Social Business – It’s not about the technology

Giving social business a human dimension

Over the past 15 years at IBM, Luis Suarez has carved out a reputation as a thought leader in knowledge management and more recently, in social business. He is currently the company’s knowledge manager, community builder and social software evangelist. IBM were one of the first companies to coign the term social business and it’s a core part of their Smarter Planet campaign.

What is social business?

Suarez is the first to admit that ‘social business’ isn’t really anything new.

“To me, social business is a philosophical movement where you redefine the way you do business with your customers following a people-centric approach next to a customer-centred approach – where it’s not you telling the customer’s what they need or what they should have, it’s the customers telling you what they need that you need to find.”

He continues: “What we’re trying to do is humanise and democratise the corporate world. This fits in quite nicely with knowledge management – when KM kicked in there was a set of very simple core principles, and it’s scary how 18 years later that set of core principles is the same one as social business. So we’re not really inventing anything new. It’s been there all the time. We’re actually evolving it, because we now have much easier technology to do it.”

Making business more human

Despite this last point, Suarez is at pains to point out that the social business movement is not a technological one. Social business happens, he explains, when you “think beyond the technology, right into the core of business… to actually humanise the way we do business.”

But this definition sticks in the craw of some, particularly those keen to point out that business has always been social. So isn’t social business just an attempt to humanise something that was already traditionally ‘human’?

Suarez is completely in agreement – there was indeed a time when business was social. However, he adds, between the 1950s and now we created “robots” that weren’t allowed to think, because if they were allowed to think it was viewed as inconvenient or disruptive. Where once we had businesses populated by ‘sociable’ proactive human beings, now they are filled with automatons.

“With social business we’re trying to get that back again,” he explains. “Plenty of people will tell you that they see that as a technological movement – I see it more as a philosophical movement where you actually redefine the workplace by humanising it, by considering that the biggest assets that companies have is not the technology or the processes, it’s the people that work in the company.”

As a leader, if you consider that your biggest assets are the people, then Suarez believes that you will start treating people like people, not robots. But he is often told by businesspeople that they are not sure if they can trust their employees. This is a mind-blowing statement – “if you can’t trust your employees, why are you doing business with them?!

As such, one of the core principles of the social business movement is trust in your employees to do the right thing – something that should be the minimum asked of an organisation anyway.

When you hire people, you hire hard-working professionals – you don’t hire jerks,” he emphasises. “And if you do hire jerks, you don’t have a problem with social business you’ve got a problem with your hiring process. If you hire professionals, you treat them like professionals. It’s well known in universal law that if you treat people like sheep they will behave like sheep; if you treat them like hard-working professionals they will behave like hard-working professionals. So with social business you’re actually letting go of control, you start asking more of the employees about how they do business and you let them decide what work is and how they do work and how they find work.”

Avoiding technology overshadowing people

Suarez is concerned that the technology component is in danger of overshadowing the people component in the social business philosophy (“I’m not expecting it – it’s happening already!”). And this is something that he is all too familiar with from his time working in the knowledge management arena.

Knowledge management when it started, it started with exactly the same raw core principles as social business and social networking – and then vendors and consultants came in and they shifted the focus away from the people aspect to technology (the vendors) and processes (the consultants),” he explains.

If there is any doubting the negative impact that this had on knowledge management’s development and reputation, simply do a search for it in Google, adds Suarez.

For this reason, there is concern that the mistakes of the past are in danger of being made once more, with vendors driving the technology message and consultants (whether for big firms, small firms or going solo) pushing the procedural part of the operation.

A bunch of us are saying ‘careful, we made this mistake 18 years ago, let’s not screw it up again!’ It’s not about the technology or the processes – we need to go beyond that and focus on what it is, which is all about culture, freedom by people, people who actually use the technology as an enabler not the ends to the means, and people who actually define the procedures according to what they need, not what the business needs.

The technology is good, it’s necessary, but it’s not the whole equation, it’s just an enabler. And procedures are good, we need them, but we need to ensure that they are flexible enough to adapt to people’s needs. So basically it’s a socialising procedure. So what you’re trying to do is ensure that whether you’re in the role of sales, marketing or research, those procedures adapt to that socialisation aspect of saying as an individual how do I redefine the culture.

“So we’re going into that place and to ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes we must understand that we need to move beyond technology and procedures and dive in right where we need to dive in and change that culture.”

However, Suarez acknowledges that within the social business equation, culture is arguably a bigger and tougher hurdle than either technology or process – partly because it will steer the other two factors. So for those hoping that the path to the social business one will be all the easier for a switch in priorities, there is a rude awakening in store!

It is tough because people think and have their own opinions and if you have international operations then you also have to take into account cultural aspects of how people run their businesses locally and how they move that into a global level. That’s all change, right there.”

Suarez concludes: “Remember, the core of social business is about how you change and transform your business from a cultural perspective and use technology and procedures as the enablers – not the be all and end all.”

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