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The future is social. And it’s not.

In the saturated jargon cacophony surrounding us all, the social side of business has been touted by many as a game changer, with “social business” replacing or complementing other buzzwords such as enterprise 2.0, social media and corporate social networking. However, is social THE recipe for success? Is it a nice-to-have, or a key success factor across the board?

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Drinking the Kool-Aid much?

Image by McKillaboy via Flickr

To use a metaphor from life sciences, keep in mind that not all insects are social, not all birds fly, not all tetrapods stayed out of water, despite those adaptations being incredibly successful for many species. Whether or not the future will have only companies that embraced social business is anyone’s guess, but if you are considering how far to go in the social business (r)evolution, the question you should not ignore is: does it make sense for me, or am I just doing it because everybody else seems to be there already?

This past week, IBM ran its Social Business Jam, a mind-boggling discussion on several aspects of using “social” in a business context (for the purposes of full disclosure, let it be noted that I worked 13 years at IBM).

It was a great opportunity to exchange ideas with some of the brightest minds operating in the social business space, ranging from Charlene Li (co-author of Groundswell) to Martha N. Johnson (Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration).

Having been in hundreds of social business events, much before we called them “social business,” I couldn’t help but notice that an enduring pattern is still around after all these years: we get together, we agree with each other, and get reassurance that we’ve been right all along. After the first day of discussion, a quick, non-scientific test revealed that the word “disagree” had been used only twice, while “agree” generated 5 pages of positive matches (about 70 in total).

This by no means is a shot at IBM or at Social Media, or Social Business, or Social [put your buzzword here]: the IBM jam added a lot of value for all involved, as it’s an excellent forum to build on top our each other’s ideas, a.k.a. “the snowball effect,” so you typically end up energized, with fresh material to use in future endeavors. But very rarely you really challenge the thoughts you had coming in. The same pattern can be observed in fields as diverse as politics, religion, sports and IT. It’s just human nature to do that, and there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as we don’t lose sight of the bigger world out there, much more complex than the one shaped by our limited knowledge and our close circle of friends or acquaintances.

We often assume that a few stories of success signal a paradigm shift:

  • Microsoft was successful in the 1990s because they did not have the operating system tightly bundled with the hardware to run it, but almost 20 years later we see Apple ahead by doing just that.
  • The original iPod was a success and Palm a failure because consumers did not like multi-function devices, and now we see smartphone success directly linked to how many things they can do well.
  • Bank branches were a thing from the past, then they became hot again as local and personal trumped online and global in the mind of many.
  • Chris Anderson and Wired claiming: “The long tail: why the future of business is selling more of less”, “Free! why $0.00 Is the future of business”, and, more recently, that “the Web is dead”.

We tend to move like bird swarms towards the latest and greatest, discarding what was valuable five minutes ago as old-fashioned and outdated. The underlying premise for this behavior is that there can only be one answer for every single question. So, if social is in, everything else must be out. If Twitter is hot, blogging is useless. If apps are popular, the Web is dead, along with the browser.

One of the discussions in the jam that seemed to suggest a only-one-way-to-go thinking was headlined as “Those Companies who Use Social will Succeed”, and the trigger post concluded with “the question is not if this will happen, but how do I begin for the biggest competitive advantage.” The apparent conclusion is that, if a company does not go social, it will fail, and that if it starts earlier, it will have a competitive advantage. While I do think that companies in some industries will benefit a lot from going social, and that in some cases early entrants will reap benefits at first, it’s unclear whether or not that applies across the board. My gut feel is that in some cases the lack of social will not necessarily doom a company, and that in others the competitive advantage will be short-lived.

In my old days as a Biology high-school teacher, I recall that students often took for granted that Homo sapiens was the most evolved form of life, and that viruses and bacteria were just primitive organisms that stopped evolving long time ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. The confusion typically arises from mistaking complexity—the human brain is arguably the most complex system in the living world—by adaptive success. Modern viruses and bacteria, even though resembling primitive forms of life, are as well adapted to today’s environment as humans: we’re all survivors in the original reality show that started billions of years ago. Even though biomass estimates vary considerably, cyanobacteria alone may outweigh humans by at least three times, the same being true for ants and marine fish. In fact, if Earth ever undergoes a major catastrophic or environmental change, it’s possible that man may disappear as a species, while some of the so-called lower forms of life may still survive.

Likewise, while social is powerful and (r)evolutionary, it is not the only way to go. Some companies will find success because of it, others will fail despite using it, and some will just follow a different path to survival. Thinking that if you don’t embrace social you are doomed to fail is similar to stating that only organisms who can breathe outside the water, or develop feathers and flight, or can control body temperature will survive. There’s room for a myriad of survival strategies out there, and social is just one of the newest in that toolkit.

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Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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