Top 10 Social Business Questions in 2013

6) What are the best examples of social business in my industry?

This is a dangerous question. If you want a literal answer, just google it (like most things in life). Google ‘social business case studies pharmaceuticals’, or ‘social media case studies financial services’, or whatever – you’ll find plenty.

More to the point, I’d recommend you deliberately avoid focusing on what competitors are doing.

For one thing, organisations that seem to have a leadership position in social, because they’ve dabbled in various ways and appear in abundance when you google ‘case studies xxxx’, are often no further ahead than you. Talk to a different region, department or office within their company and they’ve no idea they’re supposedly so far ahead. This isn’t surprising nor a sign that something is wrong – it’s just a reflection of the fact that very few organisations are fully fledged social businesses; rather most are at the stage where they’ve done various bits and pieces, but haven’t yet fully embraced and embedded social as business as usual.

More importantly, looking at examples in your own industry and looking at competitor activity is a sure way to get stuck in a ‘me too’, one-upmanship loop. This is a fool’s game, because you end up blindly following, never leading, doing either the same as everyone else, or the same plus an extra feature or two. In fact sometimes looking at competitors makes you aim for ‘almost as good as’, i.e. worse. A mug’s game.

What’s more effective is looking at examples in completely divergent industries, or even beyond industries into completely divergent spaces. For example SAP Community Network took inspiration from the open source movement, a completely divergent business model, but one that showed them the power of community and networks in terms of solving complex problems.

Divergent thinking, a technique for generating creative ideas by spontaneously coming up with lots of connections (e.g. ‘how many uses can you think of for a fork’), is found among people who are curious, willing to take risks, persistent and nonconformist – the ingredients for creativity (notice IQ isn’t the key).

Looking too close to home for ideas is more akin to convergent thinking, which tends to follow logical steps to the ‘correct’ solution. Not quite the stuff innovation is made of.

Nobody will argue that it’s useful to know what others in your industry are doing – not least the fact that showing the wealth of social business activities your competitors are engaging in helps persuade budget-holders you’d better crack on – but instead of aiming for incremental improvement and ‘me too’ strategy, try looking for innovation in unexpected places.

Look at the most pioneering examples of social business innovation, wherever they may be, and ask yourself which elements you could apply to your business. ‘Oh that’s different, we couldn’t do that’, or ‘we’re different, that would never work’ is a cop-out.

Look at seemingly irrelevant disciplines that interest you – whether art, physics, literature, biology, economics – and consider what inspiration you can take from them (perhaps a metaphor?). For example I often look to evolution as a means to guide business model design and strategy, which encourages an agile approach (i.e. testing, learning and adapting to become fitter for purpose over time, vs attempting to predict the future and following a detailed plan to get there that doesn’t take changes in the environment into account. If you’re interested in ‘biomimicry’ check this out ). You can even look to concepts like relationships. Most of the characteristics of a good personal friendship or family / spouse relationship can be applied to how you build customer relationships and networks – you have to do what you say you’ll do, give them a balance of attention and freedom, avoid shouting, build trust etc. Very simple, but easy to forget to remember.

Look at Drucker’s 7 sources of innovation – they still hold true today.

Look at innovative 21st century businesses like Amazon, eBay, Li and Fung – ask yourself what makes them work and what you can steal.

Look at innovative processes and methodologies, like lean manufacturing or agile software development or ‘customer development’. They offer a wealth of inspiration for social strategies. For instance lean manufacturing emphasises respect for the front line worker, recognising they’re the best equipped to suggest improvements in the process they’re engaged in each day… which can be applied to excellent customer service, where coal-face staff are empowered to solve the customer’s problem however they see fit (e.g. a Zappos agent deciding to send a customer flowers on their birthday).

Social business is about applying new knowledge to solving (mostly age old) business problems. Build your store of new knowledge by taking inspiration from wide-ranging, even bizarre sources – and match with deep understanding of the problem and unquenchable curiosity. Above all, remember you’re dealing with people, with all our complexities and nuances. You’d be better off listening to Simon Sinek or Dan Pink talk about human motivation, to inspire your latest social strategy, than carbon copying a competitor’s Facebook contest.

Saying that, if you aren’t looking for creativity and innovation and instead just need a deck of case studies to show budget holders or colleagues what others are doing in your industry, they’re easy to find…

Just remember, the best solutions come from big, wide thinking, not looking over the fence at your neighbours and playing catch-up. Social business is no different. Look at marketing exec Edward Gelsthorpe, who invented the roll-on deodorant applicator based on the newly invented ball-point pen.

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