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The Social Business Paradox

Yesterday I responded to Dennis Howlett’s post on how the impact of social media on business is over-stated.

From a customer-facing standpoint, I disagree.

Inside the enterprise, however, where social business should move initiatives, products, and plans forward, its impact is often less demonstrable. While Howlett looks specifically at the link between internal activities and outward initiatives, he brings up an interesting point for enterprises that are looking to get more from their social tools:

“It’s a massive disconnect between what happens internally with social tools and the expectations of management attempting to foster social business to the outside world. You only have to look at the way some people warn about the use of social tools at the individual level to understand the paradox.”

Howlett wonders if social business is a paradox. While I don’t think so, it’s apparent that enterprises aren’t living the social dream. Here’s where the riff starts: there’s a fundamental difference between what “social” is addressing inside the enterprise and how it’s handling customer engagement. Internally, its focus should be on the actual work getting done, but social business applications just haven’t been that good at addressing this. They are either extensions of the water cooler (offering a lot of chit chat) or repositories of info that get lost in the clouds. The problem is the information doesn’t really go anywhere that’s really useful to the business.

Charlene Li of Altimeter recently released a report (“Making The Business Case For Enterprise Social Networking”) which looks at how these networks can create value for their organizations.

Li surveyed and interviewed over 185 professionals from various industries and seems to give their efforts a “C” grade at best, citing “mixed results”. Organizations are either “at a loss to understand value” or deploying networks only to see “initial enthusiastic reception” wane over time. Not so hot.

Correctly, Li asserts that it’s all about the understanding the relationships and how these networks 1. Encourage sharing 2. Capture knowledge 3. Enable action and 4. Empower employees. Bravo! I just wished she’s ordered it a bit differently. Here’s my thinking: 1. Empower employees with tools, training and support, 2. Capture knowledge 3. Share that knowledge with the team and, 4. Enable action.

Importantly, all of these need to thrive for a social business to show results. If you enable your employees but have no process then you’re left with just a vision. If you capture knowledge but don’t share it then you’re left with silos of trapped information. If you collaborate but don’t tie it to a set of actions then you’re left with an unfulfilled plan.

As Li states “[they] represent a new way to communicate and form relationships — and because of that, can bridge gaps that exist in terms of information sharing and decision-making processes.”

Yet, what’s required is going a step further. Building success around final outcomes helps organizations leap over what Li points out as major hurdles: lack of perceived value and continued enthusiastic use. Success begets success. Ultimately we all want to answer this question: “What did I do today?”

With these elements in place, social business is not oxymoronic but facilitates the progress of everyday work and the foundation for some pretty exciting outcomes.