If you had asked me four years ago how successful social business concepts would be in German companies, I would have answered very cautiously.

The Germans are justifiably known for their prudence when it comes to introducing new technologies. We are one of the nations that have thought longest and hardest about data security and protection, and are right to have done so. However, German companies have pleasantly surprised me. For Germany actually appears to be one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to adapting social business concepts -- or at least, that is what my experiences with many of my clients suggest.

Staying Ahead with Social Business

Many companies have come to the conclusion that Germany, in particular, this land of engineers and inventors, must become a social business. German companies prosper to a large extent due to strong exports and their expertise in developing highly complex and advanced solutions.

These products need to be developed more quickly and to a higher standard than competing ones on the market to justify their cost. And, as German companies have learnt from bitter experience, cars, solar technology and machines can be copied quickly, so the only way to survive in the global marketplace is to stay one step ahead of the competition. It is no coincidence that Audi chose Vorsprung durch Technik -- “Progress through Technology” -- as its slogan and that the original German is used across the world.

This is precisely where the issue of social business comes into play. To stay ahead, companies have to strengthen their ability to innovate by encouraging the free exchange of ideas and open discussion. Technology is not the whole solution. Management needs to have a particular mindset, too.

Staying ahead today is very much a question of corporate and management culture. Employees should not be regarded merely as a cost factor, as is easily and frequently the case in high-labor-cost countries like Germany. Rather, they are above all agents of productivity, bringing in expertise and driving innovation.

Companies in Germany and around the world need to harness the potential of these knowledge workers, introduce them to new technologies and ways of working, and familiarize them with the risks and, more importantly, the opportunities these new developments present.

But large corporations are not the only ones who stand to benefit from social business concepts, as my experiences show. Medium-sized companies remain an indispensable force in driving innovation in Germany, and many of them are enthusiastically embracing social business, as well.

A while ago, I visited one such medium-sized business in Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. The company manufactures the best and most innovative products in the area it specializes in, water technology, and it is able to charge higher prices for its products by keeping ahead of the competition in terms of technology.

The management was initially highly skeptical about all the “hoopla” surrounding social business. As one member of the management team put it: “We want our employees to work, not chat.” But they soon realized how important real-time communication, discussing and exchanging ideas via social software, was if they were to remain a worldwide market leader.

This German company is a prime example of a social business that relies on its ability to innovate, that needs the ideas and expertise of employees, that operates in various locations (often around the globe), and that has to be quicker and better than its rivals to survive amid global competition.

Germany has an abundance of these kinds of companies, and they have begun moving towards social business. The successful ones are the ones that don’t just “play” at being social businesses, but integrate social concepts into critical business processes, whether they pertain to innovation, product development, customer service or employee training.

Building Employee Support: Practice Makes Perfect

For the reasons mentioned above, German companies are particularly reliant on well qualified employees and their ability to innovate. They need to find and recruit exactly this kind of personnel (sometimes from outside Germany), train them, support their professional development, encourage them to exchange ideas creatively and openly, and “capture” and document their knowledge.