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Social business within the enterprise: Is it revolutionary?

You go to a conference, watch in awe the keynote speaker making a very convincing case that the-world-has-completely-changed-and-nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again and leave energized, certain that we are all just witnessing the dawn of a brave new business world where you will never have to deal with email and endless meetings, hierarchy is replaced by a flat organizational structure and any knowledge you need is within close reach–all you have to do is to Google it. Then, you go back to your cubicle or home office, and realize that your inbox and calendars are still full, you still have 10 people between you and the CEO, and getting the information you need to do your job still feels like pulling teeth. Where did all that promise go? Wasn’t the world supposed to be changing? Have you just been trapped in a really bad Groundhog Day joke?

Romantic history painting. Commemorates the Fr...
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Or is it true? We’d all like to believe in the inevitable transformation of traditional business practices towards a world where the forces of Social Business and Enterprise 2.0–whatever that means–dictate the norms. It typically goes like this:
  • from top-down to bottom-up
  • from broadcast to dialogs
  • from designated experts to de-facto experts and crowdsourcing
  • from hierarchy to meritocracy
  • from governance to trust

When you think about all those bullet points, they come down to moving from a deterministic knowledge system towards a probabilistic one:

A deterministic model is one in which every set of variable states is uniquely determined by parameters in the model and by sets of previous states of these variables. Therefore, deterministic models perform the same way for a given set of initial conditions. Conversely, in a stochastic (probabilistic) model, randomness is present, and variable states are not described by unique values, but rather by probability distributions. (source: Wikipedia)

The way many of us perceive knowledge was developed over centuries and shaped by scarcity constraints. Valuable knowledge was a rare asset, coming up with it was dependent on hard-earned skills and efforts, and very few people would master that knowledge. Over the years, we have built a very elegant and complex deterministic system where authoritative knowledge is well aligned with subject matter experts. This system worked well the same way that the original Yahoo! search directories were reasonably good back in 1995. I still remember creating websites and sending a request to Yahoo! to index them. As the amount of things to search in the Internet exploded, the editorial approach used by Yahoo! became clearly inappropriate, and it was eventually replaced by a more scalable probabilistic model developed by Google, where algorithms, not people, would index the immense amount of information available out there.

So, the logic goes, if that worked for the Internet, it should also work everywhere else, right? Well, yes and no. As I mentioned in my last Biznology post, some things over the Internet work because of the sheer size of the audience. Unless your organization has hundreds of millions of people, some of the patterns you see in Facebook, Twitter, Google, Wikipedia or YouTube will never realize–and that cuts both ways. You will probably not see much of the nasty side of social media when using social business platforms internally, but you’ll also not fully realize the benefits of it. Your “crowd” is just not big enough for that.

There are several other differences between the social media patterns observed over the Internet and the social business patterns that will develop internally in the enterprise. As well stated by cartoonist Peter Steiner, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, but most enterprise social platforms make the majority of the content non-anonymous, making “the bottom half of the Internet” phenomenon almost non-existent in the Enterprise environment. Also, chances are that your organization’s business is very different from the social media darlings, so mimicking them is not necessarily a smart survival strategy: the fact that reptiles succeeded out of water and birds conquered the air did not mean that all species had to follow suit. The vast majority of fishes stayed in the water and most mammals are still not flying around, yet, they are still winning the survival game.

The bottom line is that, for the vast majority of businesses, the old-school deterministic model, represented by the left-side of the bullet points listed above, still make sense for a lot of what they do, and will continue existing for years to come. However, new “enterprise 2.0” patterns being developed influenced by the consumer social media also have plenty of value to offer: that may be a better fit to address some of your old–and a lot of your new–challenges. But it’s not a regime change. Call it revolutionary, if you want, but the actual influence of social business, at least when used inside the enterprise, is more evolutionary in nature: it creates new processes and structures, and influences old ones, but does not fully replace them. To fully realize the benefits promised by the social business framework, you have to adjust your business model to allow deterministic and probabilistic models to coexist in the enterprise: traditional authoritative systems can be substantially enhanced when paired with social media-like systems focused on engagement and conversation.

Make no mistake: the use of social networking technologies in the workplace is here to stay, because operating on solely traditional models is no longer a sustainable business practice. But do understand that this change is more likely to follow a gradual path than a precipitous one, and not all benefits will be realized on year one or two. When developing your internal social business strategy, make sure you set the expectations straight around what is achievable in the short, medium and long term, and monitor it accordingly, so that you can adjust your course along the way.


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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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