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The Economist: What is Social Business?

From The Economist Intelligence Unit

The Economist asks, “What is social business?”

Brian Solis, Principal analyst at Altimeter Group, offers an answer. In an interview with Frieda Klotz, deputy editor at The Economist Intelligence Unit, Brian discusses the transformative nature of social business.

Frieda Klotz: How will the role of a social business leader change over the next two years?

Brian Solis: Let me start by saying this: the difference between social business and social media is very profound. I say that because the number one skill that a social business leader needs is to understand what a social business is and what it isn’t. A social business is one that has a positive impact on society and also internally in the company, one that is more philosophical and focused on human-to-human engagement than it is on the bottom line or on efficiencies.

That’s important because in my research I’ve found that when companies talk about social business, what they’re often really talking about is: “How do we use social media to be more social?” And that’s incredibly different. Because when you look at the philosophy of what it takes to be an engaging company, to have a positive impact on society, to nurture an employee culture that’s focused on people and aspirations and a higher purpose, social media—the tools and channels—become enablers of this bigger mission.

FK: Do you think many companies fail to understand what social business is—that they’re placing too much emphasis on the tools and channels of social media and missing the larger point?

BS: Oh, yes. In fact, the idea of social media really inhibits the bigger vision of social business. You’ll see companies say: “Well, a social business leader’s going to have to know how to tweet. They’re going to have to be blogging.” That’s where we get things wrong. Then it becomes a silo within the organisation that just pumps out content, animated gifs, tweets, etc.

But if you think about it as a user—the way you use Twitter or Snapchat or Pinterest—your life has by default changed. How you communicate, what you find interesting, what you share—it has actually changed how you connect as a human being. Fundamentally you’re already living a more open, social and transparent life.

FK: Is the social business trend more relevant to some industries than others?

BS: Every business is going to need to think about it. I call it “digital Darwinism”. Technology and society are evolving; it’s just happening. And you have a choice: You either adapt, or you don’t. And at some point, the market adapts faster or evolves faster than your ability to adapt. We’ve seen this happen with all kinds of businesses. The rate at which it’s going to occur is going to accelerate.

Some industries are slower than others, but I can tell you that in my research, regardless of industry, it really comes down to the culture of the company. Is the culture one where employees are empowered, one where ideas are celebrated and not scorned? One where people collaborate and are encouraged to do so? These things give companies an advantage.

The EIU’s Social Business Leaders project, sponsored by IBM, launched in July 2014. It showcased the work of 25 leaders in this emerging field—people who are using social business to transform their companies and organisations. We drew on the collective knowledge of an advisory board of social business experts, and identified the qualities that are typical of social business leaders: They are visionaries, strategic thinkers, culture shapers and storytellers, as well as adaptive, entrepreneurial and fully social in their use of online channels.

Brian Solis, a member of our advisory board, is principal at Altimeter Group, a research and advisory firm. Mr Solis is the author of a number of books such as “What’s the future of business” (2013) and has published several reports on this subject, including The evolution of social business.

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