Social business—defined as the adoption of social networking tools and protocols across the enterprise to connect employees, customers, suppliers, sales prospects and others in order to make better, faster decisions—is the next wave of business process improvement based on online technologies. And while it isn’t quite brain surgery, its power derives from enabling organizations to learn similarly to the way the human brain does.

The first wave of computer and Internet technology was about people interacting with machines. Office productivity and enterprise management applications dramatically increased efficiency. What’s more, suddenly information that was previously difficult to obtain became widely available and searchable. Research that had previously required hours in a library could now be done much faster and easier online.

The second wave was about machines interacting with machines. Two of the most common examples are automated teller machines (ATMs) and air travel reservation systems. Both removed people from the process, reducing errors, increasing velocity, and decreasing costs.

While the first two waves were about efficiency, the third wave is more about effectiveness; it’s about doing things better rather than just faster. This is the social wave, and it’s about people interacting with people. Never before has it been so fast and easy to find someone who is knowledgeable about a specific topic (whether inside or outside an organization), learn a bit about that person’s background, make a connection and start an online conversation.

In that way, social business functions a bit like the human brain, opening up the possibility for organizations to “learn” much as each of us do as individuals.

Social Business: Neural Networks and Social Networks

The human brain contains millions of neurons, electrically excitable cells capable of processing and transmitting information (much like your employees). However, though vital, these cells don’t accomplish much on their own until they form connections called synapses. Furthermore, what’s interesting about this process is that:

Diagram of a neuron – Wikipedia
Diagram of a neuron – Wikipedia

“The neurons seem to establish a large number of synapses between them right after birth. The scientists believe that the synapse overproduction is due to the fact that some of these connections are later on lost or disappear. This may allow the neurons to select and establish appropriate connections, and disregard the inappropriate ones to create more efficient connections with each other. This is how the brain learns.”

Sounds a bit like the way social media connections are formed, no? Even people with thousands or tens of thousands of Twitter followers tend to interact primarily with a fairly small number of those connections, as they learn over time which relationships are “most appropriate,” stimulating and supportive of their objectives.

What’s more, according to The Human Memory:

“Each individual neuron can form thousands of links with other neurons in this way, giving a typical brain well over 100 trillion synapses. Functionally related neurons connect to each other to form neural networks. The connections between neurons are not static, though, they change over time. The more signals sent between two neurons, the stronger the connection grows, and so, with each new experience and each remembered event or fact, the brain slightly re-wires its physical structure.”

Again, the formation of “neural networks” in the brain is similar to the way humans form networks both within the enterprise and beyond it, with suppliers, customers, prospects, industry influencers and others. There’s nothing new about this concept in and of itself; humans have always formed networks of business and personal contacts.

What’s new is that social networking and collaboration tools have exponentially expanded the potential scope for such networks. Instead of forming a close relationship with Chris, who happens to sit in the cube next to me, I can engage online with Ananya, who—though physically located half a world away—has much more valuable insights for my current project than does Chris.

Furthermore, just as with synapses in the brain, the more interaction there is between two people via social networking, the stronger that connection grows. Social networks, both within and beyond the enterprise, constantly “rewire” themselves just as the brain does.

The Implications for Social Business

Just as there are practices and habits that are good (and bad) for the brain and learning, so there are practices to be embraced (and avoided) in order to successfully adopt social business structures. For example, primary school teachers are advised to “Use all parts of the student’s brain by including reading, writing, verbal processing and images in your teaching.” Similarly, social media tools adopted by enterprises, for internal or external use, should support text, voice, image and video interaction capabilities.

Other things that are good for optimizing brain function include getting a sufficient amount of sleep, reading, conversing, listening to music, eating fish (and other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids), getting aerobic exercise, and solving puzzles. Things avoid or minimize include watching TV, eating sugary foods, drinking alcohol, and skateboarding without a helmet (yeah, that last one is tough to give up, right?).

Among the key characteristics that need to embraced or adopted for social business success are:

Transparency / authenticity: the etiquette of social networking requires openness—revealing to others who you are and what biases or motivations you bring to the conversation. This is natural for teenagers, but decidedly unnatural for corporate executives more accustomed to filtering all news through the corporate communications department and then straining it down to a bland, thin gruel through the legal department before making it public.

Transparency is a requirement in order to build trust—trust between co-workers, between managers and staff, between those inside and outside of an organization. This is one of the most difficult cultural hurdles for organizations to clear, but also one of the most essential and rewarding.

For marketers, as one example, this represents a shift from crafting sales-y, promotional, product-pushing feature-benefit messaging to helping the right buyers (those who will benefit most from your product or service, and therefore are most likely to become advocates for your company) to buy your product. It’s not only a more productive use of time, but much more enjoyable as well.

Immediacy: social media moves fast. Attention spans are short. People are accustomed to finding the information they seek very quickly. A page, post or other bit of online information has just seconds to either capture the viewer’s attention or repel them, sending them off to search for answers elsewhere.

One implication of this is the imperative to produce high-quality content. Quality content is “sticky” because it gives your audience what they want. People will reward you—with recommendations, links and their attention—for enabling them to find the information they are after, quickly.

A second consideration of immediacy is response time. When employees aren’t responsive to other employees internal to the organization, it wastes time and may cause some frustration. When your people aren’t responsive to those outside of the company, particularly to customers and prospects, it can cost much more. A social business needs to provide people with immediate access to a knowledgeable expert whenever possible, and to set expectations for response time properly when not possible.

Collaboration: this may be internal or external. One key area is product development. Most innovations today are combinations of previous discoveries utilized in new ways. Consider, for example, how many sub-innovations were required to produce one of the most talked-about recent product innovations, the iPhone: innovations in materials technology, chips, display technology, user interface, and software development just to name a few.

One of the best ways to build on the knowledge of others is to have connections to experts in the various disciplines (whether inside the company or external, at supplier companies or universities) as well as customers to bounce ideas off of and to provide end-user input to the design process.

This process happens naturally in startups and small companies, where all of the employees are generally in the same location (often in close quarters) and every employee is no more than one degree removed from customers and suppliers. This is probably a significant reason why, over the past two decades, 84% of new product innovations have come from startups and small companies.

Indeed, many of today’s startups are, by nature, social businesses. It’s a requirement for survival. Large businesses have much bigger institutional, inertial and technological barriers to overcome in order to truly become social businesses, but also much more leverage to gain from the transformation.

Privacy and control: this applies specifically to prospective customers. Online consumers and business buyers are pushing back against the creepiness of behavioral tracking, cookies, retargeting, and the whole notion of being “marketed to.”

Social businesses respect this by putting the buyer in control of the research and purchase process, enabling the prospective buyer to remain anonymous until he or she is ready and comfortable with revealing personal information, earning the buyer’s trust, and respecting the buyer’s privacy by collecting no more information than necessary and using it only to facilitate the purchase process.

What Social Business Means for Marketing

Marketing and PR professionals were among the first within corporations to see the value of social media for business. So much online ink has been spilt over topics such as inbound marketing, search and social, content marketing, social news releases and the like that instead of rehashing those topics here, let’s look at three less-discussed areas.

Collaboration: marketers have always been collaborative sorts, within their own department. But working closely with those in other departments has often been more difficult. Part of it is that engineers and field consultants are busy people. Part is that some people still don’t trust marketing, thinking of it as “spin” or as advertising—which most of us go out of our way to avoid (pop-up blockers, DVRs, satellite radio, etc.).

Internal social collaboration software helps open up lines of communications and makes collaboration more efficient. And as the role of marketing evolves (see above), people’s beliefs about it change as well. Social technologies can even help reduce finger-pointing and better align processes between marketing and sales.

Coaching and Policy Development: again, given that marketing and PR professionals were among the first to embrace social networks for business use, they are in an excellent position to help drive the development and writing of social media policies.

Only about 40% of businesses currently have a formal social media policy in place. And many of those existing policies may be illegal. For example, banning the use of social media at work (which, according to Gartner, was the practice at 50% of companies in 2010 and is expected to still be the rule at 30% of companies in 2014)—illegal. Barring employees from discussing co-workers, their employer, or controversial topics on social media? Also illegal.

Given that landscape, marketers have a key role to play in helping employees not typically thought of as “customer-facing” to understand the impact their online discussions can have. It’s not a matter of turning every employee into a marketer, but rather about the factual and responsible use of some very powerful tools.

Personal Branding: social media can turn corporate employees into rock stars within their industries. For example, Ekaterina Walter of Intel has nearly 26,000 followers on Twitter. Scott Monty of Ford has 76,000 following. And HubSpot’s Laura Fitton has more than 100,000 people watching her tweets.

As more employees—engineers, software developers, consultants, customer service pros, executives and others—get more active in blogging and social networks, marketing has a key role to play in helping to manage the personal brands of an organization’s externally facing and socially active members. This personal branding plays a significant role in how customers, prospects and stakeholders perceive your company, helps to humanize a brand, and even affects SEO.

Summing It Up

The power of the human brain is its ability to continually make new connections between bits of knowledge to solve problems and come up with entirely new ideas.

The potential of social business is that companies can harness social networking tools and protocols to mimic that learning and innovation process.

And ultimately, the best ideas win.

About the author: Tom Pick

Tom Pick
Tom Pick

As an independent digital marketing consultant and through partnerships with marketing and PR agencies such as KC Associates, Tom Pick helps clients increase their visibility, credibility, and business success online. His award-winning Webbiquity b2b marketing blog covers B2B lead generation, web presence optimization, social media, interactive PR, SEO and search engine marketing.

He’s been named one of the 50 most influential B2B marketing thought leaders, written numerous articles on web marketing and social networking, been quoted in publications including Forbes and Fast Company, and presented at blogging and social media conferences.

Tom is also co-founder of the portal for B2B blogs and the Social Media Informer social media content aggregation site.