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Dion Hinchcliffe's Next-Generation Enterprises

Dion Hinchcliffe

Your Social Business Co-Pilot: An Agile, Emergent, and Decentralized Strategy

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Earlier this month a great piece by Dan Schawbel appeared in Forbes on the topic of the ever-expanding discussion on how the business world is transitioning to social media. Not only is it clear that the consumer world is moving en masse to social channels, but it's now established that most businesses are now beginning the same the process as well.

In the Forbes piece, Dan interviewed IBM's Sandy Carter about her front-line experiences as the software giant's customers increasingly move to social media across their lines of business. I've watched Sandy closely in the last year and I think she's been successfully zeroing in on the essence of social business strategy. Her new Get Bold book is rapidly becoming required reading in the industry.

In particular, Sandy's citation that social business will be a $100 billion industry by 2015 is a head turner for those not yet tracking this major change in the business landscape today.

Social Business Strategy and Transformation for Enterprise 2.0, Social CRM, Social Marketing, Social Media, etc.

But it's the frame-up that's so important for effective strategy to overcome entrenched culture. Though I've explored social business transformation closely over the last few years, it was Dan and Sandy's combined description of how to become a social business that particularly struck me as one of the most cogent explanations of the process and benefits I've seen recently:

A Social Business isn't a company that just has a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Social Business means that every department, from HR to marketing to product development to customer service to sales, uses social media the way it uses any other tool and channel to do its job. It's an organization that uses social networking tools fluently to communicate with people inside and outside the company. It's a strategic approach to shaping a business culture, highly dependent upon executive leadership and corporate strategy, including business process design, risk management, leadership development, financial controls and use of business analytics. Becoming a Social Business can help an organization deepen customer relationships, generate new ideas faster, identify expertise and enable a more effective workforce.

Priorities are also the challenge here. Many of the organizations I'm talking to these days are struggling to face the disruptive changes in technology and business coming at them seemingly at light speed. While social media is an increasingly urgent influence, the so-called "Big 5" IT disruptors these days are frequently pulling focus and resources away from concerted efforts just as its needed most to move organizations into the present. It's this situation that often causes "strategy seizure", never mind that the credibility of big bang approaches to business and technology change remains at an all time low, excepting paths that are obviously clear of unknown obstacles (i.e. smart mobiilty is one of the few that seems to fall into this camp.)

Related: The "Big 5" IT Trends of the Next Half Decade

So it's 1) frame-up and 2) focus that will get most enterprises to the social business strategy starting line. Reaching the more interesting competitive and ROI propositions of social business, however, does seem to require some uniquely different thinking as well as some clear and deliberate steps.

Clear and deliberate social business adoption therefore means this: Our local business cultures must begin changing to become more open, transparent and participative, not only at the leadership level, but across the organization. Executives must be at least be deeply committed to the process, if not leading it outright. There must be clear long-term goals defined (better customer relationships, improved workforce collaboration, higher performance supply chains, etc.) A strategic roadmap should be defined, even in the face of the realization -- and deliberate leverage -- of the fact that many of the more interesting social business outcomes are unexpected. These autonomous and self-organizing (i.e. emergent) changes occurring naturally along the edges of the organization will then be identified and supported by the business whenever it makes sense.

In fact, one of the more interesting lessons of social business, period, is that the ROI often comes from where you least expect it. I currently advise most social business strategy efforts not to try very hard to get credit for these unexpected side benefits; the core investment can be justified via the deliberate outcomes along in most cases. Just be very sure the "magic" isn't lost in the process: The highly freeform and flexible nature of social environments gives rise to amazing results if it's not excessively squeezed, prodded, and forced through the proverbial square hole of traditional IT initiatives, though risk management will need a bit more than lip service.

If all of this sounds a lot like careful yet innovative change management, that's because it is. However, I try to be clear that it's a new form of it that needs to have some special ingredients to take advantage of these new systems of engagement that are highly open, unstructured, and self-directing. As Ray Wang recently wrote on his Harvard Business Review blog:

The evolution to engagement systems from transactional systems will usher in an era of experiential systems which apply context to deliver agility and flexibility. Early categories in this space include gamification platforms, context aware services, and decision support systems.

To this, I'd add that all social business platforms worthy of the name practically define the concept of systems of engagement. We've already gotten pretty good at aligning our businesses to the classical systems of record in the last 40 years. The new era of social systems of engagement is going to provide many interesting opportunities and challenges but has its own competencies and factors for success. So that our organizations can get there, I'd make sure that these uniquely powerful aspects of a social business transformation are carefully incorporated and sustained throughout the lifetime of the business solution to get the most robust and useful outcomes. Those efforts without these key attributes (listed below), will likely end up looking like the same, fairly unsatisfactory results you've encountered in many previous change management efforts and IT projects.

What Makes a Social Business Strategy Different

Agile. There are strong and organic connections between business agility and social business. Take advantage of them to ensure that there's a tight feedback loop between your social business design work and field experience. Don't go in assuming how it's going to work and plan to change early and often based on ground truth. Later on, once operational capability starts, use social business intelligence to guide the ongoing effort.

Emergent. I now strongly believe IT is going to become much more emergent with the rise of the cloud, SaaS, self-service IT, app stores, Bring Your Own Devices, and personal employee IT budgets. Consequently, I believe that instead of fighting it, IT departments and business units can consciously leverage it to improve results, reduce backlogs, and solve problems in many unplanned ways that makes much more optimal use of existing IT resources. Social business is a natural for this, and local autonomy must be strongly encouraged and embraced when leadership and innovation is exhibited. I see wikis, social networks, and activity streams as natural centers of emergence over more specific social solutions like expertise location or social supply chains, though all can exhibit it.

Decentralized yet centrally guided. Taking traditional business context, such as specific functions like marketing, sales, customer care, etc., and applying social business is an enormous task when taken as a whole, but can greatly benefit from their decoupling from the main strategy as individual efforts. That doesn't mean that social business transformation must inevitably consist of decomposition into a dozen smaller, less risky, efforts. Far from it and the creation of a social business unit to establish policy, share learned best practices, define common platforms and external resources, and so on, has been enormously useful for many organizations. As long as it enables people on the ground across the organization to let loose their creativity on the ground to realize the most they can with the long-term objectives, cultural support, and social technology they are given.

It's very clear now that social business is moving away from departmental or line of business efforts, yet focusing too much on grand strategy also has risks and challenges. Creating a practical, targeted, and staged transition to social business is working for many organizations, but the trick is to balance top down with bottom up change management and adoption. I'd love to hear stories about how you're framing up the process at the highest level in your organization below.

Dion Hinchcliffe

Dion Hinchcliffe is an internationally recognized business strategist and enterprise architect View more

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