Making social business a reality – Notes and slides from my SoCon 2011 talk

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These are the notes and slides from my talk at SoCon 2011 conference today, 20th October 2011.

Social business?

What do we mean by social business? It’s hard to get a hold of the term. The term itself may not survive.

Quite quickly in my work in social media marketing we found ourselves borrowing from management consultants, change consultants in the models and methods we needed to use. It was pointless to look at the value and practice of social media without looking beyond the limits of boundaries that were laid down, in effect by an old media reality.

It’s all to do with the hullaballoo that is social media…

Significance of social

In all the noise around the social web and business, two trends emerge: we both overstate and understate the significance of social.

“It is difficult, indeed dangerous to underestimate…”

There’s a quote from Rupert Murdoch that I used to refer to a lot five years ago, to give a sense of mainstream business legitimacy to the strategic significance of social media. Five years later it still resonates – but slightly differently…

“It is difficult, indeed dangerous, to underestimate the huge changes this revolution will bring or the power of developing technologies to build and destroy not just companies but whole countries.” – Rupert Murdoch, March 2006


He wasn’t wrong

It was an insight, a prediction of sorts, which came to haunt him. It was of course the courage of campaigners like Tom Watson and the tenacious and brave journalism of Nick Davies and his colleagues at the Guardian that brought the empire-shaking scandal of phone hacking to Murdoch’s door. Social media was used by both – and suprised, i suspect – to bring a the weight and momentum of massive public interest and anger to bear. The news cycle accelerated, there was no time or opportunity for politicians to sweep the issue under the carpet. Social media brought a threat to News International that was nothing to do with commercial competition, business models or attention shifts.


As to the “whole countries” part of Murdoch’s uncanny prediction? I’m not going to gift any of the buzzword bingo players out there a point by mentioning this years’ many challenges to state power that have been enhanced, augmented etc.

Social as a useful proxy

Social business, a.k.a. social business desgin, is a useful phrase – for now – but its is effectively a proxy for dealing with a lot of other things – for dealding in the round, with the modern, globally-hyperconnected world.

We mean networks

For the sharp-memoried and quick-eyed among you, this is where the networks thinking part comes in. There’s more detail on this idea in a lecture I gave at Warwick Business School’s executive MBA course on complexity theory.

We mean complexity

Social Business Design to an academic looks like either (a) a nice tag to sell more books/consultancy/technology/conference tickets or, if they in a more charitable mood, a catch-all, a proxy, a simplified way of talking about the business application of networks theory, complexity theory – fields which combine the thoughts and challenge the minds of accomplished people physics, mathematics, sociology and business departments of our universities.

Social is the shift

In Brilliant Noise’s work with Nokia recently, we realised that the bigger business case for social busines, then, could be summarised in the phrase “social is the shift”. It is the change, it is causing the change, it is accelerating the change.

If an organisation is investing people and time in understanding what social media means for it, then it is alive to the pace of change and to the implications of an accelerated, hyper-connected world.

Pace & scale of change

This is what Deloitte’s John Hagel and John Seely-Brown pinpoint in their brilliant book, The Power of Pull. The sum effect of a social web world is to speed up the arrival of edge trends – whether it is fashions or disruptive innovations – from the edge to the mainstream.

Even before I had talked about working with Nokia earlier this year, I was using Stephen Elop’s quote:

‘Chinese OEMs are cranking out a device much faster than the time that it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation.’ – Stephen Elop, Nokia CEO , Feb 2011

What would start ups do?

One theme that kept returning for me and my colleagues was: given how dramatic a shift social represents for things like communications and customer relationships, what are companies doing who are not encumbered with legacy structures and systems?

It is useful to ask “What Would Start-Ups Do?” and in fact to take a close look. It’s why we hear names like Threadless, Zappos, etc. all the time in discussions about this field.

What can big organisations do?

While looking at start-ups can be inspirational, useful even, when we turn back to reality of the organisation we are working in, the challenge can seem overwhelming.

Never mind “turning oil tankers”, we start to wonder if the oil tanker isn’t just the wrong kind of ship. That’s the conclusion Luke Johnson seem to reach in the FT yesterday [paywalled content]…

What they need to do is create the business case for change, an internal movement of kinds…

Hierarchies vs. Networks

In large organisations we look at social business design and we see that this is about hierarchies vs. networks. Not that one should win out, but that we should look at and challenge the balance of power between these two ways humans have of getting things done (Three Ways of Getting Things Done, by the way is the title of a useful book about networks and hierarchies).

Hierachies are good at heavy lifting, do big things, permananence. But they are slow and can become sclerotic. Networks are good at change, speed, adapting.

When we talk about social business design often we are talking about shifting the balance of power back in favour of networks.

I urge you to read and listen to whatever you can find of Dan McQuillan‘s work. Dan is a sociologist, who recently set up the MA in Creating Social Media at Goldsmiths.

Dan talks about the NHS as an organisation that is so big, that sometimes bits of it seize up. The hierarchy is so ingrained people don’t have options – they literally can’t do anything because they are locked down with policies and systems, designed with the best intentions, but that have ceased to be useful. The role of digital tools, Dan says, is to help loosen up these structures, create new ways of doing things, new habits.

There’s a video and notes about Dan and some thoughts of my own about networks and hierarchies in a blog post I wrote earlier this year.


One way of understanding that networks and hierarchies have to co-exist is to look at a sociological idea called “assemblages” – ad hoc collaborations between formal, hierarchical organisations and loose networks.

This diagram – and again it was Dan that introduced this idea to me – represents the assemblage that was put in place around the Haiti disaster. Learning the lessons from Katrina, the Red Cross and the US Navy connected with ad hoc networks using tools like Ushahidi to help them coordinate the relief effort.

US Navy

And if we want inspiration that large organisations can change, adapt and use social well, look no further than the US Navy. Brian Solis published the transcript from a speech by Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead.

Social Markting / Brand / Business

Working with the planning team at AKQA earlier this year, we saw a pattern in the progress of big companies getting to grips with social medial. Obviously we’re looking for marketing angle on this, but it is often marketing where social happens first in the organisation.

  • Social marketing: Campaigns are successfully developed in social media. Often these are pilots, or add-ons to existing campaigns.
  • Social brand: Social media becomes a part of  the “how”, planning for the brand, how it operates, part of how it thinks about its brand communications from the outset.
  • Social business: The business case for investing in social media becomes so compelling the business has made it a part of its strategy.


What do leading social businesses have in common?

Things we have noticed about brands like Dell, Starbucks, Ford and other leaders in this are:

  • Piloting: The only way to do it, is to do it, as Amelia Earhart put it. They learn by doing.
  • Systems: To scale they need to put in place systems to be able to listen, act, evaluate.
  • Frameworks: Ways of understanding and making decisions about social are put in place and shared.
  • Board sponsors: To get momentum, senior sponsors seem to be really important. If the board isn’t on board…
  • Digital literacy: It’s a skills thing. They focus on spreading the skills and abilities to get things done in social.

We begin with good intentions

Especially if it is led by planners, then we get into frameworks pretty quickly. It’s fun – and to a certain extent – very useful. What we realised working on these projects though, was that the process was as important as the policies and frameworks that came out. The frameworks sometimes felt like a useful excuse to (a) get people together from across the organisation and (b) brief and empower them to get things done with social media.

Digital literacy

What Howard Rheingold does so well in articulating is that you need these skills personally, and that you need practice and experience to become literate rather than just aware about social media and networks.

And that goes for everyone. It is in our organisations’ interests to have literate, able people using social media. We just need to find the right hook to get them to experience them…


One benefit of using social media that appeals to most people is productivity. Learn to use the tools right and they can help you manage information better, get work done faster, benefit from the serendipity engine effect (being luckier) that John Hagel talks about.

Managed badly of course, they are a distraction, bring on information overload etc. All the more reason to take charge.

I have outlined some ideas about how we can do this in a TEDx presentation called “Web Super Skills”, if you want to know more.


The other compelling reason for everyone to develop skills in this area is their personal reputation – what the web says about them – and that of their friends and family.

That’s one of the reasons I wrote a how to guide to managing personal reputation.

“Digital driving licence”

One executive who was using social media well at Nokia – Chris Schaumann – used the phrase “digital driving licence” to sum up the need to training and policies. They are to get you started, aware of the risks but able to make your own decisions, set your own course.

Companies like Dell, Nokia and other are doing this well. Giving people the opportunities to be trained and helped to use social media.

Connecting people with consumers

Again, this is from Nokia: an amazing example to my mind, of combining customer needs with people in the organisation who can help them.

Socializer is a platform that seems to act as a filter and a connector between social media listening technology and experts inside the company.

It’s also a licence, an imperative, for more of Nokia’s people to connect directly with their customers.


Image: Visualisation of Nokia’s Socializer system

This system, and the evolved versions of it, is something I’d expect to see lots of organisations looking at in the near future. It’s the logical extension of listening and encouraging wider engagement with social media.

Find your reason to engage

In summary, social business is a very broad term. It may be too broad. It may not last. But the opportunities and challenges for every business, every individual within a business, are there. Find yours and get on with it…



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