Putting social back into business

The concept of a social organisation can solve real business problems but success will require a change in traditional management behaviours and techniques.

A few people have asked me about the applicability of the social organisation to business. They are of the opinion that anything with the moniker ‘social’ is associated with societal or ‘soft’ issues rather than solving real business problems.

When I asked why, they mention that the many of the examples of social media involve causes like sustainability, finding organ donors, organising local communities, etc. This has led them to believe that social media and a social organisation does not apply to business or other forms of economic activity.

I can see how they have come to that view, but its incomplete. I believe that part of this view is based on an assumption that business requires a lose-win exchange. You lose while the company you work for wins. That type of relationship is possible and perhaps prevalent in most companies. Just because it happens does not mean that it has to be that way or that a lose-win exchange is the only way a business works.

Leaders are learning how to use mass collaboration, underpinned by social media, to change that equation. They are showing how a social organisation is a real business organisation that finds new and innovative ways to create business and societal value.

Creating a more comprehensive set of value requires changing traditional management behaviours and techniques that include:

1. Envisioning business solutions that go beyond ‘doing more with less.’

That form of denominator management thinking is satisfying in the short run, but rarely delivers value and year over year value associated with innovation and being different in ways that matter to customer and the market.

2. Recognising that hierarchy and bureaucracy rarely creates innovation as it is heavily invested in the status quo.

It is easier to squeeze suppliers, sweat assets and starve employees when authority flows top down.The only problem is that competency, capability and capacity flow bottom-up and side-to-side. You need engagement of a large group of people to create meaningful results. Engage them in new ways that are not just another representation of a corporate task force.

3. Understanding that in order to gain engagement they need to share responsibility for results but ’let go’ of the means to achieve those results.

Control and collaboration are two ideas that go together like ‘lamb and tuna fish’ you need to recognise the need to relax the former in order to get more of the latter.

4. Thinking and defining the business issue — the purpose — in a way that is attractive to the individual, the group and the organisation.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge and the area where you can get the impression that a social organisation can only tackle soft issues.

Leaders are creating social organisations by recognising these points as they deploy social media technologies in support of mass collaboration.  Here are a few examples.

Balancing organisational realties against operational needs

An organisation is highly decentralised in order to make it flexible, adaptive and closer to the customer.  But decentralisation increased costs and reduces the company’s buying power with suppliers. Attempts to create shared service organisations have been rejected as the first step down the ‘slippery slope’ of consolidation and the destruction of local autonomy. Leaders needed a way to get the benefits of scale without compromising the benefits of their decentralised organisation structure. How do they do that?  They create collaborative communities that socially build a coordinated response through collaboration rather than forcing through a reorganisation.

Value creation without violating regulatory restrictions

An organisation wants to enhance its value proposition by sharing its knowledge and experience with customers only to be find that such a relationship violates regulations seeking to protect customers from undue influence or manipulation. The challenge is how to make products and services more valuable by creating more knowledgeable customers without falling on the wrong side of regulation?

How do you do that?  

You create collaborative communities of customers where they can share their experiences, insights and knowledge to help each other. They monitor the environment for abuse, but they have extended the value of their offerings in ways that benefit customers and preserve their independence.

Making my job easier makes everyone better

An group of plant technicians support multiple factories around the country. Each plant is a little different, having its own unique configurations, ways of working and idiosyncrasies. Technicians move from plant to plant installing, maintaining and repairing equipment. While each change is minor, each project changes the plant configuration a little bit requiring technicians to relearn the plant and equipment layout and in some cases technicians have to rebuild a project in a way that they understand. The challenge is how to capture the contextual and unstructured information a technician needs to be successful?

In this example, technicians create a collaborative environment where they keep notes about their project, how they did it, problems they had to overcome and the configuration of what they did. Often using video shot by their own smart phones, technicians can quickly understand the work done to date, the reasons why it was done a particular way and in that way make their life and the lives of every technician a little easier. Not only are the technicians more productive, they make fewer errors and the quality of their work improves.

These examples provide small illustrations of mass collaboration and its ability to benefit both the individual and the organisation. Coordinated decision making, creating customer value without compromising regulatory restrictions and raising the productivity and quality of work are all solid business issues — issues that social organisations tackle in new and innovative ways that engage people.

Yes the term social means people, but that does not preclude social from also meaning business.

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs.

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