Musings on Social Flows and Business Cliffs

Read this post in: French

This might look like a holiday postcard, and it in some way is. Summer always offers a great opportunity to switch off, step back and think a bit more critically. One has to admit that while our consumption’s habits are changing at fast pace, as a result of a rabid co-evolutionary race between all the internet-enabled devices and services at our disposal and the new behaviors these services enable, social technologies aren’t yet transforming the way most businesses operate.

Getting from rock to water

We have learnt that this problem is at least as much a cultural (getting the right mindset) as a technological (getting the right tools for the right tasks) problem. But shouldn’t technology by itself be considered under a behavioral angle, as the workplace itself conditions our behavior. Unfortunately, the studies dealing about the relationships between technology and organizational behavior are scarce.

Furthermore, most of today’s enterprise grade social tools more or less mimic tools and services we use in our private life. Even if the times of the “Facebook for enterprise” motto are gone, most of social platforms vendors expect that we will behave the same on our company’s network than on the internet. But behavioral differences do exist. For instance, Catherine Lejealle has demonstrated how the private and professional uses of a technology as “simple” as a mobile phone are conditioned by the gender of its owner.

To successfully become mainstream, social computing will need much more adaptation, backed by organizational psychology, than adoption. Rock isn’t a suitable place to swim. Drawing a parallel with the introduction of email is a fallacy, which ignores the fact that email was born in highly professional circles before hitting the rest of us.

Diving under the flow

On these days, there seems to be a consensus among the Enterprise 2.0 / Social Business crowd about the need to incorporate collaboration in people’s workflow, for an apparently salutary purpose: facilitating their tasks. By doing so, we begin to be able to measure productivity gains and efficiency enhancements. Diffusion of knowledge, empowerment of workers in problem-solving situations, are of course positive outcomes, and one might state that generalization of collaboration will erode actual hierarchical structures. Social flows will ultimately eat away at business cliffs. But by heralding that, are we really helping businesses in adapting to current turbulent, unpredictable, markets and conditions?

Since the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 by James Hargreaves, technology has been mostly used to reinforce the homogeneity of businesses, the repeatability and predictability of operations. Work has been progressively shaped into the highly specialized flow of tasks we are all used to today, woven into more or less rigid business processes, to allow corporations to pursue what John Hagel calls their quest for scalable efficiency.

But the life span of companies is shrinking at an alarming rate, proving, if needed, that the current model is seriously broken. There is some kind of hypocrisy in pushing social technology at the workflow level, thus serving the corporate belief in automated performance, while thinking (or simply hoping) that collaborative behaviors will at the same time challenge this belief. Instead of enhancing actual workflows, shouldn’t we dive under the flow, and begin to tackle collaboration, not at worker’s level, but directly at business level? We need to envision the challenges and opportunities that social platforms bring to the core structure of businesses, in order to help them anticipate and face one of the most important transformations since the industrial revolution. A path I am following since I modestly launched the Future of Collaborative Enterprise project, which will very soon enter a second phase, with a new wave of interviews.

Hitting the cliff – at the top

Putting in gear social technologies at business -not worker- level means going beyond communities and knowledge sharing. On the public side, these technologies not only are modifying our behaviors, they are also changing the way we have to think over them. Customer facing departments are the ones which witness the more abruptly these changes. Marketing can no more ignore the many new customers behaviors that our new hyper-connected environment is now allowing. Customers are no more passive consumers companies can simply push products at. We have to take into account that they interact, listen, react. They have needs, expectations, and, even more significantly, a job-to-be-done.

Social technologies present us with an unique opportunity to not only work differently, as individuals or as groups, but to think differently at the how and why work is done. Why don’t we yet try to use inside organizations the same new lenses we are beginning to use in the consumer world? These will need many adaptations too, but isn’t it paradoxical to see that, at the same time that we are heralding the use of public tools and services in the corporate world, we are considering this world as totally separate and disconnected from the rest? Business processes aren’t the backbone of organizations, but an outdated answer to managers and C-level executives’ job-to-be-done.

To cure today’s organizational illness and unleash the power of human interactions, we need to start at strategic level, just as marketing must consider products from the customer’s point of view. We don’t simply need to DO social, we have to THINK social, and the way it fits and enhances businesses’ purpose. This is anyway the direction I will try to pursue with my new consultancy, Transitive Society.

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2 Responses to Musings on Social Flows and Business Cliffs

  1. Great post Thierry.

    I fully agree with you but I’d like to add a something on the workflow issue you mentioned. I’m a firm believer that applying social to workflows is the best way to get tangible and measurable benefits while, as you’re saying, it’s just about improving the existing, not preparing for the future.

    There seems to be a big misunderstanding on social applied to workflows. When I use these term I’m thinking of workflows as they should be, not as they are. It would relate more to socially-mined ones, adaptive workflows (and ACM) etc.

    But it’s also a matter of maturity. Things always follow the same curve : improve what exists, transform based on lessons learned, sustain. Since this matter is still in its early years, I think we’re still in the improvement phase. I only hope that successfull improvement won’t make businesses think they can avoid tranformation.

    • Thierry de Baillon says:

      Thanks Bertrand!

      Things always follow the same curve : improve what exists, transform based on lessons learned, sustain.

      That’s an interesting sentence, but doesn’t it suppose that technology is sufficiently disruptive to drive business’ change? Back to Clay Christensen again; between The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, his focus changed from technology to business, as he understood that technology was a mere enabler of change, and that disruption has to occur at business level.
      Christensen’s innovation theories may apply to the behind-the-firewall world as well as the job-to-be-done does. Present work structure is born from the need to perform better in a stable context, and new context requires new, disruptive, solutions. Business solutions, not technological ones.

      I agree with you when talking about workflows as they should be, but can we then still use the old terminology? Even deeper, when shifting from stocks to flows, can we still enact work according to the same epistemology, and stick with the paradigm which developed with the industrial revolution? The change which businesses need to undertake is often very, very deep. I am far from sure if sustaining innovation, evolutionary or revolutionary, can get enough momentum to make it happen.

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