Social Business and the syndrome of the guy who needs to be the nice and funny one at parties

Summary : many people from normal businesses wonder how is it possible that promising approaches like social business or enterprise 2.0 don’t become imperative by themselves, that there is so few willingness to establish them firmly, structurally. As if all the work being done to attract and engage employees through mechanisms that that more a matter of seduction and appearance was meant to hide something. And that’s a fact : the reason d’être of such approaches lies in the limited impact of the change on day-to-day work and execution logics. Their appealingness should not make us forget that 80% of the work is still to be done and that simple sleight of hand that boils down change to well-put-together communication and engagement programs won’t prevent organizations to deal with production and execution related issues.

A couple of days ago I was dining with a couple of people, few of them being in the social/2.0 industry, most of them being “normal people working for normal businesses”. Understand : they have a job, often high responsibilities in companies that were created before the 70s, are on Facebook and use it, are open minded, interested in novelty and progress. Most of them are even very curious : they look at what’s happening here and there, wonder what they should learn from it to make things improve in their own work. They are neither fanatic believers nor professional skeptics but curios, open minded and…pragmatic people.

The discussion went on social business and enterprise 2.0. What is it, how does it work, what’s the value proposition, what are the often-encountered difficulties…We discussed all the scope of social business and suddenly, the conversation focused on two points. Adoption because that’s the tipping point, gamification because it’s a powerful lever if well used.

Social needs adoption. Adoption needs engagement. Engagement may need gamification. Everything in the approach, all the material used need to be nice, cool, fun appealing, engaging. Then came the remark : “why this inferiority complex ? Adopting such a low profile, trying to attract without disturbing means either a total lack of self-confidence, the knowledge to be useless or huge failings”. “Forcing things from the top is not the best way to do things…but relying exclusively on supplication shows there must be something very wrong in your industry ! Did you ever dare saying that some things were mandatory and some olds behaviors prohibited ?”. What to answer to that ?

Let’s illustrate.

Take the example of Jerry. He’s invited to a party. In fact, not really. He’s the friend of a of friend who’s there. He was not on the list but since he was handing around nearby he got invited, just to be polite. No one has anything against him. In fact no one really knows him. Many expects he has other plans for the night, that common sense will make him decline..but not. So Jerry joyfully accepts the invitation. Then conversation starts…people remind of the good moments they spent together, they talk about travels, stocks, sport, art. Jerry’s problem is that he has no common experience with any other, he does not get stocks, is not interested in sport. That’s a very uncomfortable situation. The others try to find new topics to get him in the conversation but since he’s specialized on nothing he gets stuck in generalities. One tries to focus on Jerry’s only passion (breeding snails in an urban environment) but since no one knows anything about it the conversation quickly jumps to another topic. In the end Jerry has only one solution to exist in the face of others and with them : be fun not to be excluded and have humor.

In short when you have nothing to say in a given context, when others wonder why the hell you’re there…just be nice and funny.

Now let’s step back to our original matter and face things as they are : social business, enterprise 2.0, social networks and are still to often the Jerries of the corporate party.

Why ? Because, there,  everybody’s talking about organizing the vital productive activities of the business. They talk about what helps to deliver a service or product starting from a point A to reach a result B in a fast moving context with high constraints on time and resources. They talk about making things flexible but still manageable, do adapt processes and activities accordingly and make them adaptive over time.

And what does Jerry say ? That if user interfaces are playful and fun, if you adopt a “cool” attitude, people will join communities, connect, share and then everything will get better. But that everything must come from people themselves so that the attractive, appealing and fun side is critical.

What do other participants think ? That when one has so little to say on so technical issues, is not capable of imposing or assert anything, the only solution is to stay superficial. When one has nothing to say on content he focuses on form and try to find means to draw attention on himself since he lacks relevancy.

Answering “conversations” when other say “execution” is not enough. If, in the end, the aim is, in some ways, to bring conversations into processes, it won’t be done only by gamification and nice icebreakers to attract people. Conversations into processes is ok but : how, with whom, with which governance, what kind of decision making, how to make learning a part of everyone’s job. And then : how to measure the whole to make it manageable, what KPIs, with which tools ?

I have to agree with Dennis Howlett

The second phase of social will require a mature appreciation for process, data, content and yes, people. I’m not denying that its a challange however, I think the problem with enterprise social 1.0 has precicely been this: jamming a dumb social layer into the organization and assuming that people will shift to this new work space just cause it looks more approachable

Let me also mention Maggie Fox :

part of the reason there’s been a lag in the adoption of truly effective collaboration at scale inside most organizations is that efforts to date have been largely tool-driven, rather than focused on the why.

And focusing on “why” is a very technical job. It demands a very specialized activity-specific approach. Both analytic and holistic, tied with all the measurement system at both the individual and system level. Less attractive and blazing. But vital.

Of course the need for loosing control and new behaviors has been emphasized but, most of times, for wrong reasons. It was to deal with the “what” (tool adoption) and not the why (the reality of work). There is very little relationship (even if there is) between what is asked to users in such cases and the enterprise’s goal in terms of execution and production. And as for saying that there was a way to do things and that old bads habits had no place anymore in the workplace….don’t even think of it.

I said that the future of social networks is to become the front end of socialized business activities. But if nothing is done with the backend, both on the tool and the practice side, the front end will run without being in gear. As if one tries to make a wheel turn by blowing on it instead of connecting it to the engine.

By deploying social networking and community approach, businesses have done 20% of the job. So 80% are still to be done. They will provided businesses stop being in denial, put their hands in the dirty side of the organization engine (process, measure, focus on execution) instead of keeping up with the myth of the “nice guy at the party”.

Otherwise, naysayers will be right : an infantilizing approach that has nothing to do with getting things done. Or maybe they’re already right : in social media there’s media and the “marketing & communication” approach has taken the lead : appearances have won against real change and change has been turned into a superficial image-based treatment of a very deep problem.

Conclusion : as long as we’ll think in terms of approaches to adopt instead that approaches that should become imperative by themselves because of their obvious and structural nature, we’ll miss the largest part of the problem.

Ok. So let’s get back to (real) work.