“Culture eats technology for lunch” is a clever line that’s been circulating for a couple of years in the social business circuit. I’m not really sure who said it first (feel free to claim it), but all your favorite people have quoted it. It's meant to suggest that social business isn’t a technology problem, but a cultural one. But that is a distraction. Becoming a social business is about neither.
“Social business” a vague term that generally describes or refers to businesses that have social processes or, again quite vaguely, a social “mindset” or gestalt or je ne sais quoi. But we may not need to be so vague.
A social business is one where there is a deep sense of identity and purpose, one where its employees are a team of people who work together to understand the environment and fulfill the mission. A social business respects and engages its market and customers. A social business is aware of its impact on society and works to increase the prosperity of its employees, customers and investors.
Following the Internal Compass
In the 1970s, Abraham Maslow — he of the hierarchy of needs — described a state of self-actualization for individuals. Among other things, “self-actualizers” have “an efficient perception of and comfortable relations with reality. They are problem, rather than ego-centered, and autonomous — independent of culture and environment.” In other words, they do their own thing, and they know what thing that is. They change and adapt, but according to their own internal compass, more than outside factors. They are evolved. This sounds as though it would also describe the businesses that we hope the social movement is building.
The social business ideal (or idyll) sounds a lot like Maslow’s self-actualized individual. That ineffable something we are looking for in a business, one that is sharp, on its game, consistent, right-thinking, innovative and prosperous — a social business is an evolved business — a self-actualized business. We have a few examples of these. HubSpot is one. Is anyone else tired of hearing Apple mentioned (or can we stop now because they messed up maps)? Zappos, dare I say IBM? Genentech.
A self-actualized organization acts with intention (rather than flailing, or going through rote motions), observes with equanimity (its people remain calm in the face of both good and bad news) and learns at the speed at which it works.
This is very difficult to achieve in a strictly command and control hierarchical, non-networked structure. Information can’t flow fast enough, action cannot be taken fast enough in that kind of organization. So as command and control becomes networked, we have the opportunity to evolve in ways that were extremely difficult before.
Networked businesses have strong, narrative leadership, together with a highly connected network of responsible/respected individuals. It is this conscious approach and fluid, networked action that produces our current ideal of a social business.
While we’ve made good progress on understanding how to connect and network people in business (which is about both culture and technology), we haven’t done quite as much on the intentional, self-actualized organizational aspect.
A Sense of Self and Purpose
I just had dinner with a former co-worker who is now at Google, and he described for me a few of their processes around learning, testing, interviewing, etc. It was clear that my very smart friend gets intellectually chewed up and spit out every day — in a state of joy and curiosity. He is stretching himself in concert with the colleagues he openly admires, and it is clear it's an awesome experience.
It is also clear that Google invests systematically and heavily in learning about itself in every way — technologically, individually, organizationally and with customers. I’m thinking that they probably describe very well a company that has both its identity and its connectivity nailed.
I also had the opportunity to chat with another organization with an equally strong sense of identity but a vastly harder one. The Department of Defence. The DoD has several identities; depending on who you ask and in what context, it is the executor of the President’s will, the defender of the homeland and interests, or the creator of peace. All good and valid — and all subject to intense and interesting debate. The debate is a good thing and keeps the identity relevant over the centuries, so let's let it lie.
But is the DoD as connected as, say, Google? Does it learn as intensely and systematically? It's one thing to put revenue at risk, quite another lives. The DoD is not free to experiment and “canary” (as my old friend put it) each and every idea. That said, it has a more urgent need to maximize learning from each and every opportunity, and it's clear that they too take that very, very seriously. By networking itself more fully, it is likely to hasten that process.