The Conflict Of Social Business: Lipstick On A Pig

The Conflict Of Social Business: Lipstick On A Pig
The Conflict Of Social Business: Lipstick On A Pig

I’m often frustrated with a lot of the pundits of social business.  I’m not speaking of those who misunderstand what social business is and simply associate it to mean a business that is involved in social media, or those who opportunistically spin the word as a hot new replacement for the term social media. I’m speaking of those who actually do understand what social business means and preach the traits and benefits of a more collaborative, agile, informed, and adaptive organization.

My frustration lies not in their understanding of ‘what’ a social business looks like, but rather their lack of understanding in ‘how’ an organization can make that transition.  The prevailing view seems to be that if we simply show companies what all the benefits and traits are that they will simply ‘become’ those things.  “The organizational culture must change!”, “The technologies must be put into place!”, “The hierarchy and silos must fall!”.

While all true to one degree or another, these are still statements of ‘what’ must happen and not ‘how’.  The most important factor missing here is a ‘why’. Why have organizations evolved in the way they have?  It is only through understanding that evolution that one can design and justify a means of effectively changing it.

How We Got Here

The Conflict Of Social Business: Lipstick On A Pig
The evolution of organizations to date has been inherently, and quite literally according to the psychological definition, anti-social.  Its hierarchical structures and management models were borne out of a need to control labor and costs.  The industrial revolution brought with it the desire to move jobs for skilled craftsmen to scalable roles that could be done with cheaper unskilled labor and supplemented with mechanization.

To increase profit margins a focus on efficiency further drove the division of skilled tasks into segments that unskilled laborers could do in a repeatable, consistent way.  To manage this, industry looked to the military for a model. The military had a very workable, effective means of controlling the management and decision making processes when you want to segment tasks into very narrow, specific roles. (interestingly, the military also provides a good example of how to leverage more autonomous, semi-independent groups, but that’s a story for a different day)

The hierarchical model of ranks and authority was borrowed and segmentation of job functions distributed throughout the organization.  This is where departments focused on individual functions such as marketing, sales, etc. were created and the metaphor of business as a machine evolved.

Why This Model Is Degrading

Today, it is difficult for us to envision a time when this type of functional division of labor didn’t exist.  But whether we are speaking of slave labor, military institutions, or industrial era manufacturing, this model of command and control has always been used when a need to scale effectively existed.

As we progressively move into the knowledge era and the percentage of knowledge workers to unskilled labor shifts dramatically this model becomes less and less effective.  While it may seem obvious that new models like social business are needed you also have to keep in mind that the industrial era didn’t just effect individual organizations.  An entire financial system was built around it.  You can’t effectively change an organization if you don’t also account for the traditional obligations and pressures that it still has to work within.

While evolving for the long term will keep companies in business longer and thus ultimately make them more successful, they also have short term demands that must be addressed.  There are reasons that companies will seemingly go against all known logic and run willingly towards a cliff.

Short Term Pressures vs Long Term Gains

More and more executives come from outside the organization, family owned or founder led organizations are diminishing.  The former can have very different motivators that aren’t necessarily in the interest of the long term prospects of the company.  They have a short average life span leading a company (less than 5 years), they have performance based bonuses to achieve, and they have future jobs to plan for.  All of which drive an interest in delivering quick results that prove their worth.

That can often mean bowing to short term pressures such as prioritizing quarterly shareholder growth over five or ten year shareholder growth.  This is because in parallel with the shorter term views of company leadership there has been a market shift in the ratio of short term to long term investors.  The side effect of this is that fewer leaders are willing to invest in temporary pain (cost of change) regardless of its benefit to the long term.  The short term investor doesn’t care if the company is still in business in ten years, she wants her gains now.

It Cannot Be Ignored

It’s also why I have such respect for those leaders who make the tough decisions that are in the long term interests of the company.  It’s not a simple thing to do regardless of how logical it may seem from the outside.

Does this mean we’re doomed?  No.  But what it does mean is that if you’re involved in helping organizations through these changes you had better know how to address these concerns. Understanding this and the other myriad factors is critical because they are influencing the chances of success but may not ever be explicitly stated or identified.

If these factors aren’t addressed then what you will find is that the definition of collaborative, agile, adaptive, and informed can be easily warped to the point that you’re just putting lipstick on a pig.  If you can’t position your efforts in the proper context, if you don’t understand how the existing broken system both benefits and restricts an organization, you’ll just be helping a pig look pretty instead of helping them become something other than a pig.

These leaders need help. They face a difficult task balancing the competing interests at play.  While I suppose you could measure their effectiveness based upon whether they are tweeting or not, might I suggest they have plenty of other things on their plate that are more important.


Matt Ridings – @techguerilla

image courtesy LEOL30

Matt is the CEO of SideraWorks and a veteran of business strategy and organizational change. His endeavors have included startups, professional services organizations and Fortune 500 companies, and many roles as a business owner, advisor, and investor. View his full bio here or his other posts here. You can find him on twitter at @techguerilla.
  • jonhusband

    To the point, accurate and articulately explained. Thank you, Matt. Some of the key reasons why I haven’t waxed very enthusiastic about the whole ‘social business’ thing, because it’s not going very deep at all in terms of making fundamental changes to core assumptions about work design in an information-flow-filled environment. Taylor still rides strong, both in work design and many (not all) management practices.

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