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Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next! – Chris Heuer


Guest post by Chris Heuer, CEO, Alynd (@chrisheuer)

When I heard Marc Benioff was giving up on pursuit of “Social Enterprise” as the focus of Salesforce’s marketing, I  remarked to my Deloitte colleagues that “Social Business has won the day.” I felt vindicated after being an early proponent advocating for organizations to become Social Businesses, believing that IBM’s marketing might would be the catalyst to consolidate the movement around this language and meaning.

Six months after leaving Deloitte to start a Social Business consulting network and now a Social Business SaaS company, I find myself eating my words, though we are only changing the positioning not the actual services or software concept. Through my conversations with colleagues and executives at large enterprises, the words Social Business have not struck the right chord with leaders. The movement has failed to earn their faith, trust and budgets in a significant way. While the ideas behind the moniker are invaluable in defining the future of work, most large companies simply aren’t buying into or investing in Social Business transformation efforts in more than a piecemeal sort of way

Despite having a legion of analysts and advocates connected by and promoting the #socbiz hashtag, I believe it is time to proclaim that Social Business is dead, or at least dying before our very eyes. I am not alone in this position, having discussed this at length with my AdHocnium and Alynd colleagues. In fact, while arguing that Social Business isn’t dead in a post from January of this year, friend and well regarded analyst Michael Fauscette in effect reaches a very similar conclusion as mine. While Stowe Boyd still remains an ardent supporter of the impact and power of social in the enterprise as he notes in this GigaOm post citing McKinsey’s Social Economy report, I think it’s just time for us to find a phrase that is more attractive to corporate leadership.

It’s not that the ideas are losing or that the goals are without merit, they are. The problem is that the deeper meaning and richer context is being lost on executives who still think the word “social” indicates a frivolous time-wasting pursuit. To them, it’s about what someone ate for lunch. Or it’s that thing their teenagers do to ignore them at the dinner table. Despite the Arab Spring, the customer revolution and an increasingly connected society which turns to Twitter with every earthquake or news event, the idea of being a Social Business has failed to break through the care barrier in most C-Suites.

Indeed, as I have heard from executives in charge of billion dollar lines of business, they “have people for that”. They have yet to see the bigger opportunity to seize competitive advantage or the risk to their business. It’s as if they were frogs being put into a pot of cold water being slowly brought to a boil. It’s not so painful that they need to make a massive investment to transform their organizations. They continue to make money and operate as they always have. That is the problem. The old model of organizational design and profit making is obsolete but it hasn’t yet completely or visibly failed for the people in charge.

If you talk to the Humans-who-are-called-Resources however, you would learn that corporations failed them long ago. Those on top looking down don’t see it or feel it of course. Or maybe it’s that they don’t want to see it. They are managing by spreadsheet. The cells holding the numbers serving as lenses into their world, unaware that they are merely shadows of the true reality cast on cave walls. In the view of too many executives, people are truly cogs in their machines of profit and luxury, fungible resources that can be easily swapped out or replaced as needed. Meanwhile, those ‘resources’ feel a sad truth to the phrase ‘getting chewed up and spit out by the machine.”

While using a different lens to reach this conclusion, further support of this assertion comes from a great un-bylined post on the Enterprise 2.0 Blog which concluded “Social Enterprise 2013/14 is the twilight of the over-hyped social business story but the dawn of the management (r)evolution.”

What happened? What’s happening?

In a world that is driven by leaders seeking to create, get ahead of, or respond to market trends and the latest buzz, Social Business has never really broken free. Whenever asked to name an exemplar of a great social business, or someone doing it well, most analysts struggle. “No one is completely there yet.” “Ford and IBM are getting close.” “Most orgs are seeing a spiky success, great in one area and lacking in others.” Kind of hard to build a movement of world changing proportions without a poster child or at least a way to simply explain the key outcomes being posited.

My bet on IBM was, in part, based on its success with eBusiness. Missing in my assessment was the realization of the complexity of the Social Business story. Being an eBusiness was simply about getting online to sell your stuff – if you didn’t do it, you were going to lose your position in the market. Social Business is about being more social, more connected, more human and so much more. By being more connected and transparent, we increase the flow of information inside and across the organization. By being more authentic and empathetic, we can increase trust with our peers and our clients. For the acolytes, becoming a social business is about the future of business, and how great everything could be if we fixed what’s wrong with the status quo. For others, who don’t have a clear view of what a successful Social Business looks like, its just another management fad with which they can’t be bothered with beyond the marketing department.

The trouble is, that even my description above, while better than some I have read, is still grasping at straws, or more aptly, it’s merely several statements made by the blind men describing the elephant. While true, its still about so much more, and it requires a more holistic view to truly understand the importance and value. Ayelet Baron recently delivered a great presentation on this subject entitled “Unlocking the Future of Work” that addresses the many other facets of what is needed for us to find our success in fixing what in my mind is most broken in large organizations. Hint: it’s a lot more than putting in some new social technology, and it’s much harder to ‘fix’ – it involves people!

The market leaders in the 21st century will need to focus on modernizing talent management, operational systems and organizational models for a fully connected society, where the social physics are fundamentally different than the one we lived in just over a decade ago. It starts with treating all people, especially those on the lowest rungs of the corporate ladder, with dignity and respect. It requires new systems of processed and technologies that are logical, sensible and fault tolerant. It requires leaders to govern their organizations much more transparently to earn the trust of ALL stakeholders, This is compounded by a need for the organizations be more agile, so that they may respond in real time to both opportunities and threats, and to empower employees to serve as authentic ambassadors of their brands in both situations.

The challenge is that most managers don’t trust their employees and don’t even want them speaking publicly about the company, lest they create litigation or a PR disaster. This state of affairs is a evidenced by the broken employer-employee relationship in many organizations that is in a downward spiral of distrust, resentment and passive aggressive or outright hostility as reflected in the dismal employee engagement surveys Gallup and many others have conducted.

Why would a senior executive who has made his annual bonus doing what he has always done invest a significant portion of their organization’s cash reserves into an ambiguous hard to express idea like Social Business, without a successful example, with many employees who they believe are just there for the paycheck, in a time of global economic uncertainty, when their profits and productivity have reached all time record highs against relatively depressed wages? Easy. They wouldn’t, and they won’t. At least not until an executive like Ford’s Alan Mulaly with a long term view is driven by a clear vision and understanding of the opportunity it represents instead of the words chosen to represent it.

You see, the words are problematic in even more ways than mentioned above. From the first time I used the phrase Social Business, I cringed a bit myself, knowing that the phrase, and Social Enterprise especially, was coined by Dr Muhammad Yunus of Grameen bank fame to represent an organization that had a social purpose at the core of its operations. Indeed, Marc Benioff cited this as one of his reasons for moving away from Social Enterprise at the time, having received a request to drop his attempts to trademark the phrase. This is the same point I personally argued with senior leaders after being hired by Deloitte Consulting to help lead the social media and ultimately social business efforts there.

In fact, it was that point and those conversations that eventually lead Deloitte’s then Deputy CTO Bill Briggs to coin the phrase “Postdigital Enterprise” to represent the broader concept embodied by an organization that fully and effectively deployed social, mobile, analytics, security and cloud technologies and methodologies. Sadly, those words have their own baggage and did not ignite a movement, though it is a practice area for Deloitte still. I was only cursorily involved in that Postdigital team, though I continued to advise them while sticking within the social business space and ultimately moving to engagement as my focus.

Don’t be fooled though, it’s not only a language problem that killed Social Business, it’s a cacophony of fundamental flaws in the system burdened by the very real nature of the power laws that direct our leader’s decisions and behaviors. While it would be great to blame the system and abdicate personal responsibility, it’s my fault too. And yours. And your middle managers. And your consultants. And everyone else who doesn’t raise their voice in support of fixing what’s broken.  But even then, I do understand the challenge here in assigning blame so wantonly. Few are rewarded for focusing on such nebulous matters instead of putting all their energy into meeting their key metrics that drive their annual bonuses, and their boss’ bonuses, and their boss’ bonuses and so on.

Our experiences of how things have worked in the past, both good and bad, prevent us from understanding how things can be different. With so much pain from past failures holding us down, we no longer feel the weight on our backs of how broken our organizations have become. Few if any have an inkling of the unrecognized emotional tax paid by our most important assets, our human colleagues. This emotional tax costs us much more then lost dollars, its the loss of time and unrealized opportunities which are often accepted as a cost of doing business.

Social Business was supposed to fix this problem. Enterprise 2.0 was supposed to fix this problem. Fast Company, through the vision of founders Alan Webber and Bill Taylor unleashed a wave of optimism through stories of success and failure that ignited an army of change agents to believe in a better tomorrow. To believe that we can each make a difference, every day. I, like many of us in the #socbiz and #e20 tribes, have been one of those believers. While I believe Social Business’ time has come and is now gone, I still am one of the believers. The idea, the need and the opportunity are simply too huge to ignore. Words are powerful. Words are important. But the idea is too big, the pull too strong and the need too great to be held back by the failure of two words to win the attention and budgets of corporate leaders.

Given my personal history and close professional connection to social media,  enterprise 2.0 and social business, you may be wondering what’s next? For the first time in nearly 10 years, I don’t know how to properly reference this movement or our desired end state. It’s why I supported Bill Briggs’ push towards the Postdigital moniker, it described what’s next while referencing what is now. Certainly there is a Work Revolution happening as more employees are realizing the power they have to create change in ways both large and small. This is why we are beginning to convene Work Hackers to share their stories, their hacks and their methods of success. Adam Pissoni of Yammer is developing a story of what he calls the Responsive Organization. Others are seeking to promote the Business Agile Enterprise. Still others are just talking about the future of work.

So while some of us are getting ready to attend the funeral for Social Business, many are pushing onward to what’s next. Whatever we end up calling it is not the important thing. What really matters is freeing every human asset to be free of fear, uncertainty and doubt so they may achieve their greatest potential in life and in work. A connected society is a better society, with mutual benefit from our interdependence making the world more tolerant, more livable and more propserous.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is not to get caught up in the words, but to connect with each other and figure out how to re-imagine our broken corporations and set about trying to fix them. Fail fast, fail often and find the greatest success possible. After all, it can’t be a worse failure then the current state of affairs, so why accept the status quo when you can be the change you want to see in the world?

Image Credit: Shutterstock


121 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next! – Chris Heuer”

  1. BernieBorges says:

    I’m not so ready to give up on Social Business. It appears that big business is not ready to embrace it for the wrong reasons. My blood boils each time I hear that big business executives don’t understand the value of the social enterprise. There are plenty of examples to prove the case for social business.

    The reason I like the phrase Social Business is because it has “business” in the phrase. Social Media has become synonymous with that thing teenagers do. The issue is exacerbated by the hype that social media is not measurable, even though that isn’t as true as many believe.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel on Social Business. I’m watching IBM. If they move away from the phrase, I’ll reconsider.

    • 4chrisheuer says:

      I should point out that I did not make a call to action for others to abandon Social Business or that it has become worthless. I simply think there is a need to convene another conversation about what we really want and what words best represents the outcomes we are seeking. So yes, please continue to use it. I do not pretend to be the arbiter of what is proper, just making the case for what I have seen and that I am personally moving away from it as my central focus in pursuit of what’s next.

      I’m looking forward to connecting with some of my IBM friends like Luis Suarez, Sandy Carter and others in the weeks ahead to hear their perspective too… Their investment in Social Business is too big, so I don’t expect them to move away quickly if at all, but they are well positioned with their product brand and their JAN conference to seize on another facet of it that speaks to me as the core value proposition – to shift to The Connected Company, which to me means relationships, flow of information and ability to have a smarter organizations.

      I should note I am working on some ideas about bringing people together to discuss this further at an unconference in the near future. More to come…

  2. 4chrisheuer says:

    When debating the merits of the phrase Social Media in 2006 we hit on the fact that Social Media is not so much a noun as it was a verb, the sharing of media. In the end though, for many reasons I’ve shared elsewhere, it really seemed to be the phrase that rung as truest and had the most appropriate affects.

  3. Among other things I’ve written related to this topic is a piece entitled “‘Social Media’ is SO 2009! 7 Proposed Digital Terminology Upgrades.” Here’s the two-paragraph excerpt related to “Social X”:

    Social Business, Social Enterprise, Social Learning. All three terms accurately convey their intent; unfortunately they all also have distinct meanings that have no specific connections to social technologies. Both Social Business and Social Enterprise, for example, along with Social Entrepreneurship, are used to refer to for-profit businesses that have charitable or socially-oriented missions. And Social Learning is most strongly connected to social learning theory, which was developed in the late 1970s.

    We could argue that we need to find better language to reflect the phenomena these terms refer to (perhaps Digital Enterprise or Digital Learning?), but I might suggest that we should simply stop trying to use them. Over time, as social and digital technologies become more integrated into all aspects of organizational life, the “social” qualifier will become redundant and unnecessary. This applies not only to the terms above but others like social intranet and social recognition.

    Didier Bonnet and other folks at CapGemini are using the term digital transformation, which I rather like for at least three reasons: it reflects the importance of digital beyond social technologies, and it emphasizes the potentially dramatic shift that organizations and their leaders have to undertake, and it underscores the importance of change.

    One of the reasons we rebranded earlier this year was to move away from attaching our identity to social technologies, for many of the reasons you have discussed here. I believe it’s ultimately more effective to lead the discussion with a focus on digital technologies more broadly, and introduce social (or perhaps interactive if you will) technologies as a communication and collaboration solution that ties to the achievement of existing objectives.

    In conjunction with that, I’ve also proposed taking a “Judokan” approach to change that focuses on leveraging new technologies in a way that fits with how organizations operate today rather than trying to make or expect dramatic changes in operations to fit the technologies (esp. where people and culture are concerned). Instead of looking for certain leadership and cultural factors as antecedents (e.g., openness, egalitarianism), it might be ultimately more effective to look at them as outcomes.

    I could go on – and I have – for years! Like others, I’m in this for the duration. It’s a long-term play…

  4. Kristen Williams says:

    I am currently in a social media marketing class at my university and we don’t have a textbook because the world of social is just constantly changing. Once a book is published, it would be almost immediately out of date. This is a great blog post in that it shows that we are always moving forward as a society even if e don’t have a name for it yet. Social Business may be dying, but there are other things waiting to take their place and change things again. As a marketing major who hopes to have a job in the field one day, I love that this position is constantly changing and that we have to find new and innovative ways to get to the consumer. I’m excited to see where social goes in the next few years and perhaps what replaces it.

  5. Provocative title 🙂 I like the article and would agree in principle that for many the “social” and “business” are contradictions in terms. Social brings with it a lot of baggage from the public world of social media, baggage which it now appears is impossible to drop.

    I also agree with your point that about the value of the underlying principles that underpinned the concept, at least for the more progressive companies. So while “social business” as a moniker may be dead, the basic principles that underpin the concept will not die and will continue to evolve over the coming decade. I also firmly agree with Dan’s comment below that “no-one goes to social”. Sharing, collaborating, transparency, … is a state of mind and not a place you go to. It will become an integral part of all business applications, of that I am sure.

    So the next question is… what’s going to be the next moniker that folks use to describe this new open, collaborative, transparent business environment? Everyone loves their hashtags 🙂

    FYI: I had a similar discussion a few weeks ago when a number of analysts in London, but unfortunately we were also unable to come up with a new one.

    • 4chrisheuer says:

      Not sure about the next banner we will fly under, but happy to see the conversation is happening and we are coming together, even with divergent perspectives and differences of opinion. We need more respectful dialog that is not demeaning of others, but rather is focused on earnest discussion of the merits of the vision and the language we choose to represent it.

  6. Gonzalo Navia says:

    Great piece, Its a real issue that new media marketers have to struggle. I still believe that is a new channel that will be as necessary as traditional marketing. But I still believe that everyone as marketers are still learning on how to use this new technology, a new one will appear and the cycle will start again.

  7. Pete Burden says:

    Great post.

    We have been using the term Conscious Business inside businesses for a few years now.

    And Conscious Capitalism seems to have some traction as something to describe the broader political and economic systemic shifts that are going on.

    We chose the term Conscious Business because in our view consciousness is ‘above’ everything – including ‘social’ activity.

    Consciousness is a way to integrate different viewpoints, and leads to creativity, innovation, resilience etc. Consciousness is how we develop better sustainable, relationships with others. Consciousness is connected to conscience and ethics and looking after the planet. Consciousness is also connected to the transparency etc that social media and other technologies can provide.

    Consciousness is what all humans seek – at work and elsewhere – unless they are seeking unconsciousness of course 🙂

    The term Conscious Business sounded strange to us and others at first. But now it trips off the tongue.

    Are C-Suite leaders conscious? Some more than others perhaps – but consciousness and conscious leadership is actually a process not a thing. And anyone can join in by attempting to become more conscious, and helping others become more conscious.

  8. Sam Fiorella says:

    Chris – in my consulting and tactical practice, I’ve had the opportunity to have this conversation often. As a result of our experiences, we’ve decided to drop the “social business” banner from the “our service” offerings. In fact, website is being revamped as I write this.

    I’ve successfully sold social business consulting, but the cost of acquisition (the cost to educate, convince, re-educate, re-convince, handhold, buy beers, re-educate, etc.) is simply too high. Seven out ten times, the exercise was fruitless, I could not convince the executive to invest in change. The three times in ten I was successful, when it came to execution, while the executives were game (really, often, just one visionary), the internal culture or structure of the organization was not adaptable to the change required. And so the consultants are hung out to dry.

    The point is, the moniker or flag we erect to champion the future of work might be irrelevant if traditional corporate cultures and protectionist, “siloed” operational practices are not addressed first. I know it’s handy to have a banner that we can all rally around in this effort, but as your post illustrates, often it’s just a distracting icon. An obstacle in the way of progress.

    • 4chrisheuer says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience and affirming the same experience I and many others have had Sam. Emanuele Quintarelli was driving home this point earlier on Facebook and in my private messages with him – that we have to talk in the leadership’s terms, which I totally get, but also that they want what they want, which is bottom line results from revenue growth and cost reduction – not change. I understand this perspective, but think it is still short sighted and ultimately they are missing out on an opportunity to create some real space between themselves and their competitors – to improve the whole of the company, its contribution to society and its people too. To truly be all they could be instead of simply being as profitable as they could be without understanding the need for both qualitative and quantitative success.

      Anyway, its good to hear that some people read it all the way through and understood my real message was not about choosing new empty words to replace the old ones….

  9. Andy Steggles says:

    Chris, this is a great, refreshing article. At my company (Higher Logic), we believe that engagement is the key to any successful venture. Relationships are at the core of any organization’s long-term success. Relationships that are forged between like-minded individuals in a secure environment spur idea and knowledge sharing on subjects and issues relevant to the broader community. And relevance builds trust. When organizations and businesses are trusted by their constituencies, these constituencies will likely be more engaged, supportive and motivated. As you stated Chris, it’s really not about the semantics, it’s what you do that makes a difference. fyi – if you’re interested, I did write a blog about how i see the social enterprise broken up into 4 quadrants… Although, it sounds like I may have to change the name of my blog!

  10. dominiq says:

    Great Post Chris,

    In my experience when dealing with leadership it is better to talk about “networked markets” (or tribes) than social business. You can then position the “social business” as a response to networked markets.

    Networked markets are a fact. People used to see the world into “flat markets” i.e socio-demo (women 20-30, 2 dogs, divorced, urban) or “discrete markets” (people googling “i need an iphone”).

    We have evidence that when people got empowered to connect and to converse, they are in effect building new markets: the markets of people who want to save the planet, the market of people with specific opinions/shared interest that were invisible before blogs and social networks. The thing is, when people converse, share experience, they expose ideas, and potential benefits that can be turned into products. These are ingredients for new markets, new services and new products.

    So the new reality is “networked market”, “conscious consumers – they know they are in this together and they know they have power as a group” and “experience economy”.

    I guess, leader can get that, at least some of them.

    Then the question is: can you really address a networked market with a pyramidal organization? and the answer is Social Business.

    Hope to see you soon and continue the dialog

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