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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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  1. Avatar Currency Broker Pete

    Interesting comments. I agree in general, and tend to disregard the hype that accompanies the latest developments, though taking away whatever useful I can. It means I spend less time worrying that I’m not doing something, and simply get on with it. : P
    Pete @ Pure FX

  2. Avatar Aaron Kim

    Thanks for the comment, Pete. The hype itself may be a useful piece of information if, like you, a person knows how to deconstruct it and assess it separately. I mentioned Chris Anderson in the examples above, but I actually love the essence of those 3 pieces he wrote; the wrapper around them was a bit over the top, but it probably ensures his books sell some extra thousand copies. Starting book descriptions with “the future is” makes them irresistible for folks looking for reassurance.

  3. Avatar george

    Yes, another jam that felt a bit too happy. I am guilty in jams of being a commenter who does not ask many questions, but with so much agreement across the board, it can be discouraging to even try.
    That said, it was nice to see where the general vibe sits right now. A few evolutionary steps have occurred over the last couple of years, but IMO most business people still do not spend enough time deep in social to be able to really understand it through experience. They listen to their chosen ‘experts,’ but from what they write you can see quite a bit of posturing still.
    I am embarrassed to admit that I thought business professionals would be further along now than we are in social, but seeing social getting some rec as a possible priority skill is the right direction and will help to kickstart some further progress.

  4. Avatar Aaron Kim

    Hey George, I didn’t mean to criticize the jam itself or anybody posting there, but my writing may have come across that way. I hope IBM still invite me for the next one 🙂
    Clearly to me, it’s much better to have the jam than not having it at all, and it’s just the nature of it that it will attract a think-alike, friendly audience. It’s not very different from a political party gathering, or a meeting at somebody’s church/mosque/synagogue/temple, and that’s OK. I’m also guilty of having mostly friendly conversations there.
    The one thing that could help is to have as special guests people who are notoriously skeptical about the whole 2.0/social thing. People like Andrew Keen (author of “The cult of the amateur”) or Jaron Lenier (author of “You are not a gadget”), along with experienced moderators so that the discussion is fair and constructive.

  5. Avatar george

    You are absolutely right Aaron. I am in agreement with your post and comments and I hate to sound negative, but without a wider variety of opinions, these undertakings can feel very strange. This may still be a by-product of the perceived ‘business appropriate’ tone many feel locked into on work platforms (it is possible to disagree folks, and not break possible guidelines), and if we keep having them, people may find that comfort zone. I enjoyed the jam overall, but was hoping for a bit more progressive interaction.

  6. Avatar Sacha Chua

    I wonder if that means people are getting better at the “Yes, and…” style of discussion. It’s like improvisation – saying “no” can shut down a potentially interesting train of thought, but saying “yes, and…” lets you build on it while still pointing out how an idea can be improved.

  7. Avatar Aaron Kim

    Hi Sacha,
    I think the fundamental question is: is the jam attendance a crowd or a mob?
    Yes, what you mentioned happened a few times, but I think they are the exceptions that confirm the rule. Your very comment is a good example of mild disagreement that does not use negative terms to articulate it. I went back to some of the “hot topics” and tried to compare the “me too” comments against the ones that brought a different perspective in. The one I mentioned above and the ROI one had at least 2 different PoVs, but I couldn’t find any other significant example of that.
    I don’t think the issue is etiquette or protocol. It’s a question of diversity, one of Surowiecki’s fundamental pre-requisites for crowds to be wise, and avoid herd behaviour (the other two are independence and decentralization). Maximizing the value of jams would require some effort to address those 3 pre-requisites.

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