What Makes a Social Business “Social?”

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Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
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Jacob Morgan what makes a social business “social?” and what does a non “social” business look like?


@jacobm | October 23, 2011


Thanks for the great question. My short, quick answer is that social business is “social” in the sense that it (a) enhances modes of collaboration that already exist in an organization (e.g., high definition video conferencing adds another social dimension to teleconferencing); and (b), enables new modes of collaboration (e.g., technology enabled crowd sourcing or collaborations in virtual reality). In other words, I’m suggesting that the “social” in social business reflects differences of degree and kind from traditional approaches to business collaboration. Reasonable people can disagree about where (or whether) to draw the line between those categories. Also, it may be that “social” becomes a broader concept than “collaboration.” I hope it does.

I wouldn’t say that an organization that fails to engage in social business is nonsocial. Rather, such a company would be stuck with traditional, low-tech approaches to collaboration. Most companies that have real employees and real products are social in some sense, but not every company has deployed social tools that enable new forms of collaboration. Only companies that are using social tools to deepen or enable new modes of collaboration would count as a “social business.” I see no contradiction there.

I’m interested to hear what you and others think about the term “social business.”

Social Business

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Comments (7)
Eliel Daang
This article helped me a lot. I have been reading a lot from Mahummed Yunus, Nobel Laureate, and I have been looking for ways to put these ideas into practice. You really did a great job of doing exactly that. I hope that my work at Better Better Better becomes as influential as your work is now.
Enterprise Q&A and Social Business: Decisions, Decisions! | Senexx
[...] Kiron, D, et al. (2011). What Makes a Social Business “Social?” https://sloanreview.mit.edu/improvisations/2011/10/28/what-makes-a-social-business-social/#.ULxqTqzOk... [...]
Michael Ray
David and those who comment on his response to Jacob focus on how social media tools enhance modes of collaboration, and enable new modes of collaboration.  Jacob suggests that business executives are not fans of the word “social.” He writes, “Social, doesn’t imply any type of business value. In fact when one thinks of being “social it typically refers to meeting new people, going out, talking, and being part of a group…Collaboration on the other hand does imply business value.” 

My take on the sharing thus far is that it contains gaps in our understanding of the nature and measure of “social.” Perhaps I can make a contribution regarding the gap. I measure organizational (social) networks as part of my consulting practice. In doing this analysis, it is helpful to understand the motivational divide that Sociologist Nan Lin describes as being between “Expressive” networks and “Instrumental” networks. Instrumental motivations tend to produce networks  that are characterized by sparse and weak ties, open groups, and a high external pressure to perform. Expressive (sympathetic) motivations tend to produce networks with dense and strong ties, closed groups, and internal pressure to conform. Think high-level project team vs. religious study group.

Executives see through an instrumental lens, but are also subject to development of expressive cultural identities that sometimes results in closure to ideas from “outside.” They may be motivated by strong reinforcing social ties wrapped up in authoritative roles that suggest their own perfection while demanding loyalty from followers. There is a good reason why they parse the meaning of “social” as Jacob suggests. Yet, if the Social Business is to succeed in what respondent Christine described as “one that actively seeks the engagement and ideas of individuals within and outside the enterprise-and acts on this…creates value and identity from it”  then the mental model of leaders must be open to the value of the diverse organizational roles and identities that this infers. Creating such engagement requires a blend of Instrumental and Expressive motivations, and align with both instrumental and expressive networks of people.

Christine does not separate the Instrumental (value) and the Expressive and Sympathetic (Identity).  Nor do high performance teams. Such teams combine a coherent identity inside, with a divergent reach for new resources outside. This includes recognition of the facilitative impact of social media tools. More importantly, the use of tools reflects the commitment to connect across both weak and strong ties. Where the social connector roles and the operational identities come together, a strong form of committed performance results.
Jordan Frank
There are two components to Social Business. Social and Business. 

1) Social -- *Most* businesses have some social aspect. But increasingly they have less and less as we conduct commerce over the internet. One role I had at a previous employer was to buy computer hardware at the end of each day. Before the internet. this was a very social process where I had to interact and negotiate with 4-7 different suppliers about pricing and logistics.  These days, I would just work off their 'net sites. A Social business must encourage and stage interactions between themselves, their partners and suppliers. A Social Software platform with spaces supportive of these interactions is a crucial way to d this - because is opens up the possibility of social interaction beyond the key account manager and the key customer contact. 

2) Business - This part of the term implies some business must get done. this is where the collaborative piece David mentions must come in. I don't think its adequate to put up a microblog space and chat back and forth at eachother. A platform needs a bit of structure supportive of the types of interactions that are needed and the artifacts that those create. In real terms, this means a way to post and track and issue, a way to document the customer's configuration or standard processes, and so on. 

Consider the processes involved in this case study

Which is also profiled by Deloitte in their report on Social Software for Business Performance

Jordan Frank
Christine Christine Kinser

Any definition is going to be a slippery slope. My take on it would be that a Social Business is one that actively seeks the engagement and ideas of individuals within and outside the enterprise - and acts on this .... creates value and identity  from it. Ultimately, this gets reflected in its business model, culture, leadership, operating model, etc. Over time, such a construct is likely to bind it more closely to advancing the good of society overall. In other words, a social business is not an island: instead it is intimately connected to the society (or community) it operates in. So, yes every business has been social to some extent; but the commitment to the full meaning of social, and what it implies not just for business value but its participation in a global society is changing rapidly.
christian briggs
Hi David and Jacob,

We have backed ourselves into a semantic corner a bit by using the term "social business" i think, but it is probably the best term we've got, it seems useful for us to keep going with it. Two thoughts on the topic: 

1. David, you have done a nice job of taking a pragmatic approach ("social business is as social business does") to the question. I think this is a more important idea than we might realize. In other words, rather than to try to define a social business ontologically (e.g. it has social technologies, has flat hierarchy, etc), it is probably much more useful to identify it by what it does and how it approaches what it does (e.g., it uses its technologies with an eye toward social dynamics, sees organizational structure as a contributor to culture, etc). This brings me to thought two: 

2. When trying to think of what is or is not a social business, i wonder if we might take a few ideas from the world of the arts, where the lines between country/pop/rock are blurry (Eagles), as are the lines between rock/blues (Clapton, Hendrix) and the lines between classical/comedy (Victor Borge). In that world--in my very limited experience at least--there is an awareness that a person can use the same exact technology (electric guitar, organ, percussion, grand piano) in very different ways, and with very different approaches, toward very different goals. With this in mind, it would be permissable to say that a company that uses only email and telephone can use those in very social business sorts of ways (though i would say they are probably held back by their technologies), and a company that uses Twitter, Chatter and YouTube might use them in very un-social business sorts of ways. How we tell the difference will be more of a discursive agreement between the community than a rigid ontological definition.  

What do you think?
Hi David,
First of all thanks for the response, when the person who manages your twitter account said that an editor would respond I was skeptical at first, but was pleasantly surprised when I was notified of this post!
This actually came up when trying to decide on a title on the book I’m releasing on emergent collaboration for McGraw Hill.  I kept seeing various terms such as social business, social enterprise, etc. being used and it became quite frustrating when trying come up with a book title!  Eventually I settled on emergent collaboration because that literally means new ways of collaborating.
Eventually I started to think more about these concepts.  What’s interesting is that even in your descriptions of social business,  you focus on collaboration, which I think is what “this” is all about.  You also state: 
“ Only companies that are using social tools to deepen or enable new modes of collaboration would count as a “social business.”
So does this mean a social business is simply an organization that uses these new tools?  Is it about technology?
Personally, what I have found in doing research for my book, consulting, and doing case study interviews is that oftentimes executives are not really fans of the word "social."  Social, doesn't imply any type of business value, in fact when one things of being "social" it typically refers to meeting new people, going out, talking, and being a part of a group.  I started saying that “social” is what happens when you remove the business value of collaboration.  Collaboration on the other hand does imply business value.
For me every business is social, in fact how can a business NOT be social?
We’re seeing the word “social” thrown in front of absolutely everything these days.  Even now I’m still debating what exactly to use as a book title!
What’s funny is that the concept and idea that everyone is referring to is the same but the terms are being mucked with.  McAfee and Tapscott both referred to this as enterprise 2.0 many years ago and now all of a sudden we simply re-labeled it, or that’s what it seems like.
I have (at least for the time being) stopped using the term social business until it becomes something more tangible and until we can clearly distinguish between a social and a non-social business.
I wrote about this last month on CMS Wire here: http://www.cmswire.com/cms/social-business/there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-social-business-012575.php

Thanks for the opportunity for open discussion!