Social Business takes its place right after art, love and pornography in the list of essential concepts that are difficult to define, discuss and create systematic approaches to.

Like those other subjects, a wealth of insightful and inspiring writing wells forth from experts, philosophers and practitioners. It is early days for social business, having been around somewhat less long than the others. Even so, there are some good bits of wisdom and best practices that are out there and ready, if not universally adopted.

What are the fundamentals of Social Business? Tough question. Maybe even the wrong question. Maybe the question is “What is different now, and why does it matter?”

In fact, I’m still trying to figure out the question, (straining not to use the “42” analogy) and would be most interested in your opinion here. So, while I’m still not sure what the ultimate question is, here are 7 themes that are critically important to understand in order to understand. Interestingly, I’ve seen startling disagreement as to which are the most profound or mundane. [I will be pursuing several of these over the next year. If you’re interested in joining me in exploring, researching or writing more on these, let me know.]

The first three themes I cover in this post refer to the mechanics and driving forces behind social. The next four (published in part two tomorrow) go into the implications for business.

1. Humans, Institutions and Revolutions

This is the foundation of the “social business" concept and everything else derives from this. Hierarchies and command and control institutions were society’s brilliant invention to scale and focus human activity toward a goal. This model has roots that pre-date the pyramids. It solves challenges of coordinated communication and will. (I describe this in slightly greater detail here.)

But now two things are happening. First, we don’t depend on hierarchy for communications.

Top-down has, in fact, become a bottleneck rather than an asset in the comms department. Second, the world is moving too fast and competition is too fierce for rigid command structures populated by people who could hardly care less to remain successful.

As a result, people are finding their own voice, their own insight, purpose and ambition -- and many businesses are too. In little ways, such as the new social intranet at work, and of course the much, much bigger ways that democracy and freedom are being reexamined, tested and pursued throughout the world. The new organization’s role is to make that a good thing by aligning all that energy and capability with a worthy purpose and a networked leadership structure that learns and enables at the pace of human capability.

Social business is not anarchic, however. Decisions still need to be made and coordination is still critically important. So while the organization as a whole moves from a mechanistic to a humanistic ideal, leadership too is paradigm-shifting from a patriarchal, omniscient ideal, to something else that still requires a name. “Servant-Leader” has been offered up, but I’m not yet convinced.

In spite of new leadership’s namelessness, we do know a few things. Modern leadership asks questions. Modern leadership recognizes that the organization as a whole knows more than he or she as an individual. Modern leadership nurtures and orchestrates the organization around a common purpose, with the confidence to constantly move forward and the humility to look for every opportunity to do better. The modern leader doesn’t hoard power, they cultivate its flow through and accrual to the organization as a whole.

2. The Opposite of Social Business is Fear. No, I am not Exaggerating

The problems of traditional command and control structures are legion, but the most debilitating can also be the most subtle. The 20th century ideal of the organization is the well-oiled machine -- one where every part and process is defined and every cog shiny and efficient. Each person within it is expected to stay in their designated box and be perfect.

That is, they should never make a mistake. And in this unpredictable, ambiguous and complicated world, predicting the future, and acting perfectly is rather difficult and "mistake" is often just another term for “results.”

So a primary motivator at work is being right and not making mistakes. Which leads to two profound problems. The first is that people only do what they know works. That’s an innovation buster right there.

The other is that when problems arise, people are incented to HIDE them, both consciously and unconsciously. So all news is good news all the time. Learning and excellence are eliminated by definition. This would be a largely unintended consequence of a system designed to create stability, reliability and scale. Oopsie.

The fear of being wrong, looking foolish or being rejected drives far too much of human behavior, and the vast majority of business behavior, and it has long been used as the primary motivator of work. If you are afraid of being wrong, you are not likely to ask the questions that hint at uncertainty. You are not likely to listen and look out for disconfirming information. As a result, we walk into failure with arms open and eyes shut. This is normal business. It is wasteful, it is absurd and it is very unpleasant for its anxious participants.

Incentives are really just the other side of the coin -- the carrot and stick model is a fear based model. The antidote to this is first found in small teams -- duoships, even. When a few people get together, motivated by a common cause and an intrinsic desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose, fear starts to recede and possibility opens up.

Such a team is incredibly powerful. They can probe the world, their doubts, their aspirations without fear, and with the support of other capable people. Their talents are amplified, their weaknesses diminished. If you have ever participated in such a team (and I hope you have), you understand this. When we have a shared goal, mutual respect and trust, we can deeply engage with our work by leveraging newly critical skills that David Brooks lays out with poetic beauty:

  • Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
  • Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
  • Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
  • Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Who wouldn’t want to be described thus?

3. Collaboration is the Only Way Forward

That is to say, that humans working as pairs, groups, teams, organizations and communities are where real value is created. The genius (or lack thereof) in an individual’s mind is an ever smaller (though still and always transcendentally important) part of the progress equation. Even Steve needed a team. This is why the advanced communication skills suggested by David Brooks matter so much.

Collaboration has always existed, and we’ve always benefited from it, but now we are absolutely beholden to it. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most compelling explanation for this has two dimensions. The first is the above-mentioned renaissance of self-actualization, and the second is the exponentially-increasing complexity of the work that we do.

Economist Ricardo Hausmann describes this in terms of “Person Bytes”, which may be one of the most important business concepts to be articulated last year. Hausmann details the phenomenon that as individuals we’re now capable of much less than our ancestors -- few of us can build our own house, provide our own food, clothing, etc -- though as a society we can build much more. Toasters, for example, and computers, which are far too complex for any individual to construct entirely from scratch.

I’ve written several posts on collaboration, and there’s no reason to repeat myself here. Complexity is most effectively faced by groups with high collective intelligence. Research shows that a team’s high collective intelligence does not reflect the genius IQs of its members, but the excellent attunement and equipoise amongst them. Creativity, in the business realm, will turn out to be a balance between profound individual and group effort, and the possibility-opportunity expansion of multi-disciplinary, multi-perspective, “edge” exploration.

Reaping more than a trivial percentage of your team’s potential requires the kind of deep engagement that can only be derived from collaborative effort. If you’re working in any kind of complex, knowledge based industry, you are here or you are almost gone.

I will go into the implications of social on business tomorrow, including why metrics are trouble and why we should say goodbye to the sales funnel.

The best is yet to come.

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