Why Should Businesses Become More Social?

I have been researching social tools (or social software) for over a decade, and during that time I have been asked one question many, many times: why should businesses care? Or, to turn that around a bit, why should business management try to make businesses more social?

I am not the only one to hear this question. John Hagel III and John Seely Brown tried to answer that question in a post last year:

What is social software and why should you care?

In our use of the term, social software encompasses the software tools and platforms that allow dynamic, informal, and shared communication across an expanding group of individuals. In our personal lives, most of us are familiar (or becoming familiar) with social software tools, but most of us have not experienced them extensively in the enterprise.

Unfortunately, social software advocates haven’t done a very good job of communicating the value these tools bring to the enterprise. While social software may well improve relationships, build trust and community, and tap into a greater diversity of ideas, these vague promises do little to convince skeptical executives concerned primarily with business performance.

The two Johns go on make the case that social tools can be linked to real performance improvements:

Applied against specific operating problems, social software can enable companies to respond efficiently to changing demands. It can provide the platform for scaling and amplifying connections and tapping into the knowledge flows within a company. The potential result: better meeting customer needs, increasing the knowledge of participants and sustained performance improvement.

The foundation of their argument is that we have shifted from a period of time when long-term planning could lead to better economies of scale. This was based on a relatively stable world of business. Over time, the horizon for long-term planning has dwindled, and so ‘push’ economics — where companies could scale based on pushing materials and component efficiently through supply chains — has been supplanted by ‘pull’. Scaling business operations through pull goes beyond even the most lean of planning disciplines, into a world where response to the unexpected becomes the norm, not the exception. As Hagel and Brown say, “Pull is the ability to draw out people and resources as needed to address opportunities and challenges.” This is essential in a time when as much as two thirds of headcount time is spent on exception handling.

The authors go on to make the case for social software in a pull economy, making three specific points (with my summary of their arguments):

Social software connects us more easily to the resources we need — Not only can the right people be found to respond to a situation or need, social tools make the exchange of information a resource that can be saved and make accessible to others.

Social software amplifies connections, increasing the company’s opportunities for serendipity — With social network-based tools, the possibility of discovering new people, new ideas, or alternative ways of doing things increases. In a fast-paced world where innovation is increasingly critical, anything that can increase the ‘coincidensity’ in a business should be tried.

Social software provides a platform to achieve sustained performance improvement — Teams need a place where they can interact and create, and where, over time, they can increase their performance. Collaborative work in shared spaces leads to the exchange of knowledge and the building of trust, which are central to high performing teams.

Social tools CAN make a real difference in performance, and in a way that hard-headed business management will accept. We have moved into an era when the ability to to respond to the unforseen, to ‘pull’ resources together as efficiently as possible and take action, and that is a use case that social tools are uniquely designed for.