Social business enthusiasts need to leave straw men behind

Social business enthusiasts need to leave straw men behindWhen exploring what benefits becoming a social business can provide for the enterprise, it is important to make a serious comparison to a viable alternative. Attacking straw men is useless and can only hurt the adoption of social as an important part of the enterprise.

I recently read Mark Fidelman’s new book Socialized! and was aghast to discover the adversary he compared social business with: a very basic command-and-control structure with no interaction between the management and the shop floor employee. I also read a number of reviews of the book, but did not come across any that would have challenged this arrangement.

The straw man of command and control

The straw man command-and-control enterprise has the following features:

  • A small number of leaders give orders to a multitude of followers
  • Information is rarely shared or disseminated to other employees
  • The higher up the chain of command you go, the less likely the person is to get the opinions of people below him
  • Information flow from top-to-bottom takes weeks, information flow from bottom-to-top may take months
  • People only work for a paycheck

Fidelman’s argument is that companies can survive only by becoming a social business, and he attributes the failures of Lehman Brothers, Motorola and the like to command-and-control leadership.

Thing is, all of these toxic features have already been removed from a large number of companies around the world, in many cases decades before the internet. Therefore, obviously, social business is not the only way to go.

Fidelman’s social business

Fidelman’s social business features the following characteristics:

  • Information sharing is pervasive
  • Senior managers engage with their employees and customers
  • Working in digital
  • Flatter management structure
  • A sense of purpose

Compared with the straw man command-and-control company, this looks like a major change. But compared to a modern, non-social business, this does not look like much at all. In fact, the only difference between this and a company with up-to-date leadership practices is “working in digital”.

So is that it? Social business is just a bonus gadget that makes mobile devices interact with smart boards for bidirectional content sharing? If that’s all there is to it, no wonder it is attractive to compare it with a straw man, otherwise it would be really difficult to get anyone interested in it in the first place.

The multitude of ways to build a social business

I think there is something more to building a social business, yet in a way working in digital is actually a reasonable description of what social business is about. I have not yet discovered a new paradigm that social business would bring us. I am not ruling it out, such a paradigm may yet evolve. Still, for now I view it only as a tool: a tool that makes possible some of the things that people have thought of previously, but have been unable to create as effectively.

Some incarnations of social business can be:

  • Social Total Quality Management: Social tools are perfect for many of the tenets of TQM. This represents an opportunity for the Western world to catch up to the quality ideals prevalent in Japan: TQM may have been too hard for us to adapt previously, but enterprise 2.0 tools make it somewhat easier (still not simple) and even more effective. Technology-lead process improvement sometimes just is more easy to get approved than just plain process improvement.
  • Social workplace democracy: Workplace democracy has been attempted every now and then, sometimes even quite successfully. I am talking about a fully democratic company, with voting and everything, not just a predictive market somewhere in the innovation process. Social tools can make this easier to implement, and this might lead to some interesting development in the future.
  • Social Lean enterprise: Lean enterprises already have highly effective processes and information flow methods. Social tools can nonetheless further improve knowledge sharing and also create one thing Lean enterprises do not have in ample supply: serendipity. Creating transparent, effective processes can both ensure that things get done regardless of the social aspect, and that there are ways to become aware of what happens in a larger area of the company, and participate when an opportunity arises. The social employee feedback systems I have described in an earlier post are an example of this: things always get done, but the social aspect sometimes makes them happen even faster.
  • Social service-dominant company: When the goal is to co-create value together with your customer, the tools provided by social media offer some highly attractive value propositions to a company.

Social media is a tool, not a new paradigm

At least for now, then, social media is a tool, not a new paradigm. This does not mean that it is insignificant! A phone is a tool. A computer is a tool. Internet is a tool. There are ways to run a highly effective production line with whiteboards and post-it notes. In some cases, technology replaces them with more effective versions that effectively perform the exact same thing. In other cases, new innovative solutions arise when technology makes something possible, that simply was not possible before.

Picture: Straw men by Robin Ellis @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.