Neither was being on the web in the early 90s, and this business evolution has a striking number of similarities to that path.
In any era of new or evolved concepts, there are phases of adoption. There are also profiles of those responding to the shift, or as we like to call them, the “early adopters” and “late adopters” and everything in between.
But equally if not more important than when companies adopt new practices is why they adopt them.
While it’s easy to judge and analyze that from the outside, the critical piece of this is really to understand the motivators and drivers of your own organization, because it’s the major lens through which you should view your social business decisions (and others for that matter, but for the sake of our purposes here, let’s focus).
And it makes all the difference in the world.
Leading: Staying Ahead and Breaking New Ground
One significant driver for many of the companies already actively pursuing and adopting social business is the desire to innovate, and not only stay ahead of the competition (though that’s part of it), but to lead the industry or the market by creating and implementing new business models altogether.
This is partly a market motivator, but it’s largely an intrinsic one. It’s a desire to do more, build bigger, to experiment and test things and unequivocally lead into new territory rather than waiting for established practices and standards. It’s social business based on “want to”, not “need to”.
The risk level here is pretty high, because it involves heavy investment in the creation of vision, culture and processes rather than mirroring those that are already proven successful. But the payoff here is potentially big too, since success means writing the standards, not following them, and with continued investment, constantly being in a position to disrupt markets or create entirely new ones.
Keeping Pace: Maintaining Market Momentum
If it’s not already, this will become the most prevalent motivation for companies entering the social business landscape in the next two to five years.
The vast majority of organizations will adopt social business practices after there is significant (read: 30%+) adoption in the surrounding market or industry, and once more consistent and scalable practices emerge. They’ll wait for the first wave of “early” adopters to pass them by so they can observe what’s working and what isn’t, hear the analysis of pundits and industry leaders about where the good investments are and have been, and lower their risk and investment slightly by gearing their programs toward what’s “proven”, or at least returning some consistent results and conclusions.
There are upsides here, certainly, if you consider reducing risk to be an upside, and you’re more comfortable going with the crowd and riding the wave of momentum established by others in the market. It’s not uncommon by any stretch, and it’s certainly the way the majority of companies have operated for many, many years when market disruptions hit. It’s relatively safe, and provides you with some stability and structure around new initiatives since you can build on the work that’s already been road tested to a certain degree.
The downside of course is that you’re waiting, and even if you wait, there are no guarantees. In today’s social business emergence, the pace is relentless. Which means that by the time you decide to act, you’re already responding to practices that are 18-36 months old, and unless you’re willing to break the pattern with a larger risk at a later date, you’ll always be in a position of reaction and response to what other people have already done. (They’re also likely working on the next thing.)
There are many shades of grey in here, of course. But there’s a distinct difference between social business based on “let’s go figure it out” and “let’s wait and see what’s working and then do that.”
Catching Up: Preventing Irrelevance
Unfortunately for some companies, they’ll be driven into social business the way many companies were driven onto the web. They’ll realize at some point that the demands of the market, consumers, employees, and partners alike are compelling them to adapt whether they really want to or not.
This is the worst possible position to be in, which is why we’re in the business of preventing it from happening. But no matter how much work we do, some businesses will resist for a million reasons. Lack of understanding, ignorance of implications, intimidation by the effort itself, fear of costs or risks or a lack of letter “best practices” that are contained in a textbook or a manual full of standards they can implement.
Some will never make the leap.
The upside is thin: you avoid some short-term risk and discomfort. The downside is a real chance of irrelevance, and potentially devastating.
Why? There is a fundamental danger in this approach, specific to social business, that is nearly impossible to overcome.
You can’t buy your way into social business with technology, process manuals or more staff if you fall behind on the fundamental element of culture.
Matt explained the importance of a long-term view in his post about time horizons when evaluating the case for things like social business. The upshot: we have to see success, value, and potential impact of current effort in terms of how we envision future achievement, even when the two seem disparate.
Case in point: Because so much of the currency of social business success is invested in culture, knowledge, and relationships, you cannot shortcut them later if you wait to make the investment.
You can’t buy a bunch of technology tomorrow, hire a bunch of people to throw at it, and then put in place a 90-day “plan” to establish the culture that makes the concepts of collaboration, knowledge transfer and self-organization possible. It doesn’t work that way. Culture development is not a “just add water” effort that you can buy on a shelf.
Trustful relationships, too, — with employees, with customers, with partners, with peers — aren’t something you can “accelerate” with even the very best of methodologies, either. Instead they are an investment for which the dividends are gradually accrued over time, and once you’re behind, it will take a radical shift in both thinking and practice in order to change direction (and even then the odds are better than average that you’ll always be lagging).
Social business isn’t a technology revolution, or a process shift, or even simply a business model disruption.
It’s a mindset that’s completely rooted in intent and culture.
The technology and the business models and the processes and infrastructures are what develop to support that. Not the other way around.
You can certainly make strides in social business if you’ve got a progressive attitude and are willing to take risks and lead the charge with new ideas and models. You can absolutely make strides, too, if you have the cultural intent and understanding but need to work from more established frameworks that are repeatable so they can accommodate the size and complexity of your company. And you’re still in good shape if you don’t necessarily have the culture foundation yet, but you’re aware of that and are willing and able to invest the time and energy into developing it and then working on the mechanics of social business.
All this is why we do the work that we do, because there are businesses in all three of those camps today, and they need help taking the steps to get where they largely know they need to go.
But waiting for it to all get figured out before you invest is a recipe for failure. So is sitting back and waiting for the market to “convince” you that this is a necessary investment. Because no one can write the manual for your culture, for the value and mutual trust of your business networks and relationships. Only you can develop those, and only you can nurture them.
And if you don’t see why those are fundamentally the thing that will carry your business into the future as the business models we know are completely and continually upended, then all of the best practices and well-oiled mechanics in the world are going to be completely and ultimately futile.
For the first time in our lifetimes, we are experiencing a philosophical shift in business that is driven from the outside – from our communities and networks as a whole – and not our own organizational motives or simply the insular practices of our industry.
“Catching up” won’t work the way it’s worked before. And it’s truly going to be the difference between the businesses that make the shift and thrive…and those that don’t.