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Moving beyond the current understanding of social: from steady-state to postnormal

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I think there is an interesting parallel between the rise of the concept of the social business and sustainability. They share the premise that we live in an interconnected world, and steps must be taken to find a balance that allow for continuation of life: life of the organic world in the environmental context, and the life of the business in the business setting.

But the desire for a steady-state — in both cases — may be blinding us to the realities of the world we are living in. Andrew Zillo recently argued in a NY Times piece, following on the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, that our efforts toward building a more sustainable New York City did not really prepare the city for disaster:

Andrew Zillo,  Forget Sustainability. It’s About Resilience.

[…] a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.

In a perfect world, that’s surely true, just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.

My sense is that many think about the social business in a similar way: they imagine a collection of tools and techniques that allow the company to sustainably connect to its community of customers, partners, and even competitors, and to effectively support critical business processes. A pretty picture, with all the cogs connected in a humming, whirring machine of steady-state production.

But instead, I think we have to move past this conception of social business, and set a much higher bar. First of all, we have strayed into economic times that bear a striking resemblance to today’s increasingly energetic and unstable climate. We’ve moved into a new era, the Postnormal, where many of the premises of 20th century business have already been overturned. Consider the rise of freelancers and the decline of life-long employment, the work-anywhere-anytime lifestyle, the offshoring and ephemeralization of work, and the decreasing half-life of businesses. We have not reached a steady state given these forces on the world of work, and we shouldn’t expect to in any near future that could be extrapolated.

So, when thinking about the role and application of social tools in today business context, we should drop the premise of getting the business to a steady state. Instead, we have to develop tools and techniques that will help the company deal with turbulence, to help teams grapple with uncertainty, and help each user recover from adversity and conflict. These tools will be judged by the degree to which they confer a greater degree of resilience on their users and the businesses that have adopted them, not how smoothly well-defined business processes will run.