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Is Social Media Rubbish?

8 Jul

I’ve read a few interesting posts recently relating to Social Media and ‘Enterprise 2.0’.  First up was Peter Evans-Greenwood talking about the myth of social organisations given their incompatibility with current structures and the lack of business cases for many efforts.  From there I followed links out to Martin Linssen and Dennis Howlett – both of whom commented on the current state of Enterprise 2.0 and social business, in particular their lack of clarity (i.e. are they primarily about tools, people or marketing efforts), the often ironic lack of focus on people in favour of technology and the paucity of compelling business cases.  Furthermore they also highlighted the continued migration of traditional vendors from one hot topic to another (e.g. from ECM to Enterprise 2.0 to Social Business) in order to support updated positioning for products, creating confusion and distraction by suggesting that success comes from owning specific tools rather than from particular ways of working.

Most damningly of all I found a link (courtesy of @adamson) to some strong commentry from David Chalke of Quantum Market Research suggesting that:

Social media: ‘Oversold, misused and in decline’

All of these discussions made me think a bit about my own feelings about these topics at the moment.

The first thing to state is that it seems clear to me that in the broadest sense businesses will increasingly exist in extended value webs of customers and partners.  From that perspective ‘business sociability’ – i.e. the ability to take up a specialised position within a complex value web of complementary partners and to collaborate across organisational and geographical boundaries – will be critical.  The strength of an organisation’s network will increasingly define the strength of their capabilities.  Social tools that support people in building useful networks and in collaborating across boundaries – like social networks, micro-blogs, blogs, wikis, forums etc – will be coupled with new architectures and approaches – like SOA, open APIs and cloud computing – as the necessary technical foundations for “opening up” a business and allowing it to participate in wider value creation networks.  As I’ve discussed before, however, tooling will only exist to support talented people undertaking creative processes within the context of broader networks of codified and automated processes.

Whilst therefore having the potential to support increasing participation in extended value webs, develop knowledge and support the work of our most talented people, it’s clear that throwing random combinations of tools at the majority of existing business models without significant analysis of this broader picture is both pointless but also extremely distracting and potentially ultimately very damaging (as failed, ill thought through initiatives can lead to an opportunity for entrenched interests to ignore the broader change for longer).

Most of the organisations I have worked with are failing to see the bigger picture outlined above, however.  For them ‘social tools’ are either all about the way in which they make themselves ‘cooler’ or ‘more relevant’ by ‘engaging’ in social media platforms for marketing or customer support (looking externally) or something vaguely threatening and of marginal interest that undermines organisational structures and leads to staff wasting time outside the restrictions of their job role (looking internally).  To date they seem to be less interested in how these tools relate to a wider transformation to more ‘social’ (i.e.  specialised and interconnected) business models.  As with the SOA inertia I discussed in a previous blog post there is no heartfelt internal urgency for the business model reconfiguration required to really take social thinking to the heart of the organisation.  Like SOA, social tools drive componentisation and specialisation along with networked collaboration and hence the changes required for one are pretty similar to the changes required for the other.  As with SOA it may take the emergence of superior external service providers built from the ground up to be open, social and designed for composition to really start to trigger internal change.

In lieu of reflecting on the deeper and more meaningful trends towards ‘business model sociability’ that are eroding the effectiveness of their existing organisation, then, many are currently trying to bolt ‘sociability’ onto the edge of their current model as simply another channel for PR activity.  Whilst this often goes wrong it can also add terrific value if done honestly or with a clear business purpose.  Mostly it is done with little or no business case – it is after all an imperative to be more social, isn’t it? – and for each accidental success that occurs because a company’s unarticulated business model happens to be right for such channels there are also many failures (because it isn’t).

The reality is that the value of social tools will depend on the primary business model you follow (and increasingly the business model of each individual business capability in your value web, both internal and external – something I discussed in more detail here).

I think my current feeling is therefore that we have a set of circumstances that go kind of like this:

  1. There is an emerging business disruption that will drive organisational specialisation around a set of ‘business model types’ but which isn’t yet broadly understood or seen by the majority of people who are busy doing real work;
  2. We have a broad set of useful tools that can be used to create enormous value by fostering collaboration amongst groups of people across departmental, organisational and geographic boundaries; and
  3. There are a small number of organisations who – often through serendipity – have happened to make a success of using a subset of these tools with particular consumer groups due to the accidental fit of their primary business model with the project and tools selected.

As a result although most people’s reptilian brain instinctively feels that ‘something’ big is happening, instead of:

  • focusing on understanding their future business model (1) before
  • selecting useful tools to amplify this business model (2) and then
  • using them to engage with appropriate groups in a culturally appropriate way (3)

People are actually:

  • trying to blindly replicate others serendipitous success (3)
  • with whatever tools seems ‘coolest’ or most in use (2) and
  • no hope of fundamentally addressing the disruptions to their business model (1)

Effectively most people are therefore coming at the problem from entirely the wrong direction and wasting time, money and – potentially – the good opinion of their customers.

More clearly – rather than looking at their business as a collection of different business models and trying to work out how social tools can help in each different context, companies are all trying to use a single approach based largely on herd behaviour when their business model often has nothing directly to do with the target audience.  Until we separate the kinds of capabilities that require the application of creative or networking talent, understand the business models that underpin them and then analyse the resulting ‘types’ of work (and hence outcomes) to be enabled by tooling we will never gain significant value or leverage from the whole Enterprise 2.0 / social business / whatever field.

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