Thursday, January 24, 2013

The year we kill social business

Social Business (or #socbizz in Twitter) has reached buzzword status. If you want to live by the ambitions that were behind it, you probably need to kill it.

I have a dream ...

Ever since Andrew McAfee described Enterprise 2.0 as the "use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers", I think most projects involving social technologies have set their views too high. Probably because of the liberating breeze that came with the web2.0 movement (remember this from Times magazine ?), it was widely believed that E2.0 would allow every employee to demonstrate her deep creativity skills and would also help reduce management to what it really should be ... A few technologies and some change management would change the world, and along with it, the nature of our workplace and our firms. And well they have, but not as expected.

Today, social technology vendors have built a multi-billion dollar industry, social networks firms have reached very high valuations, social media agencies are busy selling new ways of engaging prosumers ... and, yes, consultants are busy trying to figure out just what kind of value they are delivering to their clients.

What probably has not happened has been this liberating movement that most employees that first engaged in social business projects expected. And that is perfectly understandable: such liberating movement would only have succeeded with a deep change in the institutional nature of our favorite institution, the corporation. Such a deep change would have resulted in companies concentrating in something more than just financial value... Such a deep change, though, is slow in the making, and even though I am convinced we are right in the middle of it, it will not live up to the dreams of the pioneers (not in the short-term, that is).

Killing the dream ... and awaking strategy

The use of social technologies is mature now, and it is slowly transforming behaviors outside our companies and also within them. The impact of social technologies also seems to be widely understood and documented (see this document from McKinsey). So maybe it is time that we abandon buzzwords and false hopes and concentrate on deep transformation work, and go beyond software vendors promises or simple ROI fallacies.

When looking at what has been written this past year on the impact of social technologies, what comes to mind is productivity and engagement. Why? Because the industry seems to have moved towards "social enabling processes" and "engagement and advocacy". I would argue first that we are speaking about a different kind of productivity and engagement, and that a new kind of transformation is needed to unlock the value hidden there; then, I would argue (in a future post) that productivity and engagement are not enough, that a new kind of growth is the real promise of the strategic adoption of social technologies, which brings us back to a sometimes forgotten word in business, strategy.

From simple productivity to operational innovation

Improved collaboration will help improve productivity. Obviously, yes. Now, contrary to what was the case during other much publicized technology led transformations (some that succeeded, like ERP and other process or task-centered technologies, and some that did not, like KM-centered technology), impacting productivity through collaboration demands that we transform how people interact with each other through technology, and not really how people operate the machine (which was the case then). And so it's not race against the machine we are in, worrying that the machine's next version will do the task I am doing now, it's collaboration through and with the machine that needs to happen within our corporations. That is a deep change in professional behaviors (ways of working), in the organization of work and in the management of the organization.

Let's start with management. Contrary to usual productivity approaches, this one will not be based on reengineering of existing processes, performance improvement of individual tasks or activities nor continuous improvement of existing teams or corporations. Those are consequences of the adoption of social technologies in some particular situations, but not the real promise of adopting social technologies. The real promise is operational innovation, that comes about because social technologies participate in enabling a new kind of collaboration, the one that comes with reach, access, sharing, contribution, participation and sense-making of all of this through enhanced intuition and big data strategies (look at what John Kellden has to say about all this). The key word here is participate, of course. Social technologies are the machine, but we definitely have not invented the real uses of this machine, like it happens often in technological revolutions (see Carlota Perez). And therefore managers need to concentrate on inventing the new ways of working that will allow corporations to really institutionalize operational innovation.

As managers, it's important to understand that operational innovation does not come from usual  command and control approaches. Operational innovation is people-based and needs that managers engage in the kind of professional development that the best project leaders of some professional firms engage on. In this case, though, to reach the real promise of social technologies you need to do that on a big scale. And therefore, it is important to enlarge your line management's mission. Appart from aligning to strategy, distributing tasks, ensuring execution and controlling, managers today need to learn to do two things:
  • Ensuring that people development processes are adapted to deep development of their team, so that they not only master the new skills needed for using social technologies, but that they learn how to collaborate with and through the machine. Obviously, managers are the first that need to be developed there;
  • Working on framing collaboration. The idea here is that collaboration does not happen only because of tools, but basically because of engagement and common ways of working. If managers only invest in social technologies expecting that tasks will be done quicker ... well, that is all they'll get, but along will come burn-out, turnover and disenchantment.
Is it an oversimplification to say that using social technologies will help us do more tasks in less time ? It's actually worse: it's using a taylorist view of the corporation for measurement, while dreaming about a post taylorist organization, in which collective intelligence is more than organized industrial work ... That dream will come through management.

From Taylor to network

Let's now move to organization and organizational development. Some have been arguing for a long time that this is where most work is to be done (see Jon Husband, for instance), and I definitely think that this professional practice should be brought back to light in our firms.

What happens when you open the doors to collaboration and that you have innovation in mind as its first outcome, is that efficiency ceases to be the overarching operational goal of the organization. Remember, efficiency basically is what corporations were created for. If you bring innovation at the same level (from an organizational point of view, not only from a managerial point of view), then you need to accept changes in at least three dimensions:
  • The structures on which you organize your corporation; communities or networks are actually important from that point of view, because they help organize a work that is different from industrial work, that was efficient when organized by department, functions or projects;
  • The main roles around which you organize work; I had some ideas some time ago about that. And it's rather simple: when efficiency was the main focus of the organization, most roles where designed for efficiency. Now that operational innovation and even deep innovation are becoming part of the organization DNA, the design of work should change;
  • The missions of your central corporate departments, the ones that are key to build or transform the human infrastructure of your organization (IT, HR, communications, basically), that is, the way your corporation thinks.

From common ways of working to common ways of working

One thing that will probably not change is the need for consistency amongst an organization's employees ways of working. Consistency in ways of working (including ways of learning, ways of thinking, ways of designing) allows for enhanced understanding of each other goals, ambitions, intuitions, when collaborating.

But consistency is not standardization. I would say that organizations need to move from standardized ways of doing things to common reference frameworks, like the ones used by some professional services firms. Many organizations are already there, they are known for their strong corporate culture, and their employees are remarkable because of their approach to business (and often, their lack of success outside those organizations).

In a social technology powered collaborative environment, though, there is a need to work on designing these frameworks, and on designing the participation of employees to the evolution of these frameworks, with a very thorough understanding of these technologies. Wikipedia and YouTube will be seen as the ancestors of the collaborative environments that some corporations will built (are already building, I surmise), and that will completely change their competitive positionning vis-a-vis competitors. Those environments are based on an intelligent use of social technologies, powerful governance systems and common ways of working.

There are at least two dimensions to work on : individual ways of working and collective ways of working. To reach consistency in new individual ways of working, the best is to reinvent L&D in your organization (for instance, along the lines presented by Harold Jarche here, to begin with). For collective ways of working, the best I have come up with is experimentation, following a vision, or some principles about the value of collaboration, the need to have new roles and the need to change management's mission.

If you commit to changing management, organization and ways of working, you will have made a commitment that will have earned the engagement of the people around you. Not the engagement that is sometimes heralded by HR team, but the strong commitment of those that know that the corporation really has to change to continue serving its clients in completely new markets, serving it differently than was the case yesterday. Those engaged employees, as has always happened, are your best advocates. Only now, it happens at the internet scale.

Are these some areas where your organization is expected to work on this year? Do you think you might forget about social business alltogether, by deeply transforming your organization ?

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