viewed through this lens it makes sense to turn these ideas upside down. Instead of thinking about grand designs (which by the way will be as welcome as turkeys voting for Christmas and Thanksgiving) keep it simple. I can buy simple, identifiable solutions to internal problems. I can let those solutions increment so that what emerges is a changed organization. I can let those solutions quietly help to rebuild the shattered trust so many employees feel but are often afraid to articulate. I don't need tech for that - I've got it in abundance as Jevon rightly says. I need a different type of engineer - a business mentor capable of understanding the DNA of each business with which I interact. That's the job of educators, organizational social psychologists and wise managers.

In the meantime, the idea of sticking some cute sounding social business design cum BPR Band-Aid on this topic from folk I am sure are well intentioned will not fly.

Update - Michael Idinopulos has a terrific riposte to my earlier piece. I wonder if in reading this he will see that we're not that far apart.

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