Salesforce keeps on rockin in the free world

At Dreamforce 2011 Marc Benioff rolled out an exciting prospect for a social 'corporate spring'. But what is a truly social enterprise and is Salesforce itself one? Can citizens and companies tap into the power of social to overcome the resistance of incumbency?
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

I finally caught up with the Dreamforce 2011 keynotes on YouTube over the weekend. What a show! Marc Benioff, was in rare form recasting Salesforce as 'born in the cloud, reborn social'. He drew heavily on the excitement of the 'Arab spring' to suggest a coming era of the 'corporate spring'. Neil Young himself (yes, he of the 'this note's for you' controversy) was on hand to endorse Chatter and also get behind the ideals of a more democratic form of capitalism brought about the invisible hand of the crowded source. Watch the Neil Young segment here.  (cue up to 15:00)

'... Arab spring was a real shocker for everybody and ...what you mentioned ..... about a kind of an Arab Spring for companies, for CEOs and leaders who are not in contact with their people, there's something there. I got a little chill when you were talking about that...... I think it will improve everything. I feel good about it.'

Neil Young is no shrinking violet himself when it comes to activism and his 1989 hit, Rockin' in the Free World, has become an anthem for social and environmental activists everywhere. The third verse of the song is the most vivid:

We got a thousand points of light For the homeless man We got a kinder, gentler, Machine gun hand We got department stores and toilet paper Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.

The song was a critique of it's times with the reference to 'a thousand points of light' a dig at George H W Bush's vision of a civil society taking care of itself through philanthropy and self help with the government taking a back seat. Roll forward 20 years and the Points of Light Foundation is handing out awards to Salesforce in recognition of excellence in community engagement and the innovative 1/1/1 model of integrated philanthropy. Oh, how the world turns.

All credit due to Marc Benioff for leading the industry with his foundational committment of Salesforce donating 1% of time, 1% of equity and 1% of net income to non profits. As we've seen with others in the industry, its relatively easy to write a tax reliefed check but to take the extra effort to deploy the technology and back it iup with talent and money is what sets Salesforce apart. In Eric Schmidt's keynote he gave Benioff full recognition for inspiring Google's similarly found social mission.

So while Dreamforce 2011 was a theatrical spectacle - I certainly recommend taking time out to watch the keynotes - I'm left with more questions than answers about the 'social enterprise'. What exactly is a social enterprise beyond some level of it's IT enablement? How does the idea of benevolence and philanthropy fit with a new social contract between a more democratic enterprise and a more inclusive society? Does it level out or shore up incumbency? How does the 1/1/1 model change in anticipation of the 'corporate spring'? What corporate social pressures is Salesforce experiencing and how will it respond? Does it become itself more transparent and open? Does its governance adapt to the new deal? Salesforce has championed compassionate capitalism but can it broaden the boundaries to outline a more democratic form of capitalism also?

To define a social enterprise and its evolved corporate governance is a thought leadership mandate that Benioff must take up. In Dreamforce 2011, we understand the inbound social pressures and we are introduced to the next generation social platform salesforce has built around the customer relationship but there is still a huge vacuum to fill. And then there's the question of whether just being social is enough to overcome incumbency to drive a real social revolution with real reforming outcomes. Even Schmidt injected a surprising level of caution about this in his keynote. (cue up to 44:25)

One of the things I've learned about the internet, by the way, is that everyone feels like they're being heard .... and nothing changes. So the good new is, you can be heard. But that's no longer the criteria by which activism should be judged. It should be judged based on outcomes.

Last year I attended the Washington Idea's Forum where Eric Schmidt examined the problem of structural incumbency of all kinds and even fielded questions if Google too had started to become an incumbency in its own right. And maybe it is the power of incumbency for both Google and Salesforce that sets up such a strange contradiction where both champion a strong social mission for their services and corporate philanthropy efforts yet have resisted transparency of their own corporate sustainability footprint.

But there are signs that things are changing here too. Last week Google finally broke ranks with Facebook & Amazon to publish their carbon and energy footprint for the first time. And though independent sustainability analyst firm Verdantix has been critical of Salesforce saying they 'cannot ignore the closing jaws of mandatory carbon reporting indefinitely', Verdantix has recognised that Salesforce is 'getting smarter about sustainability communications'. Indeed, last year Salesforce completed its first voluntary disclosure to the Carbon Disclosure Project.

I take it as a really positive sign that Salesforce has arranged its own British invasion of sorts with JP Rangaswami, Kevin Marks and Simon Mulcahy all recently joining. All three understand the true promise of social and can lend big ideas to help Salesforce overcome any risk of it ever becoming stuck in the considerable success of it's own incumbency as far as sustainability and corporate responsibility is concerned. 

Incumbency is the enemy of innovation and of sustainability. Google and Salesforce must not only raise the social white smoke, but also provide the example, thought & tech leadership for the vision of a truly social, social enterprise to become a reality. Maybe then people will people be not only heard on the internet but also have the means to achieve just outcomes. Now watch this. Rock on.

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