How Social Impacts the Balance of Power
Organizations, businesses and entire industries are becoming more social. Does that really translate to better collaboration?

I think so. Education and commerce are two areas where social forces are impacting the balance of power and in turn improving the degree and quality of collaboration.

noun: collaboration; plural noun: collaborations
1. the action of working with someone to produce or create something.

Collaborative Learning: To Sir, with Love …

Many would say it is dedicated teachers like Mark Thackeray in “To Sir, with Love” who make all the difference in how well we educate. But for those who maintain that technology plays the critical role, please tell me: “What is the invention that has had the biggest impact on how we educate?”

Want a hint? Scholars agree that “the inventor or introducer of this system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind.”

The answer must be the Internet and the worldwide web, right? 

Wrong. It's the blackboard.

At the end of the 18th century, students used individual slates for their lessons. The materials were plentiful and cheap but there was no way to present a problem to the class as a whole, and certainly no way to collaborate on the problem. A rather obvious solution came early in the 19th century.

James Pillans, headmaster and geography teacher at the Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, is often credited with inventing the first modern blackboard. Some references say he hung a large piece of slate on the classroom wall, or as described in the “History and Future of the Chalkboard,” started by hanging his students’ slates together on the wall, making a large "slate board" that all could see.

This important invention has endured, and over time new materials and technologies brought new form factors. The board was no longer black but green, the white dry erase board emerged. Then the electronic whiteboard, online learning ecosystems from companies like Bb, and collaborative platforms from enterprise software companies became available. Now the blackboard and all of its progeny are not only pervasive in our classrooms, but also in corporations and the public sector.

A fundamental change occurred as the materials and technology evolved in how we think about education and the way in which learning might best take place. Many of us lived through this change first hand. As a very young student, I remember asking my teacher whether I could ” talk with my neighbors” once I completed the assignment. The answer was an emphatic no, and even more distant was the hope that I might be allowed to work with my neighbors to complete the assignment. [By way of full disclosure I did spend a lot of time banished to the hall for “talking too much,“ apparently a rebel to authority at an early age.] I suspect this later inspired me to get my dual Masters in Math and Education, with a determination to take the more social, collaborative approach to teaching.

The point? For a very long time, the teaching process relied on a certain balance of power. The power was with the teacher who controlled the process at all times with a “one to one” traditional teacher to student learning model. Slowly the balance of power evolved, at first to a “one to many” model that opened up the possibility of sharing and conversation, but retained control by the teacher.

Learning began to happen in an egalitarian environment, with the balance of power shifting to a “many to many” practice community model. In a great whimsical photo from LIFE magazine in the 60s of “NASA before Powerpoint,” we see multiple scientists communicating, perhaps even collaborating, using a VERY large chalkboard.

Fast forward to today. We have moved to the virtual equivalent of the “many slates on the wall” to see and share information. With social technologies, the balance of power has shifted even further using fast information sharing, ad hoc meetings and collaboration to create communities. We have accepted a collaborative approach to learning, solving problems and producing results. We have embraced the ability technology has provided to collaborate on a single document or workspace, be influenced by social commentary and crowdsourcing and even support crowdfunding.

Proof points are happening in a wide variety of industries and organizations. For example:

  • Google Circles for educators: Like any social media networking, part of the success depends on connecting with the right collaborators. Google+ enables sharing among educators educators to learn in a virtual community of practitioners.
  • Public Service Without Borders: The Institute of Public Service of Canada uses social communities to offer public servants, academics and private citizens across Canada and globally, a secure environment to come together, innovate, exchange information and ideas and improve services. In effect, it connects practitioners worldwide in a best practices learning community. [Feels like a 21st century social ARPANET]
  • Supply Chain Symphony: Unilever, Gartner’s number four on their Top 25 Supply Chains, has undertaken some forward-looking initiatives with crowdsourcing and collaboration. Their Open Innovation website platform enables them to gather and assess ideas from external resources, inviting “anyone who has a fresh, serious approach to new thinking” to pitch in. “The idea is not just to create better solutions but to drive concerted, cross-sector change.” A very interesting learning model that operates in a vertical industry model.

While many times we think about the the softer side or “non-productive” aspects of social, it is clear that organizations are effectively using social to improve how they collaborate to educate and innovate.

Collaborative Commerce: Beyond the Thunderdome

We all know that there is more than one way to buy and sell. The dynamics of commerce depend a great deal upon the nature of the product and the forces at play in the market. For Mad Max aficionados, there are the laws of Bartertown in “Beyond the Thunderdome.” For business people, there is Porter’s “Five Forces Model” that talks about the balance of forces that evolve from industry structure and the power of buyers in the market.

The genesis of B2B commerce can be found in the original EDI standards and solutions that were driven by large powerful corporations demanding more cost effective and efficient ways to link with their direct material or production supply chain trading partners. They formed a “hub and spokes” model to conduct this commerce. Then the Internet opened up a whole new realm of possibilities.

The accepted wisdom is that the Internet shifts power to the buyer. While demonstrably true, a decade or more ago the internet resulted in a whole spectrum of buy/sell relationships and caused a number of new commerce models to be introduced. "Channel masters” still existed in each industry that controlled (perhaps even coerced) how commerce would occur with their companies. But industry commerce models emerged that relied upon coordination and collaboration. Buy side (e.g., Ariba), sell side (e.g., hybris) and hybrid collaborative apps came to market, as did marketplace exchanges seeking liquidity with a “many-to-many” balance of power model.

In the late 1990s, analysts estimated there were as many as 1,000 Internet exchanges or e-marketplaces (online exchanges established for the trading of goods or services that bring buyers and sellers together).

At the time I was launching a then considered revolutionary e-commerce capabilities at GE and then Winstar Communications. I wrote, “The importance of the role of information in e-marketplaces is closely related to their vitality. For example, marketplaces such as Ventro also provide information to make more informed purchasing decisions.”

While many of the original e-marketplaces like Ventro have since come and gone, the model left an indelible imprint on the information centric business-to-business buying process.

With the advent of social, the balance of power is shifting even more heavily in favor of the buyer. Social is also presenting a unique opportunity to savvy B2B vendor CMOs who understand how to take advantage of the consumerization of the business buying process. In a recent post and report by Sheryl Pattek, Forrester predicts that CMOs will need to stop targeting companies and speak directly to buyers as individuals. This does not mean adopting consumer marketing tactics, but rather reframing B2B marketing approach as business-to-buyer rather than business-to-company. According to Forrester:

B2B buyers use social channels as a critical source of information and engagement throughout their buying journey. Social channel use that is tuned to target the specific channels and preferences of senior decision-makers will further spread brand messages.”

I agree with Forrester and would add that the B2B CMO must collaborate with their C-suite colleagues as they make their B2B decisions in order to successfully "Juggle Data, Brand, And Organizational Investments.” As they do so they best pay careful attention to the balance of power across their supply chain and in their industry.

The fruits of suceeding at collaborative commerce can be extraordinary. One Forrester case study example sites a HighTech company that drove $1 billion in qualified business by getting its brand story into the right social network of buyers when they were in research mode to generate a “zero moment of acquisition.”

How will we use social to collaborate in the future?

I find it fascinating to consider how social technology will continue to impact the balance of power and what that might bring to future generations. Could the future bring communication overload, but not collaboration, trapping each of us in a “community of one,” or will there increasingly be peer communities with “many-to-many” collaboration? Will we see the collaborative communities themselves gaining power and making key contributions to industry, education, science and commerce? Or might we witness a reversal to the days of a single slate? What do you think?

Title image by Rafal Olechowski (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Deb in How Adaptive Case Management Builds Agility