Social Business

After some soul searching I’ve just started updating my various personal profiles around the web to say I’m a social business evangelist rather than saying enterprise 2.0I’ve got close to this before.  I wanted to explain why now.  For me that terminology change is a big deal because I’m not 100% comfortable with “social business“, but it’s not me rather the market that decides.  If we move the clock forwards 5 years I’m sure we’ll be using different language again, and I believe the way the smart companies use social media and social tools in their businesses today will be as natural and essential to any organisation as a website, email, phones or mobiles (cell phones for my US friends, handys for the Germans – language is so crucial!).  I actually prefer the term “amplified enterprise” because the terms “social business” (as used by the likes of Dachis, Altimeter Group and IBM) or “social enterprise” (as used by Salesforce) are already occupied by a very different idea.  Go ask the average, non-technology oriented bushiness person in the street and see what they say.  Actually my perspective on this topic has 4 dimensions:

  • The social term applied to business is already occupied by something else
  • Business has always been social, right back to trading around the tribal camp fire
  • Use of today’s social networking and social media tools inside and outside business is vital
  • It’s not about specific technology or a particular platform (a tough thing for a software guy to say!)

The Social term
If I type social business in to the Wikipedia search box, the relevant page says this:

“This article is about a business with a social objective. For organization designed around social tools, social media, and social networks, see Social media.”

If you go to the excellent ZDNet online debate from a few weeks ago titled “Social enterprise: Real or fiction?” between Dion Hinchcliffe and Dennis Howlett, in one of the first exchanges Dennis says:

“The notion of a social enterprise is at best laughable and at worst ridiculous.  Enterprises are artificial constructs designed with one purpose – the creation of wealth for the benefit of shareholders. The fact that such enterprises may employ people doesn’t distract from the primary purpose. That’s why we have hierarchies, rules, command and control. They serve to constrain people into behaving rationally and only for the benefit of the enterprise.”

he goes on:

The notion of a social enterprise is merely the latest in a long line of fashion-driven management constructs designed to make employees believe that the enterprise cares.”

Pretty cynical, and even back in 2009 Dennis was saying “Enterprise 2.0: what a crock“.   But there is a confusion that comes from the social word and the fact that the term was first coined by  Nobel Peace Prize laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus and he was talking about businesses built around a social purpose or a cause.  Social media marketing is hijacking an existing term to make it become something different.  It’s a shame, because the principles behind this new version of “social business” are actually vital for all business.

The shift to using the term goes back to 2009.  I guess it was probably Dachis and Altimeter that started using it around then, and I particularly remember Stowe Boyd’s September 2009 post “Social Business: Why The ‘Enterprise 2.0′ Moniker Is Wrong“, followed on the same day by Euan Semple talking “Social Business“.  The term has steadily got more usage in the intervening time, and then when I arrived at last September’s Cloudforce event at the Royal Festival Hall, Salesforce greeted me with a sign over the entrance that said “welcome to the Social Enterprise“.  Two weeks ago I was one of IBM and Collaboration Matters contributors to the debates on their stand within the Social Business Expo strand of the Unified Communications Expo at London, Olympia.  That pushed me over the edge in to realising explaining enterprise 2.0 to people just wasn’t sensible any more.

Business has always been social
The best session by far a year ago at the March 2011 Dachis Social Business Summit in London was from JP Rangaswami, now Chief Scientist at Salesforce.  He started by raising concerns over the term “social business”.  Why do we need business to be social?  If it isn’t social, what is it?  Anti-social?  He suggested that we need to rediscover a social dimension we’ve lost, and worried that people his age (and my age) might be remembered as the generation that gave us Excel and management by spreadsheet.  I’m delighted that he talked about the importance of The Cluetrain Manifesto helping us realize that marketing has moved from one directional broadcast to two way conversations.  He talked about how work is changing.  Business used to run with a financial system largely to do with product and customer and largely hierarchical, with planning based on historical snapshots predicting the future.  But business is morphing in to a network of relationships and capabilities.  Investment related to human capital and knowledge capital were the kind of projects that used to get cut because we couldn’t quantify their value, but today relationships and capabilities MUST have metrics so we can justify these resources.  He talked about the transition from the agricultural age, to the industrial age, to today’s information age, or knowledge worker age, but he worried that we:

“Insist on taking the detritus of the industrial age along with us!”

He’s right.  Business has and always will be social.  That’s why the social business term is a bit suspect.

Use of today’s social networking and social media tools
Way back in August/September 2005 when Dennis Howlett convinced me I should be writing a blog we talked about this stuff as “web 2.0” – the web goes interactive and becomes conversational instead of broadcast.  When I started to use blogs, wikis, forums and instant messaging in an around companies, the way of differentiating the “business” use of the tools from the “consumer” oriented web 2.0 term came when Andrew McAfee defined then refined the  “enterprise 2.0” term.  Wikipedia still didn’t like it and redirected to “enterprise social software“.  That E20 term worked for me, but it always needs explaining, which has to be counter-productive.  However, to hell with what we call this stuff, it’s actually really useful.  IBM used forum technology back in 2003 over a 72 hour period to get 10s of thousands of their employees engaged giving them the opportunity to redefine the core IBM values – ValuesJam.  Around about that time Euan Semple was using a social networking tool, blogs and wikis inside the BBC as one of the early case studies of how this can work.  Twitter only really took off at the SXSW conference in 2007, but today every news channel, most TV programmes, and every radio station will tell you how to follow them on Twitter or which hashtag to use to join the conversation.  It’s only in the last few years that organisations like Salesforce have been integrating Twitter style micro-blogging (Chatter), social media monitoring (Radian6) and web content management ( in to the business process flow of the business software (as a Service) that they sell.  Pretty soon everybody will be doing it.  At this moment in time terms like Social CRM are hot property.  The reality is that every business solutions provider needs to be thinking about how to provide or link to this functionality to keep up with their competition.  People need help and advice on this, and the social business term is the best we’ve got to describe the issues at the moment.

It’s not about specific technology
As much as it pains me to say it as a software guy – it’s not about particular technologies or platforms.  There are some platforms that relate to social business that are significant and need to be part of your strategy and tactics, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, but we need to remember there have been major casualties within the “social” world like MySpace – too big to fail is a dangerous idea.  Something like Tumblr or Pinterest can come up and become a big deal in a relatively short space of time.  You need to watch these trends, because your target market may well be hanging out in these places – if they are, then you need to be there too.  To run your business day to day you might consider business solutions that already cater for the kinds of social collaboration we are talking about, or you might overlay your business systems with products like Yammer or Jive or Google Apps.  You might build communities for your people, customers and partners using something like WordFrame or IBM Connections.  Somebody asked me on Friday which product I thought would be the winner in the Social Business space – Connections, Jive, Lithium – I really don’t know, and that’s the wrong question.  Every business is different.  Every business has pain points and social tools can often help with those pain points.  If they can help us break out of the cycle of living inside our email in-box and management by spreadsheet, that has to be a good thing.  But the most important word in the phrase is business, not social.  Start with the quantifiable business objectives first.  Then you can think on the ingredients that make social tools work more effectively, and how you encourage people to use them in the first place – answer the question “what’s in it for me?” for your staff, partners, customers who are going to be using these social tools.  It’s all about changing people’s behaviour, to think differently and work smarter.

So I’m dropping enterprise 2.0 from my vocabulary and running with social business.  That won’t stop me triggering some debate and suggesting the amplified enterprise term might be better.


Luis Saurez just reminded me that he posted his “Social Business, Where Do You Stand?” a week ago on the 12th.  I’d read that, and should have linked in his views, which also reference Sameer Patel’s “Social Business Facts and Fiction”.  Sameer recognizes that CIO’s will consider social business “Mickey Mouse” until they can see it add to the bottom line (and hence my suggestion above that measurable business objectives come first).  Luis is very definitely in the “social business is important” camp.

And in addition, this post triggered a great Sunday rant on ZDnet from my good friend Dennis Howlett, who I quote above.  He says “Sunday rant: social business? I’m still not buying it“.  I understand where he is coming from, but I’m with Marc Benioff, who says Salesforce has been “reborn social”, along with JP, Dion, Luis, Jeff Dachis et al who believe social business is on the edge of the mainstream and important for organizations in there business models going forward.

Complicated Social Business landscape 2010 diagram courtesy Dachis/Dion Hinchcliffe

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Founder & CXO of Agile Elephant, a digital transformation consultancy and solutions provider. Head of D2C, a consulting firm which provides business and social media consulting and Cloud based solutions for content, collaboration, web publishing, online accounting and ERP. Was director EuroCloud UK, chaired techUK's Software as a Service Group, now Chair of Cloud Industry Forum.