Social business guide: context and business dimensions

Social business is defined in several ways as it touches many dimensions in a connected and social reality. An exploration and overview of potential business applications, from social media marketing and social collaboration to people-centric/humanistic business.

Social business - copyright mindscanner via shutterstock
Social business – copyright mindscanner via shutterstock

Technological innovations profoundly impact society and business. In the post-industrial era, the most impactful of all is undoubtedly digital technology as we know it since the invention of computers, networks, the Web, mobile technologies and, increasingly social media and social technologies. Ever since we started connecting computers and created networks of computing power, ever more big data, information, knowledge, people, devices and – increasingly – objects (Internet of Things), the ways people communicate, buy, work and live evolved.

This evolution isn’t finished nor are the benefits and of course dangers and risks (just look at cybersecurity challenges). It just started and is not only about technological networks anymore, it’s about all sorts of networks, including human social networks, networks of data and networks of objects.

A subset of digital technologies, so-called social technologies, have given birth to social media and an avalanche of new ways of doing business: social business. It fits in a broader context of not just social technologies and social ways of doing business and serving customers, it also fits in the context of digital business and business beyond digital, with a focus on people, outcomes, experiences and opportunities/needs for genuine digital transformation.

Four dimensions of social business

The societal, personal, relational and economic effects we see are not simply a consequence of technological innovations that started decades ago. The opposite goes as well: human and societal changes have found an enabling or amplifying partner in digital evolutions.

Social business – connected and people business – source Infosys
Social business – connected and people business – source Infosys

This clearly shows in social business that has a technological, societal (in this case organizational/economical), management and human dimension.

  1. The social technology dimension. The social networks and platforms, a multitude of tools and consumer and business applications, next-generation Web technologies, cloud computing, new protocols, new Web languages, data, etc. In the scope of most analyst predictions and obviously most technology vendors, it’s about using social technologies and applications for business purposes. Which business purposes? In practice, today social collaboration and customer-facing processes (with social media marketing and social CRM leading the pack) are prominent.
  2. The social/behavioral perspective. Others refer more to dynamics and underlying principles of phenomena driven by the social and mobile reality and most of all its impact on how people behave, interact, inform themselves, form communities, co-create, etc.  Gamification, the reversal of processes whereby the “customer” takes center stage, sharing and networking principles and crowd-sourcing are a few of these phenomena. Empowered consumers that can voice their opinions more than ever before, the crystallization of communities around shared interests, changing paradigms regarding collaboration, innovation, creation and doing business are others.
  3. The process and management view. A third segment of definitions looks at management styles and processes, the creation of different approaches to processes within the enterprise and its ecosystem, new business models, changing ways of working, constructing agile teams and forming decisions beyond traditional and slow management structures. In essence this equals making existing business functions more efficient, fluent and free from traditional silo models. Information and content play a key role in these processes and in a mutual exchange of value between people and customers, whereby customers are also internal customers. Intelligent data and information, content management in the pro-active sense and even content marketing play a role here (in two directions) with a clear link between, for instance social business and social content strategy.
  4. The ‘social’ and human dimension in social business. Finally, there is a group of people emphasizing more human principles in the way we do business and behave as businesses in the world around us. People-centricity, an increased focus on ‘human values’, social good and even social responsibility, which is really where the definition of social business corresponds most with what it originally meant. The social organization. From a more human dimension, we can also add the psychological needs that are on one hand enabled by the two previous dimensions and on the other hand drive them. The need of recognition, equality, trust, involvement, honesty, authenticity, self-realization, etc.

This list of different groups of definitions is not even exhaustive and obviously it overlaps in several areas. Gartner’s Mark McDonald by the way defines a social organizaton as “one that is able to bring together all the talents, interests, experience, insights, knowledge of their people in ways that are independent of the vertical top to bottom hierarchy or end to end process orientation to create sustained value” (via Michael Brito).

How theoretical and even fluffy all this may seem, it’s important because it’s real and you will discover it. Social business functions and processes, whether it’s social media marketing, internal collaboration, co-creation or management, only work if the four components are well aligned. Social business is partially business as usual (processes, organization, goals, revenue, etc.) and partially business as unusual (scale, social ecosystems, real-time economy, many-to-many, etc.).

Social business: a definition and business applications

Simply said social business is the use of social media and/or principles and processes underlying the success and dynamics of it, in a business context.

There are numerous other definitions as you can read here but it is really an umbrella term. So, more important than the definition is what it business areas and processes fall under social business and understanding how your business can evolve by effectively embracing the fundamental principles of a business era in which social technologies and societal changes affect the ways in which organizational success and ‘customer’ success is achieved. And this goes for ALL business processes. Just as is the case with social media, social business processes and applications can basically be used for all business functions: from marketing and sales to R&D, human resources, CSR, management and customer service.

It’s about collaboration, transparency, being nimble, engaging employees, lateral models, managerial changes, peer-to-peer, people, and so much more. However, most of all it’s about identifying the opportunities, regardless of business function, that these changes enable.

The original meaning of social business

Before we talked about social business in a social techology context, the term already existed. Prof. Muhammad Yunus defined a social business as “a non-dividend company created to solve a social problem. Like an NGO, it has a social mission, but like a business, it generates its own revenues to cover its costs. While investors may recoup their investment, all further profits are reinvested into the same or other social businesses. More about social business in that original sense here. the same thing happened when we started usng the term social marketing instead of social media marketing. Social marketing originally also had another meaning. Both social business and social marketing are still used in their original meaning as well.

Some examples of the areas where social business can come into play:

  • New and connected ways of internal and external collaboration.
  • Crowdsourcing for a broad variety of goals such as research, innovation, crowd-funding and more (see below).
  • Collaborative ways of managing data, information and content processes: social content management, etc.
  • New business, financing and crowd-funding models.
  • Additional opportunities for Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability (case).
  • Customer & business intelligence, data mining, analysis, wisdom, decision-taking.
  • Social media marketing and social listening.
  • New working models: consumerization, BYOD, agile working, etc.
  • Collaborative and social-enabled research.
  • Changing HR and employee engagement approaches.
  • New ways of communicating.
  • Collaborative forms of ideation and innovation involving various social tools and/or spheres.
  • Different channel models in partner-based go-to-market ecosystems.
  • Product design & development, R&D
  • Strategic transformation opportunities.
  • Social learning, knowledge management and knowledge-sharing models
  • Connected and collaborative Voice Of the Customer programs.
  • More agile and functional management models.
  • Real-time business processes via cloud-based and mobile platforms.
  • Etc.…

The state of social business: on maturity levels and barriers

Social business really is the natural next step whereby we move from social media, platforms and technologies to business and management applications and collaboration processes. As mentioned, the degree in which this happens differs. Several experts and companies have developed so-called social maturity models to gauge where an organization is at a specific point in time. Whatever social business maturity model you use, note that moving from one stage to the next in good maturity models, regardless the area, can take anywhere between one and two years (typically on average 18 months). In other words: social business is for the long run!

Social business equilibrium - from Social Business by Design - a year of lessons learned - Dion Hinchcliffe via Sprinklr
Social business equilibrium – from Social Business by Design – a year of lessons learned – Dion Hinchcliffe via Sprinklr

Another social business maturity model, by Altimeter Group (Charlene Li), identifies the following stages:

  • Planning
  • Presence
  • Engagement
  • Formalized
  • Strategic
  • Converged 
The six stages model of Social Business Transformation - Charlene Li - Altimeter
The six stages model of Social Business Transformation – Charlene Li – Altimeter

Read more about it here and check out an analysis of the strategic stage channel, mentioning the model and recent Altimeter research here.

However, the adoption of social business and social media within one organization can and often should happen at a different pace since in practice it’s often better to start within a number of processes, business functions and even departments (pilot projects or using a Center of Excellence).  The maturity and adoption of advanced social business practices today is still relatively low. Social media, in general, in reality is just starting to happen and pay off now.

Disrupting the competition and social business - Dion Hinchcliffe CeBIT 2014 - picture J-P De Clerck
Disrupting the competition and social business – Dion Hinchcliffe CeBIT 2014  (picture J-P De Clerck)

As managers, we need to keep pace with these evolutions and even anticipate them. We need to be able to help our customers understand how they can leverage social technologies since they are connected as well or even doing business with a ‘connected consumer’ themselves and will increasingly need social business tools. Social business in practice today mainly revolves around collaboration (along with Unified Communications) and involving social data and feedback. But the range of areas where social business ‘happens’ increases fast.

One day we will probably not talk about social business (nor about digital business anymore for that matter) and it doesn’t really matter what we will call it as social and digital technologies as well as the evolutions causing them and being caused by them will have turned organizations into more connected, integrated and customer-centric operations with new processes and more connected ways of getting things done in a better way.

The smartest organizations reap the fruits of having implemented social business principles and practices. They are ahead of the curve and outperform their colleagues in several domains and functions. Business IS about different functions. The goal of a business is not to be a ‘social business’, it’s to improve efficiency and relevancy as ways towards stakeholder satisfaction and revenue. Social is a means to that end. Social business is not a religion. Becoming a social enterprise (not in the CSR sense or in the sense of the original definition of a social business, before we used it in a social media and social technology perspective), conversation company or other similar ‘ideals’, is not a goal. You don’t get happier customers or employees, nor achieve better results, if you get featured as a very ‘social business’ or a good ‘conversation company’ on some list.

We have reached a tipping point whereby many business models are under pressure because of better ones that are used by our competitors. And most of all because our customers, including employees, partners and all internal and external stakeholders, increasingly demand change. However, the maturity levels are still relatively low as said. Especially the lack of a strategy is a barrier to success as it is in many business areas.

From How Social Business Grew Up by Dion Hinchcliffe on ZDNet
From How Social Business Grew Up by Dion Hinchcliffe on ZDNet

When looking at social business in general, there are still many barriers as the latest MIT Sloan Management Review/Deloitte University Press social business study. The State Of Social Business 2013 report by Altimeter Group, found similar results with a lack of an integrated strategy as the top challenge.

You can read more about both here.

Digital transformation and social business: steps and stages

In the meantime there is still a lot to do, not just from the – oh so crucial strategic perspective – that seems to lack everywhere.

Social business – and digital business – happen at different speeds. While we still have many digital transformations to see occur as SAP’s Sameer Patel emphasized at CeBIT 2014, there are also many organizations that still have to simplify, optimize and digitize basic processes in areas such as information management, document input, customer service, you name it.

Social business - illustrations by The Reference at the occasion of our Brian Solis social business sessions
Illustrations by The Reference at the occasion of our Brian Solis social business sessions

So, saying social business is “dead” as some do, knowing all the simple collaboration and transformation hurdles we still have to take, seems premature, to say the least. I guess it depends on definitions and on where you stand: in real-life business or in pure theoretical contemplation, analysis or selling your solutions to businesses that haven’t even take step one properly. That’s why roadmaps, maturity models and painpoint-driven hybrid approaches, matching the now and tomorrow of each individual organization, matter so much.

You can’t move from square one to Walhalla. What’s your painpoint and where can you improve?