Social Business Needs to Take to the Streets

There’s been quite a firestorm on the web started by Chris Heuer declaring Social Business Is Dead – Long Live What’s Next.  I’m interested because I see social business as a parallel and overlapping concept with intangible capital and new forms of measurement.

Basically, Chris say that the words and the concepts of social business have not been embraced by large corporations:

Through my conversations with colleagues and executives at large enterprises, the words Social Business have not struck the right chord with leaders. The movement has failed to earn their faith, trust and budgets in a significant way. While the ideas behind the moniker are invaluable in defining the future of work, most large companies simply aren’t buying into or investing in Social Business transformation efforts in more than a piecemeal sort of way

The underlying assumption here is that for an idea to succeed, it has to be accepted by big business. But this assumption contradicts everything we know about innovation. All of us in the business of disrupting management practices have to understand that the people we are disrupting are managers who are comfortable in their positions at the top of the pyramid. Large companies are full of such people. And, as Chris points out, there aren’t a lot of immediate motivations for the kind of wholesale change that social business implies.

This assumption in itself shows a bit of an industrial mindset—the idea that change can and must come from leaders and bosses—even though the concept of social business clearly would say otherwise. And that consultants can co-opt the power of managers and make broad changes in an organization. This is the irony of our era. All of us, even at the vanguard of change, are creatures of our upbringing. Every one of us in the workforce (and unfortunately even my sons who are in college) is the product of an education system that was, like all the rest of our institutions, optimized in the industrial era. We are industrial beings trying to cope with a post-industrial reality.

One of the basic concepts of that reality is that disruptive change comes from the bottom of markets—in this case, from the bottom of the management pyramid and the external environment of a company.

This means that the hard work of selling new ideas has to be done at the grassroots level. Our work is to empower people with tools that they can use to do their work better. It has to succeed there and filter up. The days of top-down, legislated change are over (as if they were ever that successful to begin with). When the success of your business depends on a smart, engaged workforce, you need for your people to be part of any change.

I’m heading to DC later this week to an academic conference, ICICKM. On Thursday I’ll be presenting a paper with John Dumay that basically says that practitioners have to get out of the cathedral and stop legislating how next generation business should be measured and managed—and get into the streets as missionaries to help empower people with the skills and tools they need to be successful.

Everything that Social Business and Intangible Capital are about tells us that power comes from the people: from your employees and customers and communities and stakeholders of every kind. Social Business isn’t dead. The idea that’s dead is that big business will show us the way to create social businesses. Don’t get to the people through the bosses. Get out and sow change in the streets.

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