When The Term “Social Business” Is Taboo

When The Term “Social Business” Is Taboo
When The Term Social Business Is Taboo - SideraWorks

Some businesses are still scared to death by the mere mention of anything ‘social’

Unfortunately, social media, social business and anything related to the social web still have some credibility problems in the business world. They bring up associations with the tools — like Twitter and Facebook and blogs — and become really easy to dismiss. In the case of regulated industries or more conservative companies, risk mitigation often leads the charge the instant discussions center around “online” or “internet” or “sharing”. It’s enough to give a compliance officer a case of hyperventilation.

In one real-world example, we work with a company in a traditionally conservative industry. Fantastically, their company is very much invested in making a difference for their customers in some pretty profound ways, and if you read through the language they use to describe themselves and their work, it’s amazingly similar to the tenets we often describe as core to “social business”. And yet, in building the case for social business programs within the organization, we were asked specifically to take it easy on the use of “social” when outlining what we had in mind.

So, what then?

With all the sometimes-debate around the term “social business”, you’d think that we’re waging nothing more than a semantic war. But in reality, the concepts of social business can absolutely be described, illustrated and articulated without needing to resort to, well, “social” anything. Here are some ways we go about it.

Address Specific Business Problems and Outcomes

There are very few executives that I know that would say they didn’t want to increase customer loyalty numbers. Or improve their sales numbers and the quality of their partnerships, outperform their competition, reduce costs, improve their returns overall. Yet those are exactly the benefits that social enterprise CEOs are citing from their efforts.

So if we can’t talk about “social”, let’s talk about outcomes first, and then simply explain that we’re going to build a plan to achieve those outcomes using a combination of human brainpower and creativity, better organizational and process design, and the intelligent application of technology. If you get buy in around desired outcomes and have the trust built enough to say “I’m going to build you a plan that will help us achieve those things”, that’s a business approach, not a social approach. Which is the way it should be, anyway.

Another helpful approach is to go directly to specific problems, obstacles, or challenges you’re hoping to solve. Try talking about things like “adapting processes to bring them up to the speed demands of our customers and prospects” or “addressing a lack of alignment between teams and initiatives”. Those are problems that social business practices tackles pretty directly, but the “social” word never really needs to come into play if you focus around the adaptation of people, process, and platforms.

Creating Gravity

Setting vision can be a powerful driver for a business pivot, too.

We like to talk about “Creating Gravity”, which is the purposeful development of a business culture and organization that not only attracts devoted customers but also dedicated teams, valuable partners, and a community that is invested for the long-term, all of whom will work alongside you to create mutual value and success. Then it’s all about building the operational and cultural foundation you need for that vision to thrive.

Obviously it’s not nearly as simple as is sounds, but it’s got nothing to do with social and everything to do with setting and investing in a vision that is built upon a healthy, attractive (in the truest sense of the word) system that people want to be part of.

Whatever vision you outline, whatever you call it,  it needs to be one that is central enough to the business and its purpose for existing that everyone can see themselves and their work reflected in it. If it just so happens that social business transformation is an outstanding way to achieve that vision, well, wouldn’t that be something.

Agility & Adaptability

Fear isn’t always a great motivator, because it starts from a place of negativity (prevent a bad thing from happening) versus positivity (achieve something you want). But the very human truth is that in business, fear of lagging behind is not only very effective, but it’s legitimate — especially now.

Businesses need to learn to be more agile. Everyone working today feels the demands and the pressure to be faster, to be better, to be in more places at once and to shift on a dime when a new opportunity arises. That’s all about developing not just efficiencies, but becoming a more effective company that can maneuver nimbly to either avoid a pitfall, or to seize an emerging advantage. The traits of a social business – agility, adaptability, active intelligence, openness, empowerment, smart connectivity – embody those things. So talk about the traits of a modern, adaptable business and you can very easily have the same conversation.

Building Frameworks

Scalability is an issue for almost any business that is anticipating growth of any kind. How do we take successful programs and grow them – both philosophically and operationally – to adapt to our growing needs and still maintain the culture we’ve worked so hard to develop?

The answer lies in building frameworks.  Frameworks are reusable, repeatable structures around which you build programs and initiatives. They’re robust enough in central structure to give you some stability and consistent elements that you can build upon, but they’re flexible enough around the middle and edges to allow them to flex and adjust over time as you learn what works and what doesn’t, integrate new initiatives and opportunities, and sunset programs or pieces of the business that just aren’t relevant any longer. It’s like the steel skeleton of a building that gives you strength and consistency, but gives you the blank canvas to build around it whatever you need and want.

A framework doesn’t need to reference social business specifically to address the points of leverage and risk that social business can address. Frameworks provide key benefits: structure, alignment, coordination, consistency, scalability, flexibility. Whatever your vision and strategy,  you can do the work to build them around a framework that doesn’t rely on any one set of terminology to be compelling for any business.

Social Business Is Not Bunk

All of this said, it’s important to stress this. The concept of social business is not an empty one.

You can call it lots of things. And you can argue in many ways that the main challenge of social business — organizational change — is one that companies have struggled with forever, most especially when there is a giant pivot in the market or the underlying drivers of business as a whole.

The key here is that it’s not the what that’s changing. It’s the why and the how. We have a rather unique collision of motivators, market demands, expectations of both customers and employees alike, technology readiness and availability and cultural indicators that are bringing a great deal of concentrated, external and internal pressure for companies to change the way they do things for the better. That’s unique.

So whatever you call it, whatever words you use, this is most definitely a sea change. If you don’t like “social business”, by all means call it something that suits you.

But the change and evolution is happening, and business tomorrow will be different than it was before. Which means most businesses need to do things differently than they’ve done them before. Not just on the surface, with social technologies and communication. At the core, at the foundation, at the very bedrock of the business where culture and operations collide.

That’s why we’re here, that’s why you feel the shift, that’s why you can look around you and watch it happening.

That’s why these conversations are so important, and why you can and should be the one to put them on the table.


Amber is the president of SideraWorks, a culture and organizational transformation firm. She's also the best-selling author of the social business book The Now Revolution. You can find her on twitter at @ambercadabra.