The business of social business

Social business is the new trend following on from Enterprise 2.0 – but underlying it is an essential conflict between two different styles of doing business.  The conflict is between businesses optimized for efficiency and those optimized for the creation of value.

Greg Satell encapsulates this conflict neatly in his 2010 post Creating Efficiency vs. Creating Value. He raises the notion of Kuhnian paradigm shifts and open innovation as a key part of creating value.

However, I suspect that Geoff Livingston is right when he argues that we are actually facing the post social media revolution era.

These two ideas – that we have entered the post social media revolution era and; that we need to create value as opposed to efficiency – frame the challenge of the next few years for business.

With the decline of the verities of the economic system that we’ve taken for granted over the past 30 years we are now faced with a new economic landscape within which to create and grow businesses.

In an environment of reduced consumer power, restricted credit and the prospect of sovereign crises, businesses need to find ways to harness creativity to generate revenue. This means we must diversify our efforts from a focus on efficiency and cost optimization. It means that we need to create mechanisms for creation and sharing of value.

We need to find new ways of doing business that do not merely follow the ideological constraints of what has gone before. Instead it is time to bring all of our commitment and determination to find new ways of doing things.

It will be insufficient to merely put the word ‘social’in front of our business activities. It will be necessary to find out how to embed social processes and technology within our businesses to meet the demands of these challenging times.

Business, boring jobs and social good

Over the past 150 years businesses have dealt with the challenges of increased scale by optimizing processes, resource allocation and expenditure. However, there is a limit to how much one can optimize a business and not damage the society within which that business exists.

I have spent a goodly part of my career working on optimizing large scale businesses and increasing productivity.

The main way to achieve that is by automating routine and repetitive tasks or outsourcing them to lower cost regions, thus making low paid jobs redundant. That process generally takes bottom line cost out of the business and increases productivity as a by-product. Where it does create new jobs they are rarely suitable for the workforce that has been displaced through this process.

Many older workers have been pushed out of the workforce due to the disappearance of these types of jobs. For them it seems too late to re-train, and many face ageism from employers who are unwilling to give them a chance at different roles.

Thus we are wasting the talents, energy and skills of many older workers who now languish unhappily on welfare payments.

But it is also interesting to consider this: if the many young unemployed people across the western world had been born twenty years earlier they would be doing those repetitive jobs and earning an income. Those jobs have disappeared. And they have disappeared either due to optimization and productivity improvements.

So what do we do with all of the people who used to do those old jobs? In most western countries (except the USA) we pay them some kind of social welfare benefit. That allows them to subsist. But what do they do with their time while subsisting? Are they included somehow in the community? Do they have a role, apart from being passive recipients of welfare, that make them feel part of society?

A boring repetitive job is boring for many young people. But it does provide some benefits: they earn an income; they learn real-world work skills; it gets them out of the house; it gives them some kind of purpose outside of themselves; and it is really a good way to get them thinking about what else they can do with their life.

My first job was utterly dull and boring. It gave me the impetus to get back into study and work out ways to never have a job that dull again. It also gave me a perspective on how business works, and it is a perspective that I could not have achieved from outside.

But now most of those entry level (boring) jobs have gone. And many young people do not want to take them even if available. That is a bit sad.

We seem to have mostly banished boredom in our society, and that might not be an entirely good thing. The social benefit provided by those lost jobs has not been replaced.

Riots, desire, consumerism, community and values.

Want is a funny word. It can mean different things, such as:

“absence or deficiency of something desirable or requisite” or
“to be lacking or absent, as a part or thing necessary to completeness”, or
“to feel a need or a desire for; wish for”, or
“to wish, need, crave, demand, or desire”
(Source Dictionary.com)

The scenes in the UK of rioters and looting were awful on many levels. But one scene that was repeated that was especially revelatory was the looters trying on goods in the stores before they stole them.

That behaviour spoke to me of want.

In the past, usually riots were because people lacked some necessity – food, freedom, the right to vote. That is, the rioters acted in response to want in the sense of absence or lack of something. This is the kind of rioting we have seen in the middle east in recent times, places like Egypt and Syria.

But in the UK we saw rioters, unfocused on anything except inflicting damage on property and helping themselves to goods for which they had a desire. That is, acting in response to want in the sense of desire for something. And that something wanted was material goods rather than aspiration to freedom or truth.

This is different. It is about people who have learned to desire those things for the acquisition of which they do not have sufficient economic resources. And yet, they do have the means – through a collective act of will – to achieve access to the goods they desire.

The looters have achieved their want, they now have the material goods that they sought. However, in achieving those goods they have destroyed the community facilities upon which they and many others rely. They have reinforced their other-ness. They have achieved a short term goal while simultaneously creating the platform for increased levels of dissatisfaction.

I suspect that material goods will not really fulfil the wants of the rioters and looters in the UK. Their anomie will remain. And they will recall the power of their collective action. They will also recall the powerlessness of the authorities in the face of that collective action.

It might be as Winston Churchill once said (in slightly different circumstances):

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Source: Sir Winston Churchill, speech at Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, Mansion House, London, November 10, 1942

Generational theory cannot explain how people behave

Quite often there’s an article that bundles us all up into handy age-based cohorts (a.k.a. ‘generations’). Behavioural phenomena are neatly explained by the characteristics of the particular age cohort or generation. Based on the theories of Strauss and Howe generations have been adopted as a popular explanatory model for people’s behaviour, and demographers like Bernard Salt and Mark McCrindle have done very well in explaining this model to business and marketing folk.

While large scale external factors can impact on a particular generation and influence them in a particular ways, individuals of that generation shape their lives by other means too. A generation that suffers a war, like the First or Second World War, or a Great Depression like during the 1930s, is shaped in important ways by that shared experience.

Yet I am not convinced that the individuals within each generation are like a mob of sheep who respond as a mob to stimuli.

DiffusionOfInnovation-300x1851 Instead, based on my experiences in implementing technology and process change in the workplace, I am more influenced by the technology adoption lifecycle (as popularised by Rogers).

I think that this model can be generalised to explain other parts of human behaviour in addition to technology adoption.

Clearly significant life experiences influence an individual’s responses to events throughout their life. And shared experience, such as wars and major disasters, can influence how cohorts behave in future. But we respond to stimuli as individuals who live within societal, kinship and friendship structures that influence our behaviour. And that behaviour is also enacted within our internal physical, psychological and spiritual context. Thus our age cohort compatriots may be part of the mix, but they are not the entire story.

Which leads to one of my pet peeves about generational theory. Articles like this, (from 2007) A-Z of Generation Y:

“THEY’RE hip, smart-talking, brash and sometimes seem to suffer from an overdose of self esteem.”

It is this kind of glib summary that irritates. It fails completely to reflect the diversity, magnificence and sheer idiocy encompassed by humanity.

We see the best and the worst of humanity every day. And just when you feel like giving up hope for us as a race someone somewhere does something amazing, moving and awe-inspiring.

For example, I do a lot of work with those Gen-Y kids who are so often the target of this shallow analysis in the media, and every day their enthusiasm and passion to make the world a better place inspires me.

I also work with a number of Baby Boomers (the so-called “Baby boomers: powerful and selfish“) who work every day to improve their corner of the world and the global community.

Perhaps it’s time we stop making assumptions about what people are like and judging them by stereotypes? I suspect people are more complex than the simple stereotypes so beloved of tabloid journals.

Here’s a few inspiring examples mentioned on Twitter today in response to one of my questions about inspirational things people had heard about recently:

@casandjonesy trek 2 southpole 2400km on foot” via @ljLoch

Well, @Nyx2701 did some pro bono legal work to (ultimately) help let the family of a missing person know they’re still alive.” via @mjberryman

My good friend having a bone-marrow transplant.” via @zbender

I read in the Enquirer that a blind couple adopted two blind children previously thought unadoptable. It’s an amazing story.” via @AskMonte

what planet are you on? How about @CadelOfficial Cadel Evans 1st aussie to win TourdeFrance?? #tdf #yellforcadel” via @lisafeg

Science communication and social media #media140au

Attending the Media 140 Conference in Brisbane today. The tag line for this conference is “exploring the impact of social technologies on science communication” and it explores some of the issues and challenges facing science communication today.

There’s been a great line-up of speakers so far, with:

  • Bernie Hobbs, ABC Science (who’s doing an excellent job as Conference host)
  • Dr Andrew Maynard, Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and the Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
  • Natasha Mitchell , ABC presenter of All In The Mind.
  • Wilson da Silva , Editor-in-Chief of COSMOS
  • Elena McMaster , Nanotechnology Project for Friends of the Earth Australia
  • Craig Thomler , Gov 2.0 advocate
  • Dr Craig Cormick , Manager of Public Awareness and Community Engagement for the Australian Government’s Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Dr Kristen Lyons, Senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Queensland

Dr Andrew Maynard’s keynote on Social media and science communication – a load of Jackson Pollocks? was interesting and he noted his top three issues to consider for science communication:

  • Hubris – disregarding the medium because you don’t understand it. Assumed authority – old model does not work, and Control – “rather misguided theory that we can control conversations”.
  • Creating value – behaving like rockstars does not give us credibility as science communicators – remember cause & effect. Trying to mimic viral videos and blogs is not the answer need to have the good content that creates value.
  • Uncivil behaviour – feeling that we can “tell people forcefully what is right until the get the message” – ends up alienating people we need to connect with.

And a fascinating panel session on Web 2.0 or Web too far? chaired by Natash Mitchell. The panel discussed topics as varied as:

  • Online democratisation and/or demonization.
  • How to manage when the web is used to distort, misinform and distribute propaganda.
  • How anti-science ideologies and commercial agendas use the web, and how we should use social media to democratise scientific knowledge.

Protecting babies: whooping cough vaccination boosters for adults

Many people who were vaccinated as children do not realise that by the time we’re all grown up some of our protection no longer works.

In the case of whooping cough, or pertussis, the protection can wane in as little as six to ten years. This means that many of us are wandering around at risk of catching whooping cough ourselves or asympomatically transmitting it to others. This is not so much of a problem for adults we might run into, but for little babies this can mean exposure to a life threatening illness.

Whooping cough is a disease that does not evoke fear in our generation as it did in past generations. It used to be a terrible killer for children before the advent of the pertussis vaccine.

“Whooping cough is a relatively mild disease in adults but has a significant mortality rate in infants. Until immunization was introduced in the 1930s, whooping cough was one of the most frequent and severe diseases of infants in the United States.”
Source: Kenneth Todar, Ph.D. Textbook of Bacteriology

Now many parents are refusing to vaccinate their children against whooping cough and this makes things more dangerous for very young babies. This is a real networked world problem. One person’s decision not to get vaccinated can have implications for the health of those around them.

In Australia the adult booster vaccine typically includes diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. I had one of these booster shots recently because I knew that I would be spending time with some newborn babies and wanted to ensure they were protected.

Check out this video … and consider consulting your doctor and getting an adult booster shot.

Truth, transparency and consequences

Truth is said to be a double edged sword. Yet truth is only a problem if one is trying to hide something. The Wikileaks saga shows how difficult is has become to keep secrets in our hyperconnected world.

In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. – George Orwell

Amusingly I noted a newspaper article announcing that governments around Australia are planning to ban access to web based email services like Hotmail and Gmail:

Bureaucrats could also use unmonitored emails to leak sensitive documents. “The recent WikiLeaks release of government electronic information has demonstrated the importance of maintaining appropriate protective security frameworks and the risks of failing to adequately protect electronic information,” the report said
Source: Public servants face web bans to minimise risk of password cracking

I was amused because only yesterday I noticed that you can buy a “compact 32GB USB flash drive with 2 year warranty” for $65 at JB Hi Fi.

Blocking all the potential sources of leaks is getting rather difficult in this hyperconnected and wireless world.

These attempts to block all potential leakages of data are ultimately doomed to failure. If someone wants to leak then it will happen. Even now that we have the example of what bad things might happen – in the person of the unfortunate Bradley Manning, who is apparently being treated inhumanely in custody of the US military – there are some people who will put themselves on the line to get the truth out. For some people negative personal consequences are a price they’re willing to pay to share their truth.

Also we need to acknowledge that most of our important business information walks out the door every night in the heads of our people.

But an important question for all organisations to ask is how many of the things we keep secret really need to be secret? What would happen if we were transparent about some business information?

Salaries is one area that is subject to secrecy in many organisations. What would happen if you simply published the list? It already happens if you work for the government – it gets published in the Government Gazette – and the sky does not fall. What other things can we be more transparent about?

Obviously not everything a company does can be public. But making more rather than less of what we do secret might just make it easier to keep our more important secrets. Perhaps that is the contradiction of openness versus secrecy? Less is more.

In any case the digital genie is out of the bottle and the technology to liberate information is in everyone’s pocket. We need different solutions to locking things down and making people’s jobs more difficult. New solutions for a new age. I wonder what they will be?