collaboration and purposeThe wisdom of the crowd, participation, co-creation, engagement, empowerment, collaboration,… The literature and ‘collective wisdom’ regarding social business is filled with such words today.

However, the words don’t matter. What lies underneath them is key: how smart can a crowd really be? What drives social collaboration? How does engagement lead to action? Which business functions can be improved using co-creation and how do you get people to co-create? What new business models, such as crowdfunding, work and how?

While this invitation to look less at the words but more at the realities of the market and what organizations do might seem superfluous, it is not. I’ve been reading too much – sometimes nonsensical – theory and buzz lately because of the focus on the power of words such as crowd, collaboration and, indeed, ‘social’.

The reality of business and of human nature

It seems as if many believe that the consumer today dictates everything a business does, and that we are moving towards some kind of ‘consumerism communism’ with a dose of love, peace and new-age thinking. Don’t get me wrong: the customer is increasingly calling the shots – but to a certain extent. He will not sit in the board meeting of a multinational where world domination is discussed. Heck, he is even often absent when simple projects such as developing a new website are discussed. Of course, not every business is the same. Furthermore, organizations are as dynamic as the people ‘making’ them. There is hope. For those that keep shutting people out, there is less hope. Again, to a certain extent, unless you’re a real champion and game-changer.

Fortunately, there are also many practitioners and theoretical thinkers who know the reality of business and of social psychology. I personally don’t really like the term social business (except if you use ‘social’ as in social psychology, rather as in social media). It’s confusing and not correct but who am I to change it? Let the Forrester’s of this world come up with the new flags we can all follow.

Here’s the thing: a business is not a democracy and probably never will be. The ideal of the fully ‘social business’ is a dream, and we should stop making silly statements that customers are co-managing the company today, they’re not. Let’s get real, shall we? I strongly believe in the power of people, transformational factors and the potential of social business. However, let’s not fall in the trap of heralding a fictive new world order. Your CEO is not a hippie and couldn’t care less about having a ‘social business’ (unless there’s really something in it for him or her).

Get the purposes right on all levels: the need to understand

Organizations are managed by people with different purposes in life and work. The human beings, we call employees, all have their own purposes. Let me assure you that these purposes often are about their own personal goals, pains and gains than with a ‘higher good’ or the ‘holy customer’.

So, is social business a fad, a mission impossible, given human nature? It’s not, as long as we know what is possible and what is not. More importantly, it’s key to know the purposes of all stakeholders in any project whereby collaboration is necessary, the micro-level included. Collaboration is most certainly not always a question of mass as is sometimes advocated. By the way, when looking at many domains where social business is used, you’ll notice that in practice collaboration is often key.

Getting people to collaborate is not only about having a great vision or idea. In order to make it work, you need to know what the pains, needs and egotistic reflexes of all stakeholders are (note that egotistic is not a negative word, we all look at ourselves and our inner circles first).

You also need to overcome the obstacles, attempts of sabotage, shifting priorities and changing market conditions.

Social collaboration, let alone social business, is not a walk in the park.

If you want to do it right, you really need more than vague words and overly optimistic goals. People will collaborate if they want to, not if they’re forced to or don’t get the benefits.

Start by getting all purposes right:

  • The business advantages and goals that make the C-level go for it.
  • The demands of the internal and external stakeholders that differ per type of stakeholder – and often even per individual.
  • The emotional needs that can be answered by motivational factors.

Simply said it all starts with listening and understanding. As does everything.

Now, can the world be a better place in these so-called ‘social times’? Can organizations genuinely care about environment, their human capital and what people and this world needs? Yes, I am hopeful. Yet, it won’t come without blood, sweat, tears and lots of courage and leadership, not in the traditional sense of the word but in the sense of taking action and igniting the passion of others.

However, I would not focus on this possibility too much. Getting people to work together and managers to look beyond direct gains is already hard enough. Some are by nature participative and empathic, some are, well, less.

Just look at human relationships in general: paths cross and then separate again. Having them more or less running parallel for a while, towards a shared destination/purpose, is an art and requires a strong will.

So, have you started? We have.