Social business : target blue collars and forget technology ?

Summary : there’s still a large gap between the social media promise and what’s really happening. A gap that’s getter smaller every day but so slowly that many people find it worrying. While large companies still struggle with dealing with their internal contradictions despite of massive investments and fail at mobilizing employees that are mostly white collars, we can see that smaller organizations are sometimes more successful even if mostly made of blue collars. A surprising paradox ? Not that sure. In fact its all about what one think the social promise is. While some focus on building communities and adopting software, some implemented pragmatic management practices, focused on production, delivery and decision making. These last ones often get better results in terms on impact on work as well as employees’ well-being.

When we talk about the need to make organization evolve there’s an easy shortcut that emerges quickly : it’s about qualified white collars spending most of their time in front of a computer. This shortcuts comes even more easily that, for lots of people, the transformation in question depends on the use of a certain category of software, what restricts the change program to a certain category of people. This assumption is broken into pieces as we can see to what extent things are complicated with this population and are forced to admit that tools makes absolutely no sense if not embedded in the “official way work is done”.

As we also have seen before, nothing works without a strong will of changing things as deep as possible. What leads us to ask again the question : “what’s en enterprise 2.0 or a social business”.

We know that it does not depend on the use of such or such software. Software can help but is not enough to tell if a given organization deserves the 2.0 or social label.

So we could have a deeper look at organization principles and flows of work. Bottom-up flows, empowerment, intrapreneurship approaches aiming at making the right resources available at the right place, at the right time to deliver what the customer is expecting, focus on delivering a product or service and less of validation/decision workflows. A collective efficiency approach relying on agile coordination and fluidity in exchanges and learning.

In this case it’s clear that, considering knowledge workers, software can play a major part in the transformation job. But what about other workers ? Don’t they face similar issues ? Don’t they need responsiveness, don’t they have to make better decisions, be better at exception handling, problem solving ?

Do they have to be the casualties of the social transformation ? Not. And, in fact, they are sometimes more advanced than we may think.

Let’s have a look a three cases.

1°) Semco. No need to write the story once again. It’s been mentioned and analyzed by nearly everybody (read this one for example). They enabled self-management and intrapreneurship in an impressive and efficient way to improve effectiveness and sustainable management (ie long term trust relationship between employees and the organization / self development / don’t sacrifice the employee-enterprise relationship for short term performance).

2°) Groupe Hervé : less known abroad than in France, that’s the “French Semco”, relying on similar principles.

3°) Morning Star : the new comer, made famous by this article by Gary Hamel on the Harvard Business Review (reading the 10 pages article is really worth). Here again, employees are very accountable and autonomous (even for expenses), few control, lot of cohesiveness and coordination. One’s activities are driven by a mission statement one defines himself, explaining how one’s will contribute to the enterprise success. Each employee is responsible for the means used to reach the goals (would it be buying a pencil or a $3M machine) and decisions are made among peers when the amount is high. No managers or controllers but colleagues with whom one shares common goals and interests and, in some ways, a common destiny. Internal cooperation happens through transactions between units but, all units sharing the same scorecard, deals never happen to the detriment of any part and are always aligned with the corporate interest. Even is there is little or no hierarchical control, the concept of scorecard and ROI are deeply rooted in the way people act and think so any decision, individual or collective rely on it.

What do these organizations have in common :

• A blue collar population : facilities at Semco, energy at Hervé, tomato juice production and delivery at Morning star.

• cases you’ll never (or seldom) see mentioned as social business ones while, paradoxically, they manage to do what lots of organizations struggle to.

• “non software” cases (this point possibly explaining the previous one). In fact it’s possible that Semco or Morning Star started to implement the relevant tools overtime but it’s never explicitly mentioned. What proves it’s secondary and in no way mandatory. At Hervé, community tools have been developed internally because they started long before the 2.0 wave. But, there again, they prefer emphasising their vision of the enterprise and management.

• Organizations are seem to do quite well in terms of performance and growth for years.

• but (and that’s a point I’ll discuss in a future post), organizations that “only” count a few thousand employees and are “only” tens or hundreds millions dollars businesses.

One thing is sure, none or very few large organizations investing a lot on social software can claim having similar results. These cases are all about organizational, management, human principles that drive an increased collective effectiveness as well as more sustainability in performance and management. Isn’t that the Holy Grahal lots of organizations are trying to reach through the implementation of social networks and lot of energy spent in community management ?

So, to be a successful social business or enterprise 2.0, is it better to be a large blue collars SMB and focus on values rather than on IT ?


Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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