Social business circa 1989

Back in 1989, GE’s CEO Jack Welch decided to embark on a journey of culture transformation he named Work-Out. Originally begun as an initiative to redesign processes and eliminate waste, the change effort soon focused on more fundamental issues: moving away from its long history of fine-tuned financial analysis, longwinded strategic deliberations, centralised controls, multi-level approvals and bureaucracy, to a culture characterised by ‘speed, simplicity and self-confidence’.

Welsch described the Work-Out process as ‘a relentless, endless company wide search for a better way to do everything we do… Consider a building: It has walls and floors; the walls divide the functions, the floors separate the levels. Workout took out the walls and floors, leaving all the bodies in one big room… Workout was nothing more complicated than bringing people of all ranks and functions – managers, secretaries, engineers, line workers and sometimes customers and suppliers – together in a room to focus on a problem or an opportunity, and then acting rapidly and decisively on the best ideas developed, regardless of their source.’

Ring any bells?

The Work-Out process enabled mass peer-to-peer collaboration on real problems and solutions, by overcoming functional silos and hierarchies that inhibited the flow of information and the taking of action. GE recognised that typical ways in which organisations communicate – through reports, presentations and studies shared unidirectionally, with limited discussions and participants – wasn’t going to cut it. Work-Out was designed to stimulate an open dialogue about problems and issues and translate that dialogue into action.

The reality is, the rhetoric we now associate with ‘social business’ has been around for decades. Great business leaders have always understood that fast is better than slow; that flat hierarchies are better than weighty bureaucracies and that business is all about people, equipped with information, having confidence to act decisively.

The key difference now is that we have technology to support process and culture change, making it easier to connect with the right people, collaborate cross-border and share information transparently. Welcome Enterprise 2.0.

Given the social media savvy have the best understanding of social technologies, it’s no surprise the connection has been made between social media and social business, as if the latter is an extension of the former. However I’d argue it’s more useful, and palatable to the vast majority of Boards of Directors, to instead consider social business as just plain business – but the sort visionary leaders have pioneered when they’ve turned companies around, created new markets and produced other breakthrough results – only now we all the the tools to make its implementation faster, easier and bottom-up as well as top-down (which essentially equates to faster and easier).

Social business is, as Jack said, ‘a relentless, endless company wide search for a better way to do everything we do’. Putting depth of understanding of how business works, how people work and how things get done before understanding the nuances of the latest social CRM tools or the ROI of a Facebook fan will instigate real change at the core of companies. I’m not saying the latter isn’t important and valuable, but it’s a micro perspective, skirting around the edges – giving lots of agencies and consultants like me a decent living – but we should all recognise we’re often acting as sticking plasters or painters applying another coat over the cracks. Real change to gear up for the 21st century and its accelerating clockspeed will come from much deeper within.

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