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Justin Kirby wonders about the future of social business

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Justin Kirby is a practitioner who wonders about the future of social business, starting with his roundup of responses to Chris Heuer’s Social Business is Dead! Long Live What’s Next! piece last fall, touches on Lee Bryant’s thinking, and then explores some aspects of a report I have not yet read, Future of Social Business: Is the Gold Rush Over? by Luke Burley-Jones. He writes about that report, and then goes on:

[The report] is more of a description of the challenges than prescription or framework. For me the report highlights what missing in terms of hard evidence, and a scaleable model that social technologies are there to support, e.g. SAP and ERP, Six Sigma, etc. It also highlights some of the less productive discussions within social business, such as the nitpicking about terminology and definitions.

What’s more significant for me is that report also highlights how few, if any, social media technology enthusiasts have any real experience in behavioural psychology, organisational development, change, leadership, and other more people-focused disciplines. That’s probably why I often hear the refrain it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people, but hey look at this cool new technology. That seems to put the cart before the horse. So despite all the talk about more open, collaborative and social approaches to business the collaboration doesn’t seem as yet to be all that interdisciplinary.


I often hear the refrain it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people, but hey look at this cool new technology.

There are some like the analyst Stowe Boyd who seem to be looking in the right direction with his research into what he calls ‘Socialogy’, the theory and practice behind social business. What I haven’t seen is an interdisciplinary collaboration that uses social technologies to co-create a model for social business, or at the very least some conceptual framework that sets out the problems it attempts to solve. Perhaps an initiative like this could help propose a set of interventions and the metrics by which any success would be measured, and that could include those used within the social enterprise and international development arenas to assess social rather than financial impact, e.g. micro finance, etc.

My response to Justin is this: businesses seem to be blocked on social business, but it’s not technologies per se holding them back. I think one of the factors is that the python hasn’t digested the last pig, and has no room for the next one.

Many companies are stuck on the treadmill, running just as fast as they can to not fall behind. We are confronted by increasingly accelerated change in the economy, an explosion in computing scale in mobile, cloud, and connection technologies, and a sharp upheaval in the business/work dynamic — upended social contract, ephemeralization of work, rise of freelancing, disengagement — with the latter acting as an undertow, and the first two crashing together into a gigantic tsunami.

How can we break free of these crushing waters, and get some breathing room? The answer — such as it is — may come from a gradual awakening to the need for putting a stop to some old practices before new ones can be adopted. The social business mantra has been — generally — the opposite: that a gradualist adoption of tools and techniques could be layered on top of or between older bits of the company’s ways and means. That’s what is generally being done, with very mixed results.

And for large or highly dynamic businesses, adding a little social business to the mix is like putting a teabag in the bathtub: it’s too diffused to make any difference.

So, I am advocating an oppositional approach. First start by recalibrating around different principles — human-centered principles — and then reworking work. My umbrella term for this new form factor of business is ‘leanership’, because in comparison to current and traditional business, 21st businesses will have to be much more agile, nimble, and adaptable, and to get there leadership must diffuse and emerge throughout business networks, with a very different concept of leading. What many — like Lazlo Bock of Google — call emergent leadership, and which I call leanership.

Bock’s work at Google is an example of what I mean. They researched their hiring practices, found that they were basically folklore, and then replaced them with analytically- and scientifically-grounded alternatives (see Lazlo Bock talks about hiring at Google, and why the GPA is irrelevant).

This is not ‘social business’, it’s a new way of work, some aspects of which are social.

That’s why I am not trumpeting social business as answer to some nebulous question about the future of business (see ‘Social Business’ isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either), instead I am trying to track what the most advanced forward-leaning companies — like Asana, Google, GitHub, Medium, Zappo’s and Yammer — are doing. And those practices converge toward leanership.