The social enterprise is a myth

We're told that millennials look for different things to those of older generations and that we need change inside companies to retain talent. Survey results suggest otherwise.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

There is a fascinating ongoing poll at LinkedIn that asks the following question:

What is the most important factor that keeps you in your current role?

The illustration at the top shows the overall results but it is only when you break down those same results by age group that you get a better sense of how different age groups respond.

Warning: these results have to be read with some caution because they rely on individual LinkedIn profile data and not everyone completes those to the extent necessary for this poll analysis to be wholly accurate. In this case, only 47% of respondents have included their age. Even so, there are enough responses in the reported 18-29 age group to start drawing inferences. (33% of the total that report their age.) However, this should be tempered by the fact that this group is wholly self selecting and took the time to provide an answer.

age group result
And guess what? Contrary to everything that social enterprise wonks tell us, salary and career progression come out way above other factors for this group. Should that surprise? No.

I have had this argument with many 'social anything' promoters and the question I always raise is: 'When people come into a particular company, what are they really looking for?' I get a multitude of answers but they almost always center around the idea that somehow, people want to replicate their private lives through access to social tools, they want drop dead simple solutions with which to do their job all wrapped up in a great company culture that values ongoing learning. I argue this is the wrong answer. 

Instead, I argue that new hires want exactly what I see in this chart -  a great salary and the opportunity to progress (i'e. enhance position and paycheck.) They may think that what the social crowd says is what they'll get but that doesn't happen in the real world. It is only as people get older that they value things like work life balance more than other factors. I equally argue that in order to advance one's career, the one thing that will absolutely hold people back is being disruptive in any way. The pressure to conform is strong in many companies and even more so in uncertain times where holding onto a job comes above pretty much everything else. 

Recently, I checked in with one of our grandchildren who is 22 and works in a call center. The company uses an SAP system which he describes as 'crap' because it takes forever to do things. I asked how this affects his ability to do the job. The answer was not surprising. 'You find ways to work around the 50 odd clicks needed to get something done.' I asked whether a better system would be welcome. That question had never occurred to him and again it doesn't surprise.

Contrary to what I hear from 'social anything' folk, the vast majority of people go to work to get paid and hopefully advance their careers. They're not sitting around pondering how much better the workplace could be if only they had the latest shiny new social toy. 

Now check the following graph for the 45+ age group:

45 age group
Once again, salary comes out on top although now, we see work/life balance as the second most important thing that people value for keeping them in their job. That doesn't surprise either given the current economic uncertainty. The only age group where company culture tops the results is in the 37-44 age group. Even there, career progression is a close second. Training and development is consistently the lowest ranked factor for all age groups. 

What I am seeing in these results is a repeat of the past. If I put on my 'fresh out of school' hat on and think about the things that mattered at that time, I would have chosen the same as the 18-29 group. The same goes for choices I would make in every age group in this poll with the exception of the 45+ age group where I would have valued company culture first and work life balance second. 

The 'social anything' crowd know that in order to bring change, company culture and top leadership buy in are critical to success in bringing that change. However, when I hear the hard luck stories around social adoption and change I am left thinking that it is often the second and third tier management that are truly critical. Yet this is the group that is the most resistant. Why? This survey would seem to provide the bones of an alternative argument. 

That is, if salary and career progression are consistently top of the pops across age groups then how are you going to behave in the real world? The answer is self evident. You will do everything possible to preserve the status quo. It is only after you have achieved your work goals that attention goes elsewhere. 

Where does this leave us? The ongoing debate about the effectiveness of 'social everything' seems to have skewed in favor of those who seek to maximise the impact on the final consumer. In other words, it has become another marketing tool. However, its real effectiveness is questionable when the dominant platform is Facebook which in turn has an advertising business model and which has seen brands walk away because they don't find it as effective as the social crowd would have them believe. 

I believe that in order for any business to become social in the way that many suggest, you have to start from the inside. You have to think about developing behaviors which encourage the taking on of social with the obvious rider that there has to be something in it for the person tasked to behave in a more social manner. That would imply the building of a learning culture where the customer and employee truly matter and where the default advertising model is challenged. 

Unfortunately, that is not what we see in the real world. If anything, Brian Sommer's description of the 'ossified' corporation seems far more likely to be the case. And if you believe that to be true then is it any surprise that the LinkedIn poll provides the results that it does?

Of course you can always argue that since we don't have all the age related data, overall results are the only ones that matter, regardless of age and that therefore my argument is full of holes. You can also argue that I have implied answers to questions that were not raised. I think that second argument is harder to make stand up. I am suggesting that despite the rallying cry of the 'social everything' crowd, the results jibe with the past. In other words, nothing much has changed, even for those who can be regarded as social in the sense they have a LinkedIn profile and are active enough that they want to know the answer to the question posed. 

In the meantime - what would you say? Do the findings of this poll connect with what you know or experience in your current job?  

Editorial standards