The social enterprise could be a reality

In this post, I reverse the position I took yesterday. Because I can. And because I want to show there are other possibilities.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

After I posted my social enterprise myth piece, a dear colleague got in touch and said:

Decades of serious research show that compensation isn't a significant motivator. Inadequate compensation is a demotivator. Not your best post. Look up the research going back to Herzberg. Watch Daniel Pink's video.

I did exactly that. As I pondered the research and video, I wondered how criteria related directly to motivation could be applied to the LinkedIn poll. At first blush it's quite hard because those types of question were not asked although the question could have been rephrased to say: What motivates you to stay in the job you currently hold? Choosing the same answers would likely have led to the same results. And therein lies a problem. As I said to my colleague, academics don't always get it right and in any event much depends on who you ask, what questions are presented and in what context. Academics will argue this is not a scientific poll and can be disregarded. Sometimes you just can't win. 

In this post I want to examine the other side of this argument, presenting what I think will be a compelling if difficult proposition for the future. 

The evidence that Pink points to feels compelling. The nub of his argument is that incentives of the bonus, commission, more salary variety do not necessarily correlate to better outcomes in tasks that require creativity. In some circumstances he argues, they lead to poorer outcomes. This has been proven through the application of the  Candle Problem and its variants. It is a problem that requires creative thinking but once you've seen the solution, it is self evident. Isn't that nearly always the case? 

Applying the principles underpinning the Candle Problem to the LinkedIn survey you could argue that this group are most likely characterised as people undertaking mundane, repeatable tasks that require very little creativity. I can imagine a fair few would take umbrage at that conclusion but that doesn't prevent the conclusion being unreasonable.  

In the video, Pink also points to companies like Atlassian and Google where the ability to do whatever the heck you like as a research idea in 20% of your time has led to some startling new products. In the case of Google, Pink asserts that some 50% of new products come out of this 20% free time. One of the inferences is that these products would not have existed if it had not been for employees' ability to do anything that takes their fancy. The problem with that is the examples used in the video are very specific to a creative kind of enterprise - software development.

Can the principles that underpin the social enterprise (i.e. openness, learning as a core principle, valuing the conversation) be applied to any business? That is a huge unknown. As I pointed to yesterday, Brian Sommer characterizes the players in some very large industries as 'ossified.'

That makes me think of Ray Wang's Tweetstream railing against United Airlines and especially following the Continental acquisition. Wang goes further in a post entitled  Best Practices: From First To Worst – Continental In A Post United World, Lessons In Next Gen Customer Experience. 

united not social
He puts the responsibility fairly and squarely on the shoulders of management saying:
In fairness to the crew on my recent journey to and from India, they were awesome.  They did their best with the utmost experience and professionalism. However, it was obvious the airline had taken away the tools to empower employees to deliver an awesome customer experience.

Wang's solution comes in five parts, only one of which relates directly to employees:

  1. Revisit listening to your customers. This doesn’t mean you respond to every complaint or comment. It means you understand what the root cause of the problem is and seek to address that cause.
  2. Understand that everything is public. In an age of social media it’s all public. You have to engage your customers. This means taking your understanding and involving them in the process. Show customers you are addressing the issue and also helping them understand your side of the story
  3. Stop resting on your laurels. Even the most loyal customers will bolt. Taking a customer for granted can be costly in not only money, time, but also publicity
  4. Listen to your employees. In 8 out of 10 cases, the employees know what’s going on and can provide the best feedback. In United and Continental’s case here, the failure to listen to employees is breaking the culture of the airline.
  5. Build an active community. An active and engaged community can provide United with the force multipliers to not only improve customer service, but also reduce costs. Giff Gaff in the UK has shown this with the mobile phone business. It’s a great example of getting the best of both worlds in Social Business.

At this point I doubt you'd find too many people arguing in general about United's service quality or how it has changed for the worse. But what about the employees? In the context of this argument, has Wang totally missed the point, attempting to boil the ocean instead of homing in on the one thing that could make things better? 

Using Pink's argument, this company should be on its knees if for no other reason than the fact that many of the comments heavily imply that United/Continental's management treat their employees in a horrible fashion. You could almost characterize United as not only ossified but anti-social. Yet it chugs on, having recently recorded increased revenue per passenger seat mile.

Let's try again. Vinnie Mirchandani bemoans the state of the IT industry generally arguing:

I see SAP and fans talk about nothing but HANA and the promise of SuccessFactors. How about better, faster, cheaper in the $ 75+ billion it and its partners already cost customers every single year?

Two companies with strong social characteristics yet we have a major problem? Go further. Maggie Fox talks about: SAP's Social Layer: Making Colaboration Real. In comments, Sameer Patel (disclosure: Patel and I were part of a team that delivered a small social project to SAP before he joined the company) says:

The second phase of social will require a mature appreciation for process, data, content and yes, people. I'm not denying that its a challange however, I think the problem with enterprise social 1.0 has precicely been this: jamming a dumb social layer into the organization and assuming that people will shift to this new work space just cause it looks more approachable.  I wont go into details about how we will execute but the true answer to a grown up version of social will only come from bringing all these componenets together. Any one who contends that social in the enterprise is as easy as what we see on the public social web hasnt really thought through what it will take to get enterprise social, right (not suggesting you are).

Now it's getting complicated but Patel is reflecting something I said years ago: content without context in process is meaningless but with the added twist of requiring the active participation of people. Let's get back to the people part of this equation. 

Pink's argument starts with the premise that we're trying to solve 21st century business problems with 20th century solutions. Where carrot and stick used to work, the values of autonomy (ability to choose what you do), mastery (getting bettter at something that matters) and purpose (doing something that's meaningful) need to be imbued into the corpporation. 

At one level this sounds terribly academic and altruistic. My natural inclinations are to agree wholeheartedly yet I see so many examples of the exact opposite. Mirchandani's focus illuminates the paradoxes we see over and over yet I think he is putting the cart before the horse. You simply cannot get any corporation let alone a large company to change broad patterns of behavior in a short space of time unless there is a clear motivation for them to do so. In other words you cannot run before you can walk. That requires, indeed demands, the active participation of a workforce willing, able and enthusiastic enough to see the purpose and meaning for those actions. For that to happen, you need the pre-conditions of at least stages one and two of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs operating in the workplace.

In that context people need to feel safe and secure in their jobs. No-one I know can realistically put their hands up and say that is the case right now, given the global impact of the recession. However, rather than wringing our collective hands and hoping for the best, I wonder whether there are examples where the changes needed to not only provide people with more motivation to do well AND deliver economic prosperity can be found? The answer is much closer to hand than you might think. 

On 4th July, Vishal Sikka, executive board member SAP wrote: Anniversaries: Looking Back and Looking Ahead. I recall smiling and thinking, you cannot fault the man's enthusiasm and passion. But in the piece is something that makes perfect sense in the context of the current discussion:

And, beyond non-disruptive renewal and experience, I believe that when data, knowledge and expertise from all of humanity is instantly available, the way we work and live can fundamentally change, and improve, in ways that are only limited by our own imagination. To rethink how we may work, if we don’t look at the future as an increment of the past, but as a construct that we can build, as Hasso [Plattner, co-founder SAP] says, with our knowledge, imagination and our conviction, a future that we deem to be desirable, feasible and viable.  So over the last year, we made a short movie, that we call “As We May Work” the name itself a tribute to Vannevar Bush’s great manifesto written after the second world war, “as we may think”.  I encourage you to take a look at this creation of our team’s collective imaginationA depiction of how work, life, commerce, problem-solving, purpose and other human endeavors, might be eased by more human technology, purposeful technology.  How technology could help us solve complex problems, construct important devices and artifacts, how technology can help us achieve shared perspectives across space, but also across time.  It is a labor of love, a work of art, and as with all works of art, some love it some don’t, but it leaves us all the richer for it.

(My emphasis added.)

If you have met Sikka or listened to any of his presentations these are the impressions I would expect anyone to describe: passion, feeling, enthusiasm, dedication, purpose. That is not the admix of characteristics we expect to see in today's leaders. But the very fact they can make us smile, perhaps even inspire rather than frown, speaks to the potential for motivastion of the kind that does deliver what, as Pink says, science knows, but business ignores. 

The trick is execution in a world that is driven by quarterly reporting and a dehumainsed view of corporate life. That is much tougher and again, in this context, I would argue that perhaps what we are seeing in the LinkedIn poll is not the characteristics that fuel motivation inside the workplace but more likely survival instincts. Can that be moved through 180 degrees? Yes. 

SAP is threatened. Seriously. Despite everything you see surrounding their financial success, upstarts are slowly gnawing away at their core business. They've become forced to rely on what will be declining maintenance streams in order to keep their Wall Street masters happy. Financial analysts zoom in on HANA performance because SAP has convinced them that is the way of SAP's future. On financial grounds. I'd much rather that they read and re-read Sikka's 4th July post, interpret that in terms of a macro economy and then assess what might happen. Or ask SAP's board how they plan to deliver on Sikka's vision. Or think about Mirchandani's post headline: Improving Incumbancy is the best 'Innovation.'

Any change will not happen overnight and will infuriate the Mirchandani's of this world who have been railing at large enterprise for years. But I supect that if SAP (and many others) grasp the essence and totality of motivation as science knows, then things could be very different.

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