In the rush for the new-new thing we’re confusing the means with the end. Business – as currently practiced – has been built around the need to own and manage a central asset. This might be a factory, some IP or even a skilled team. The tools, technologies, and methods we deploy in business are used as they cause the business (the asset) to perform better: bottom line down or top line up, simple stuff. This seems to have been forgotten. Some of the newer tools – such as social business design – can add value in this content, but they are only tools. If they make sense and add value, then they will be adopted. If not, then they will wither and die. For many companies, it looks like they will only provide marginal utility.
Martin Linssen seems to have started something of a storm on the Internet by pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. He was responding to the noise around “social business design” and “enterprise 2.0″. Dennis Howlett then published a nice missive that builds on Martin’s observation.
The clarity Dennis brought was to highlight that, in the quest for the new-new thing, many marketing machines and practitioners have forgotten that for these tools to be adopted they need to add value, and that it’s hard for them to add value in the command-and-control structures that exist in most companies.
As Dennis astutely said:
When you get down to the nuts and bolts of the problems that prof McAfee correctly identifies but for which no amount of technology will solve it is really simple: the kinds of management and structures you need in order to make these ideas work in a sustainable manner is almost non-existent. Command, control, power and status have a huge part in this. And no amount of putting lipstick on those organisational pigs will change the fundamentals. In one well known case I still see individuals being taken to one side and asked: “Did you really have to say that? It’s not what we expect from people in your position.” Insidious isn’t it?
Today’s business are built around the concept of managing a central asset. This asset might be a factory, it might be a fleet of trucks, the deposits from a community of investors, it might be the methodology and tools a skilled team use, or it might be a brand. Regardless, structures are defined and people hired to support and drive this central asset, and not for any other reason.
Some companies, such as Zappos, have successfully used tools like social media to drive value by improving customer service and reaching customers earlier in the buying process. The problem is that companies Zappos and its ilk only represent a small proportion of the business community.
Think of the contract manufacturers who make the clothing that Zappos sells, or the outsourcers who run the supply chains to and from Zappos’ warehouse. These companies are trying to sweat an asset – the factory or a fleet of trucks and planes – and are usually chasing costs, often by moving to second or third world countries where wages are lower, or by automating first world jobs.
It’s the need to manage a central asset that has driven them to create these vertical command-and-control structures. Sometime the nature of this asset is compatible with the trendy new method – as with Zappos, social business design and enterprise 2.0 – but often it’s not. Yes, these companies could be better run (strangely enough, most companies are average), however, telling these companies to up-end their business models just doesn’t make sense. They’re focused on managing that central asset and there is currently no proof that these new techniques can do that any better than existing practices. As Dennis pointed out, the kinds of management structures to use these new tool in this context don’t currently exist.
Unfortunately the pundits are assuming that a few exceptional companies and individuals represent something the general business community should adopt as is. They are also mistakenly assuming that the claimed benefits – such as “improved communication and customer engagement” – requires us to deploy their favourite technology, tool or methodology.
Quest for the new-new thing
Being better at the basics is more important. I know one executive that I had enough trouble convincing to get out of the office to say “Hi!” to his team who were only ten minutes away: he didn’t see the need to communicate with them. There wasn’t any point in even trying to convince him to use any sort of social media tool.
So we need to get a few things out in the open here.
First, social media, enterprise 2.0, and social business design do have the potential to provide value to a business. The case studies are out in the open, so there’s no arguing about this.
However, and second, is that these case studies represent the special case, and not the general case. YMMV.
Thirdly, we also know that social media, enterprise 2.0, and social business design require a different approach to command-and-control. Let’s avoid the value judgements as to whether this is good or bad, it just is.
So finally, and fourth, for mass adoption across the entire business community we must acknowledge that the foundation of many companies’ business models needs to change if these new tools are to add value. Zappos makes these tools work, as Zappos’ central asset is their brand, and brand (as an asset) benefits from these tools. Other companies – and this is probably the majority of companies in the business community – are not so lucky. They’ll see more benefit by focusing on the basics.
My view is that there is big shift that is currently building around the need to move away from the idea of a centrally managed asset as the foundation for a company. This is a big deal, as government regulation and accounting rules are built around the idea of a company owning a central asset. All the rules and regulation needs to be rewritten for this to happen. (Note to self: buy shares in accounting firms.)
The most likely new foundation for business is the ability to mobilise stakeholders – from employees, through partners to customers and the market in general. Your value will be defined by your ability to make things happen, rather than the assets you own. This would be world where all costs are operationalized, and our businesses look more like World of Warcraft than the hierarchal command-and-control structures of old. You, as an organisation, will be measured on the strength of your organisation’s social graph. Social business design will be the first port of call when designing your new business, rather than the last.
Until this shift happens it looks like social business design, social media, and enterprise 2.0 will be of marginal utility for many firms. Not useless, just less than revolutionary. However, I do think this (or something like it) will happen in the mid term. Someone will make it work in a private company, and then it will be copied. It will become increasing difficult for old school companies to compete with the new breed, eventually reaching the point where the old school pressures the government into changing the regulations and rules to suit.
Me, until the revolution comes I’m focused on getting out in the field and using all these tools in a new and interesting ways to create as much value as I possibly can, for both employees and the companies they work for.
1. Martin Linssen↑
2. the emperor has no clothes↑
3. Dennis Howlett↑
4. Enterprise 2.0 is beyond a crock. It’s dead.↑
5. Your Mileage May Vary↑