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Social Business

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1. Social Business
Reimagining business with a social mindset


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Social Business is a concept that goes beyond the buzz of social media networks; it’s a practice that can enable more efficient, effective and net-new connections inside and outside your organization to drive performance. The organizations that discover value are doing so with a layered approach that crosses organizational boundaries, functions and services. While this may be alarming for many executives, the new world of transparency, knowledge flows and democratized opinion-making is rife with opportunities.


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My take

Sandy Pentland
Director, Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program
MIT Media Labs

For years I’ve been working in the field of “connection science” – studying how relationships and personal interactions shape society and business. Social business is a manifestation of that thinking, with companies transforming how they organize and operate based on individual roles, social networks and the power of connections. Social business can have huge potential inside and outside the enterprise, across employees, customers, prospects and business partners.

It’s exciting to see the convergence of new social channels and traditional communication channels, where the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. When social computing tools such as Yammer, Chatter or Jive are combined with established communication channels such as face-to-face interactions, email, phone calls, intranets and even advertising media, we’re seeing rapid adoption and elevated impact. There’s a halo effect when the passions of stakeholders can be harnessed and aligned with the goals of an organization. Social business amplifies this phenomenon, bypassing tactical constraints of traditional communication: discoverability, scalability, responsiveness and adoption.

Like any emerging technology trend, social business can seem perpetually just out of reach. Let’s wait a year, the thinking goes. It’s not quite real, not quite ready for prime time. If that’s your approach to social business, you may be overestimating the amount of effort it takes to start putting this trend to work for your organization today.

Here’s what I mean: Social business is built on top of social networks, which most organizations already have in place. I’m not talking about social networking technology. I’m talking about the social networks themselves – the webs of formal and informal groups reaching across and beyond your organization every day. That’s a huge existing asset – but likely it is only informally mined for the greater good. You should explore explicitly connecting your people and your customers in ways that could be driving performance improvements and growth.

Fortunately, moving ahead is pretty straightforward. Start by finding out which channels are already most important to, and most used by, the people in your organization. From there, the path to rollout should become a lot clearer. Once you begin, the value of social business can spread like a wildfire. The key is to simply get started.

Where do you start?

Social business requires broader thinking than currently found in many organizations, and institutional biases can prevent it from receiving the priority status it deserves. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to help break through dated perceptions and cultural inertia and start the social journey. Pursue an incremental path that builds on experiments that may demonstrate potential.

  • Start at the beginning.  Social business is about achieving specific business outcomes. Start with reasonable scope in early efforts. Map the individuals in your potential social networks, and know what behaviors you are trying to affect and how you might meaningfully engage these into persistent communities. Use this information to guide the development of tools, roadmaps and roll-out plans – not the other way around. Focus on results that can be measurable and attributable.
  • Deploy the basics.  Certain aspects of social business are nearly universally relevant, such as social monitoring and listening posts for customer sentiment and brand positioning, as well as corporate yellow pages and social networking tools for experience-finding and leverage of intellectual property. These should be on each business’ radar – and they can provide an excellent entrée to social business in R&D, PLM, HR, IT and even Finance. After all, “close the books” is an inherently collaborative and repeatable activity with clear business goals, a well-understood network of players and both structured and unstructured content use.
  • Move from sensing to actuating.  With basic monitoring tools in place, social business can move from passive to active. Instead of just listening, establish a command center for social customer relationship management (CRM), social sales and social product lifecycle management (PLM). Move from experience-finding to insight management by using micro-blogging and content management tools to promote sharing and re-use of knowledge and assets.
  • Break boundaries.  The chief marketing officer, chief talent officer and head of sales are typically early adopters of social business. But it doesn’t have to stop there. What about a social chief financial officer? How could reporting, classification and audit be transformed by linking finance and control to knowledge streams and trails of how, where and (here’s the kicker) why work got done? How would a social plant manager run a shop floor differently? With social business, the individual once again matters in performance improvement. At many levels, organizations that align the passions of their people with the interests of their markets can have a strong competitive advantage.
  • Authenticity matters.  Social business is about the individual. An anonymous corporate presence using social channels as a bully pulpit will not likely yield results. In recent decades, marketing or HR has sometimes evolved to mean what we do to people, a far cry from the original intent. Social business can bring us back full circle, thriving on personal voice and genuine interaction. Building those authentic relationships requires time and investment.

Bottom line

Social business is still in its early days. These initial waves are about unlocking insights based on people’s behavior and relationships, and on supplementing the enterprise’s traditional view of markets and employees1. Even more value can be gained as companies restructure how work gets done through social engagement – and by customizing messaging, promotions and even products, based on individual and community desires. Social awareness can give way to social empowerment – once again placing people at the heart of business.

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