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Blogs > Office Jotter

Defining social business
Roger Whitehead By: Roger Whitehead, Director, Office Futures
Published: 19th April 2012
Copyright Office Futures © 2012

The CustomerThink Web site is a discussion zone for people to debate matters of current business concern. It also publishes people’s blogs and articles.

A recent posting was from Joshua Paul of Socious, a supplier of social networking software. Entitled, “What is Social Business? A Clear Definition”, it threw open for debate the company’s working definition of social business, which is:

Social business is the ability for an organization to use its communities to improve its performance.

A revised definition

I thought Mr Paul’s definition lacked clarity in these areas:

  1. “Social business” implies action. His definition is only about potential. It needs rewording, to something like: “Social business is an organization’s use of its communities to improve its performance.”
  2. Organizations have been doing this since the beginnings of human society. What’s special these days is the use of computer networks to make it possible or easier. So, the second revision should read something like: “Social business is an organization’s use of its online communities to improve its performance.”
  3. Even that isn’t adequate, as it suggests that internal communities are all that count. Removing “its” does the necessary – “Social business is an organization’s use of online communities to improve its performance.”
  4. Finally, it’s not just about performance, however defined, but also about such characteristics as resilience, responsiveness and cohesiveness. Thus the (I thought) final revision: “Social business is an organization’s use of online communities to improve its capabilities and performance.”

Another commenter then made the point that offline communities need to be considered. This was implicit (see point 2, above), but for clarity I have reworded my definition to this:

Social business is an organization’s use of online with offline communities to improve its capabilities and performance.

Merging the offline and online

The big question is whether the organization is capable of setting up and running an online system that achieves this dual aim.

To do so would require it to:

• be aware of the existence and worth of the offline communities
• be aware of the potential worth of online communities, and
• encourage the constructive co-existence of the offline and online worlds.

I use "encourage" advisedly. Any compulsion or attempts to 'drive' anything to do with these communities would be to kill the golden goose of voluntary collaboration. Machismo is unhelpful here.

The unofficial organization

Before we had computers, the activities of offline communities were sometimes called 'the unofficial organization'. Senior managers were usually ignorant of its existence and effectiveness. Many managers even believed that the organization ran in accordance with official organization charts and operating manuals.

They usually didn't realise, for example, that orders got processed speedily only because, say, Sid in sales was friendly with Sally in accounts who lived near Bert in the loading bay, who knew Jenny in the customer’s goods receiving office. The four of them, and their networks of contacts, made sure things happened despite formal processes that were typically incomplete and out-of-date, sometimes self-contradictory.

It's no coincidence that when a British trade union threatens to "work to rule", the managers of the organizations involved know that life is going to become difficult. Both sides are aware that getting things done often demands working outwith the rules.

The unofficial organization still exists but these days uses online as well as offline means of communicating. Successful computer-mediated social networking accommodates those unofficial aspects.

Are today’s managers aware of that? Do they, explicitly or tacitly, acknowledge the existence and worth of the informal organization? Are they mature and wise enough not to try micromanaging those online and offline networks?

If managers do try to control these new networks closely, the unofficial organization will simply flow round the networks, diminishing or negating their potential value.

Decades ago, the sign that a new computer system wasn’t working was the continued presence in the supervisor’s desk drawer of his or her little black book. Today, the sign that a new social networking system isn’t working is the number of emails and telephone calls that people continue to make. These activities aren’t the target, any more than is reducing the number of spots on a measles sufferer; they’re a symptom.

From a different angle

In February 2011, Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM published a blog post entitled: “From e-business to Social Business”. In it, he said that IBM’s definition was this:

A Social Business embraces networks of people to create business value.

Well, up to a point. The trouble with that definition is, as above, the fact that all businesses, indeed all organizations, rely on networks of people to create business value. That has been so for centuries.

A more purposive definition, better suited to today's world, would perhaps be:

A social business uses computer-mediated networks of people to create business outcomes.

I've changed the last word because the average employee or even most networks have no control over whether those outcomes are worthwhile, over whether they "add value", in consultant-speak.

Outcomes will be emergent, in that they will not be predictable from their constituent parts. Some might be pleasant surprises, while others might not be welcome. Managers should be prepared to deal intelligently with them if they are not as expected.

I hope you find helpful these attempts at a definition. If you see matters differently, please let me know through the commenting system. I'd be glad to hear from you.

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