The Six Pillars of Social Business

9 minute read
Oscar Berg avatar

We humans aren’t the fastest animals on the surface of this earth. Nor are we the strongest, or the ones with the most powerful senses. Far from it.

As individuals, we are painfully weak in the eyes of nature. Sure, we are at the top of the most intelligent creatures list, but that doesn’t help much in a one-on-one situation with a bear, wolf or lion. Even most of our fellow primates would easily beat us in a one-on-one fight.

Our main strength, as human beings, is our ability to coordinate our actions as a group of individuals. This ability relies on, in turn, our ability to filter out and interpret information from our environment, our creativity and ingenuity in figuring out how to respond to that information, and our ability to communicate with each other so that we can coordinate our actions for a common purpose.

Just like other primates, we rely on our social networks to share ideas and information to help the group as a whole to survive and adapt to our environment. With the use of information technology, we are now improving these capabilities to the edge of our imagination; no wonder so many people find it hard to understand what is now possible to do with the use of modern information technology, such as social software and mobile devices.

Now let’s look at this from the perspective of an organization. A typical organization today operates in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing environment. More and more of the challenges it has to deal with requires the participation of lots of people, with different professions and skillsets, coming from different geographies, organizations and backgrounds. Whether the goal is to serve a customer, solve a problem, or develop a new product, the organization is relying heavily on its ability to quickly mobilize and coordinate the right people, and to get the best and most out of the people it has available.

Yet, many organizations perform poorly in both these respects. This is especially problematic for an organization that is large or growing rapidly, has a physically dispersed workforce, needs to respond rapidly to changes in its business environment -- such as changing consumer behaviors, or new competition -- and is doing work that is increasingly complex, unpredictable and interdependent.

Many of these organizations were once built like supertankers, and still are. They have been used to enter new markets and crush their competitors by their sheer size, slowly moving forward following a course that the top management team set out long before the ship left harbor.

Now, it might have to turn on a dime. That’s simply impossible for a supertanker. To do this, the organization has to transform itself to something else, into a new and more adaptive organizational form, one that is able to utilize the power of many in more agile and innovative ways. In other words, if an organization is to survive in this new and rapidly changing business landscape where consumers are in control, it needs to become more like a human social network and less of a machine.

Some of us label this new organizational form "Social Business." A true Social Business is built on principles that bring out the best in humans, as individuals and as a group, and I’m going to list some of the most important ones here.

#1 Trust

“Leadership is all about building bonds of trust -- and that’s all I know about Leadership.” Colin Powell, former United States Secretary of State

Trust is a prerequisite for improving an organization’s agility, responsiveness, productivity and ability to innovate. Trust drives value creation. Trusts create space for employees to act. Control, on the other hand, is a sign of trust failure. Control does not add value. Control is waste. Control restricts value-creation. It is something management adds when they don't trust their employees to perform as expected.

To build an organization where talented, creative and dedicated people want to work and where they are allowed to reach their full potential, the culture must be built trust, not fear or control.

#2 Openness

“We don’t expect openness and collaboration to generate what they do. We overestimate the risks. We underestimate the risks of closed systems and overestimate closed systems’ benefits.”  James Boyle, chairman of Creative Commons

Information has no value if it is locked into a vault and cannot be used. The great value of the web is that it gives us access to so much information. Many organizational cultures are in fact characterized by a “need to know” culture, meaning that you won’t get access information until you explicitly ask for it. But how do you get to know that the information exists and where it is in the first place?

To be open by default, and to actively protect the things we really need to protect instead of protecting everything by default, is simply something we need to learn and make sure to practice.

#3 Transparency

"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court1902-1932

Without trust, people don’t share in an open and transparent manner. The information system within the organization becomes siloed and opaque, resulting in sub-optimization, duplicated efforts and bad decision-making.

Without information transparency and traceability that allows us to understand who provided a piece of information, and when, we don’t trust the information enough to act upon it. Transparent communication will help drive out fear from an organization, and replace it with trust.

#4 Participation

“Someone outside your organization today knows how to answer your specific question, solve your specific problem or take advantage of your current opportunity better than you do. You need to find them and find a way to work collaboratively and productively with them.”  lan Lafley, former CEO of Proctor & Gamble

Connecting with other people give us a sense of identity, purpose and feeling of belonging. You need to allow and encourage everybody to participate, but also allow them to choose for themselves if and how they want to participate. That’s how you build engagement and commitment to a shared purpose. Employees must also make use of the possibility to participate actively to the identification of problems and realization of improvements. Trust, openness and transparency are the enablers of participation.

Learning Opportunities

#5 Dialogue

"Keep things informal. Talking is the natural way to do business. Writing is great for keeping records and putting down details, but talk generates ideas."  T. Boone Pickens, American business magnate

Most organizations are still governed by management teams that primarily communicate with the workforce by broadcasting corporate messages via one-way communication channels. This style of communication assumes that every receiver has the same pre-understanding, that all the information the receivers need to make the right decisions and actions is contained within the message, that the sender knows the receiver’s situation, and that nothing in the receiver’s situation will change from the second the message is crafted.

This is why people rarely find this kind of communication usable for getting their work done. They prefer communication that is two-way and interactive, as it allows them to quickly reach a shared understanding, make decisions and act accordingly. This style of communication is a necessity in a changing environment where people and organizations need to quickly adapt to new conditions, and their social networks are the conduits for such communication.

#6 Recognition

"Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments I feel the credit is due to others rather than myself."  Alexander Graham Bell

Contrary to what many people might think, getting recognized for what we do at work is a more important driver for people to perform than monetary rewards. Most people who are passionate about their work just want a decent pay so they don’t have to think about money all the time. Besides that, respect and recognition is what drives most people to share their knowledge and expertise with their peers, rewarding and recognizing people for the right behaviors, not giving monetary rewards, is what builds a sustainable business.

These Times Calls For Leadership

The commonplace solutions to mobilization and coordination of resources such as hierarchies, divisions and processes are not sufficient to deal with the increasing challenges of mobilization and coordination most organizations are facing today, and even less so in the future.

Our 20th century innovations have proven to be very efficient for organizations operating under stable conditions where the work is quite independent, repeatable and simple, but when the opposite is true they fall short and lead to massive waste of resources due to over-administration and bureaucracy as well as inability to quickly adapt to changes in the business environment.

For any organization that has the ambition to survive in the long haul, it needs to look beyond the quarter economics and invest aggressively in initiatives aiming to improve collaboration and organizational agility, including establishing a culture and practices that continuously improve collaboration, knowledge sharing and communication across the extended enterprise. It has to build it’s future on the six pillars of Social Business.

But to the captain and crew of many of the supertankers out there, it will probably seem more convenient to stay on course, neglecting that reality is changing more rapidly than the map. One thing is for sure; we will see many reputable and well-known organizations disappear at sea in the years ahead due to lack of real leadership.

I can think of no better way to end this article than by quoting the late Stephen R. Covey. This one is from his book "7 Habits of Highly Effective People"

"Management is a bottom line focus: How can I best accomplish certain things? Leadership deals with the top line: What are the right things to accomplish?...//…the rapidly changing environment in which we live makes effective leadership more crucial than it has ever been...//…We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles and directions) and less in need of a road map." 

Image courtesy of antoni halim (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Always insightful, Oscar has shared many other thoughts on the changing face of the enterprise. Check out Don't Underestimate the Power of Networks

About the author

Oscar Berg

Oscar is a Business Designer and CEO at Unicorn Titans, a Swedish digital innovation agency. He also writes and speaks about digital transformation, service design, collaboration, the digital workplace and the future of work. He is author of the book "Superpowering People - Designing The Collaborative Digital Organization" and the upcoming book "Digital Workplace Strategy & Design."