Social Business & the People Problem

Social business is often described as a journey of technology, process and culture change.

Many organisations have focused first on technology – often in a knee-jerk response to social media proliferation.

In a bid to ‘do social’, often ‘because everyone else is’, internal social networking platforms, branded Facebook pages and customer communities have been launched without always seeing a great return. Tumbleweed, low engagement or a barrage of negativity can lead to them shutting down entirely, or dying a slow death. The result is burnt fingers and social skepticism.

The reality is community-building, whether internal or external, is not a quick fix. That’s not to say there’s no short-term ROI – but you get out what you put in. To deliver ever-increasing value, there must be a commitment to nurturing and developing the community over time; measuring, monitoring conversations; all the time learning what’s working best and what isn’t, so you can hone your efforts and tweak your strategies on the fly.

The traditional campaign mentality, where you splash out on a burst of activity, then stop, then measure and hope it worked, no longer applies. Community should never switch off, rather it should grow and become a richer source of value over time.

That all seems fairly straightforward on the face of it, yet is proving very challenging for many organisations today. For one thing, managing and conversing with a community requires wide-ranging knowledge and cross-functional access internally. Business isn’t geared up to cope with that. As a community manager, I may have to respond to questions and comments about executive salaries, new product lines, the latest ad campaign, job opportunities… and need to reply within minutes. This means I need a direct line to advertising, PR, customer services, security… and what if there’s a crisis? What if we’re bombarded with negativity? What if there’s a leak of confidential information that spreads like wildfire?

New policies and processes have to be put in place to nail dos, don’ts and consequences; as well as who has authority to say what, when… and how we pick up the pace. More than anything, however, it’s a people challenge we’re facing. Operating in a real-time, autonomous way demands a high level of trust in people. Since tight control and ‘messaging’ has been the norm for so long, a more natural, human, on-the-fly interaction is proving tricky (scary!) for many to grasp. The new paradigm where knowledge workers interact directly with customers; and boundaries between divisions blur; calls for a shift in mindset – particularly from ‘given half a chance people will do the wrong thing’, to ‘given half a chance people will do the right thing’. It challenges assumptions about employees and raises back-to-basics business issues, like whether the vision is inspiring, meaningful and universally understood. Without those basics, there’s no centre of gravity that’ll pull a bunch of autonomous workers in the right direction.

The degree of skepticism about colleagues’ trustworthiness when it comes to saying and doing the right thing when left to their own devices, is extremely high in most organisations. The thing is, most ‘bad’ behaviour is a by-product of the dysfunctional system people operate within, not the people themselves. Treat me like a child and I’ll act like a child. Incentivise with too many carrots and too many sticks; and behaviour will mutate, cheating will ensue and the system will produce very different results to those intended. This is happening in the NHS, schools, as well as most corporations.

As many are starting to find out, people – their behaviour, habits, social norms – are the most important and most difficult to change component of any social business strategy. Without deep understanding of the business purpose and the freedom to define their place in fulfilling it, jobs are just tasks, change is an inconvenience and heads stay down.

Engaging your workforce in actively exploring, experimenting and improving the way they work is a question of psychology, not technology. Technology just slots into the workflow as an enabler, to make things happen better, faster and cheaper. ‘Build it and they will come’ (or ‘build it and they will change’) isn’t good enough – it just gives everyone another pain-in-the-ass thing they have to log in to, will probably forget their password to and never look at again.

By stepping back and looking at a bigger picture of human motivation, individual and collective barriers to and opportunities for change, you can make the shift towards becoming a social business; embarking on a journey of 1) people, 2) process and 3) technology change – in that order.

The ability to deliver ROI then extends beyond engagement, advocacy and Facebook likes, into the realms of reduced support costs, increased employee efficiency, shorter time-to-value, higher customer satisfaction, employee engagement and ultimately profit, longevity and a culture of innovation.

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