The S Word

by Andrew McAfee on December 14, 2009

I ended my talk at last month’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco (viewable here; free registration required) by trying to be cute: I gave advice about how to fail with E2.0. My goal, of course, was to talk about good practices by highlighting bad ones. I gave six bad ideas:

  • Declare war on the enterprise
  • Allow walled gardens to flourish
  • Accentuate the negative
  • Try to replace email
  • Fall in love with features
  • Overuse the word ‘social’

On the last point, I said this about ‘social’ as a descriptor for the technologies of Enterprise 2.0:

“It’s technically accurate… [but] I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to busy, pragmatic line managers inside organizations. The best thing it is is neutral… the worst thing it is is a sign that we’re going to use these tools to waste time, to goof off, to plan happy hour, to do all these social activities. The impression I get from people who make decisions… is ‘I’m not running a social club.  I’m trying to run a business here.’ ” (I accompanied this monologue with a picture intended to convey what flashes through an executive’s mind when he hears the word ‘social.’)

I was responding to a newish thread in the Webwide conversation about enterprise use of emergent social software platforms (ESSPs). I came across it in a post by Stowe Boyd:

In particular, Web 2.0 as a phenomenon is strongly tied to social tools — social networking, social media, and so on — in which the individual is primary, and asymmetric networks of relationships with other individuals form the principal mechanism for connection and information flow…

We need to switch our attention to the shifting nature of work itself, and how business needs to be reconsidered in a rapidly changing world (which includes a revolutionary social Web, notably)…

So, I have come to believe that this is the place where companies need to focus their attention: socializing the business, not adoption of Web 2.0.

And in the mission statement of the newly-formed Dachis Group:

Social Business Design is the intentional creation of dynamic and socially calibrated systems, process, and culture. The goal: improving value exchange among constituents.

Blogger and do-er Euan Semple posted that he’s in favor of ‘social business’ as both a movement and a term, and describes my “Enterprise 2.0″ as “too narrow, too corporate and too managerial”

Which would sting if it weren’t accurate. My definition is narrow, corporate, and managerial, and I’m glad to have it labeled as such. I think it’s both prudent and responsible to be circumspect about one’s claims, and I think it’s neither to assert that the old rules of society, culture, or business no longer apply because of the appearance of a network, some software that sits of top of it, and a large number of (primarily younger) people who like using it. As I wrote a little while back, Enterprise 2.0 is not THAT big a deal.

But whether or not it’s a big deal, it’s not going to be ANY deal until ESSPs and their attendant practices make their way inside organizations. And the point I was trying to make in my talk, and the one I still believe, is that keying the message / sales pitch / marketing / education effort around the word ‘social’ is a bad idea.

I didn’t know it at the time, but CEO Marc Benioff evidently agrees with this. According to an article in The Industry Standard:

Salesforce was careful to position [its new offering] Chatter as a collaboration tool, not a “social this or social that” because there’s such a glut of social networking tools, [Benioff] said, and customers are more willing to pay for collaboration software.

“We really want to talk about collaboration, because that really is a budget item for our customers,” Benioff said…

Another Salesforce co-founder, Executive Vice President of Technology Parker Harris, also stayed on message with the collaboration concept in a talk with ZDNet editors (see video below). “I think about our platform as a collaboration platform,” Harris said. “You’re building applications to collaborate around data in the enterprise on a trusted system.”

The article points out that Chatter at present looks very much like Facebook-ish social software, but Benioff and his colleagues were taking pains to describe it and its value using narrow, corporate, managerial words. Does anyone want to make the case that these guys don’t know how to convince organizations to adopt new tools?

What do you think? Is social a helpful or harmful word when talking to enterprises and their managers about the new digital tools and the business practices that make use of them?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Ameliaded May 24, 2011 at 2:53 am

You are right – pitching into the enterprise world using the word social
is not going to work. But what is going on is inherently social and
who’s pitching? Aren’t we just helping them understand what is going to
happen to them eventually anyway – whatever we call it.

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You are smart guy you might appreciate the negative meanings and irony. But not everybody does. I hope you managed to get your message across with ease.

Feytrek June 7, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I believe comes from the typical mindset of most business sorts, the ‘number cruncher’ type. Businesses are to be concerned with growth (a number), profit or return on investment (a number), or some other number not mentioned

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