Social Business: It is NOT Culture. Or Technology. But Maslow Gets It

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Deb Lavoy avatar

“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.

Self Actualized Quadrant.jpg

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.

Maslow's Path

So, what does it mean for organizations to be self-actualized, and how do they get on that path?

Maslow described eight activities that lead to individual self-actualization. Here’s a list of them reinterpreted for organizations rather than individuals:

Concentration: A self-actualizing person strengthens their ability to concentrate. In the organization this can mean focus, a rejection of busy-work and superficial meetings. It means having a purpose, amission, knowing what value you pursue and using that as the central criterion for decision-making.

Learning Opportunities

Growth Choices: “If we think of life as a series of choices, then self-actualization is the process of making each decision a choice for growth.” This means doing the right thing, and not worshiping the status quo, and it means accepting that a certain amount of risk is necessary to learn, innovate and evolve.

Self-awareness: An evolved, or evolving organization cares about its identity, its capabilities, its processes, its perception in the market, its narrative both internally and externally.Such an organization takes the time to understand these things and recognize when change is needed.

Honesty: A self-actualized organization is transparent -- especially internally, and embraces challenges, problems and mistakes as eagerly as success, recognizing that they are the true opportunities for greatness.

Judgment: A self-actualizing company trusts its own judgment and acts accordingly. They do not use their competition’s moves as a primary driver of decisions.

Self-development: A self-actualizing business constantly strives to build its core capabilities, "working to do well the thing that one wants to do." ("The Farther Reaches of Human Nature," p. 48) They hire the best, they take every success as an opportunity to do better.

Peak Experiences: Self-Actualized businesses win in the market, because individuals recognize that these companies are stronger and more powerful than others.

Lack of Ego Defenses: In the business context, this refers to leadership and decision making. A subtle balance between confidence and humility. The ability to be fierce and tough with ideas, but entirely gentle with people.

But self-actualization at an organizational level also requires the employees to be a highly connected team, and to recognize its customers, partners and market as the ecosystem which it exists to enrich and improve. And in fact, like with individuals, self-actualization is a direction, not a destination -- it's a matter of degree. No one (well, very few) are fully self-actualized, everyone is on a different place in the continuum, and you can choose to intentionally pursue self-actualization or ignore it and hope for the best.

So maybe we need to change the question. Is it “social” we are pursuing? Is Verve the answer? Or is it just a piece of a larger whole? Is “social business” the goal or are we looking at a more fundamental redefinition of business altogether?

I was on a panel this past week with the social media director at Genentech. The way he tells it, their employees are there to cure cancer, as a team. Learning, communicating and sharing pictures of the space shuttle flyover are all part of it. They use their connectivity and their connectivity tools to push forward their agenda. I had a feeling that the Google guy and the Genentech guy would feel right at home in one another's workplaces. 

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more of Deb's thoughts on social business?

-- Social Business Doesn't Mean What You Think it Does, Neither Does Enterprise 2.0

About the author

Deb Lavoy

Deb Lavoy is the founder and CEO of Narrative Builders — a consultancy that helps organizations build narratives that convey the power of their business, product or idea. She has been in the business of online, social and digital business for more than two decades.