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Awaiting the next horizon–Will the internet enforce social good?

When the Web was first available as a business tool, there were many debates about its value.  Populated by pornography, bulletin boards, and chat rooms, there was little to recommend it the business community.  And, yet, there were visionary leaders who saw behind the naked Barbies and recognized the potential that lay there. The initial wave of entrepreneurs experimented with this new medium and came up with interesting ideas with limited monetization.  Not surprisingly, most failed.  Those who did succeed, such as Amazon.com, made it very big and fundamentally shifted the world of commerce.

Along the way, Web 1.0 begat Web 2.0 and the communications landscape changed forever.  Individuals could now write their own encyclopedias on Wikipedia, have a voice in politics via blogs, Twitter and Facebook, and develop relationships with people they would have never had the opportunity to meet.  Barriers to entry were eliminated and companies recognized and tapped into skills and information across their enterprises.  On the political front, candidates saw the possibilities of engaging large groups of like-minded people and revolutionaries recognized that they could organize and change their governments.

English: Looking into and across Mount Eden cr...
Photo credit: Wikipedia

So, what is the next horizon? Yes, the semantic web is looming and organizations are incorporating social technologies and becoming social businesses.  But, will new technologies usher in more profound changes in business and society than those we have already seen?  Will the fundamentals of our capitalist system be impacted and the very structure of our institutions be altered?

Large-scale change does not happen in isolation.  It is usually a reaction to events happening around us.  The civil rights and women’s rights movements matured during and after the turbulent Vietnam War era when the younger generation started to question the judgment of their elders.  Is the Occupy Movement the tip of the spear of a larger movement that demands accountability from businesses and more rights for workers?  Certainly, events such as the banking crisis and the recent Libor scandal have many asking “how can this can happen again and again?”  And, with the benefit of social technologies and communities, we are no longer isolated voices.

While financial success is still admired by most, being successful at all costs is not, as the furor over Bain Capital has shown.  Many are calling for corporations to be held to higher standards of morality than quarterly earnings  dictate.  And, organizations are beginning to listen as their key stakeholders are raising the same issues.  Behind the scenes there has been renewed focus on corporate social responsibility and a recognition that there needs to be a shift in organizational culture and values.  In the transparent world of social media there is no longer any place to hide and no organization wants their brand associated with destroying the planet, creating widespread unemployment or exploiting workers.

Perhaps we will soon arrive  at a place where technology, and the connectivity and openness it brings, will inspire businesses to truly care about their larger impact on the world.  Time will tell whether this is the dawn of the next horizon, “the social business with a conscience”, or rather just an exercise in brand management.   For all of our sakes, let’s hope the change is real.

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