‘Social Business’ is Past Retirement Age

When I was a first year doctoral student at Harvard Business School in 1994-5, we took a fascinating yearlong course called “Basic Readings in Administrative Theory” (OK, it was probably only fascinating if you were a geek). It involved reading close to a book a day, and touched on most of the major areas of business scholarship, including strategy, innovation, and org structure. The single biggest group of books and articles we read, though, had to do with business as a social system. More than 15 years later and off the top of my head, I can still remember that we covered:

I bring this up to make one point: the idea of a ‘social business,’ a hive mind guided by open leadership marshaling people, process, and technology, is not new. It’s been around for 80 years, and has been studied intently throughout that time. In contrast, Enterprise 2.0, which I’ve defined as the use of emergent social software platforms by organizations in pursuit of their goals, is a novel phenomenon.

This distinction matters. It matters because telling business decision makers “There are some important new (social) technologies available now, and they’ll help you address longstanding and vexing challenges you have” is very different than telling them “Business is social, and the more deeply you embrace that fact the better off you’ll be.”

The former sentence, I’ve found, is pretty effective at getting their attention. The latter one is less so, because I tell you with complete certainty that they’ve heard it many many times before. It’s a message that has been broadcast into the executive suite for fourscore years now. Sometimes it’s been delivered with great skill and clarity, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s been internalized and acted on, sometimes not. But the message has been heard so often that it’s faded into the background. I’ve found that the phrases “business is social” and “people, process, and technology matter” have lost most, if not all, of their power to persuade decision makers.

Most of us agree, though, that we need to persuade them that something really interesting is going on right now at the intersection of people, process, and technology. There’s a movement gaining momentum, and we should name it and talk about it in ways that will accelerate it. I don’t care much what the name is, but I care a great deal about the discussion.

“Should this movement be called ‘Social Business’ or Enterprise 2.0?'” is a dumb debate, and one I’m not going to participate in any more (here’s what I’ve said about it). Advocating something like “social business design should place technology at the very, very end, and people first” is both dumb and harmful, which means that a response is important. So here’s my response:

If you’re saying that people are important, that businesses are inherently social systems and that social dynamics matter for performance, your insight is about 80 years old. If you’re saying that businesses would be better served by becoming more social, you’re once again decades behind the frontier. Same thing if you’re advocating that leaders be more open and attuned to the cultures and conversations of their organizations and customers. Ditto with emphasizing people, process, and technology. Maybe it’s important to say these things once again and maybe it’s not, but no one should pretend that it’s novel.

What is novel is the digital toolkit available to help businesses and their leaders become more social, more open, more Theory Y, more Model 2, etc. In the 2.0 Era, these tools experienced a quantum leap forward, not an incremental improvement. Because business is so social, this quantum leap is a big deal. So the movement is, in no small part, about the technology. These are the central points of my work on Enterprise 2.0, which has been conveyed in articles, my book, and this blog.

This quantum change in technology is the reason that the Enterprise 2.0 conference, going on right now in Santa Clara, exists and has grown. It’s also why new companies like Jive, Socialtext, Spigit, Atlassian, Yammer, and many others exist, and why established enterprise software vendors including Microsoft, SAP, Salesforce, Novell, IBM, are making deep changes to their products (disclosures at end of post). It’s the reason that new professional services firms like Dachis Group and Altimeter Group are attracting interest and clients. It’s why the $250 million sFund was recently established, and why venture capitalist John Doerr said “If you don’t have a social strategy, you better go get one.” He didn’t say this because he suddenly realized that people were important and business was social. He said it because he saw how much opportunity there was to use the new social technologies to improve business.

I want to be clear: I am not asserting or implying that any these things happened because of my work. They’re happening because of the insights of the technologists that brought us into the 2.0 Era and continue to move us more deeply into it. All I did was try to describe what their disparate innovations had in common (hence the term ’emergent social software platform’) assert that they were both novel and powerful, and back up these assertions with theory and evidence.

And all I’m trying to do with this post is draw a sharp distinction between an old business topic and a new one. ‘Social business’ is the old one, and has the vitality and energy of most 80 year olds. There are much more interesting things to talk about.

Disclosures: I have been a compensated speaker at events held by Spigit, Salesforce, Microsoft, and SAP. I’ve received free use of cloud-based software from Jive and Socialtext. SAP is a sponsor of my center at MIT.