31 May 2013

Social or not?

There seems to be a problem with the word social in particular when one wants to convince executives of the benefits of Enterprise Social Media.

Social it seems raises red flags in that any social business initiative is suspected to be a scheme for avoiding work and procrastination.

To address the problem it has been suggested to replace the term “social” with “network”, “open”, “collaboration” or avoid it altogether (e.g. to talk about Enterprise Collaboration Networks or just Enterprise Networks).

These suggestions are sometimes seen as bizarre and dangerous as the term social can then be considered anti-business!

A quick look at Wikipedia confirms that social is a pretty innocent term. Depending on context the term refers to:
  • The collective co-existence with others.
  • An objectively given fact characterising humans as inherently social beings. 
  • Attitudes or behaviours displayed by people when they take account of the interests or needs of other people.
Hence, social either means just being with other people, or to behave unselfishly taking others into account. At no point does it say that social might be the opposite to terms such as “working effectively”, “doing business” or “being rational”. If anything the opposite of social is selfish, acting with no regard for other people.

If social behaviour means to take the needs of others into account, how can this be regarded negative in the workplace? And what does it say about a person if they think that is to be avoided and has no place in business.

On the contrary, isn’t all business necessarily and by definition social?

So, should the term be avoided? – No! Of course not.

Will that make it harder to sell the idea of social business to (some!) executives? – Maybe.

But in my view it is dangerous to give in to an overly reductionist management attitude that tries to free all business matters of “social” aspects and reduce it to rationalistic task execution. This needs to be resisted in my view. Not (only) because it is the right thing to do, but because it is good for business.

The whole point of the recent push for social business is to recognize that work in a modern knowledge economy has as much to do with effective task execution as it has with engaging in ongoing conversations and sense-making with others about collaborative engagements. How else can the organization innovate, change, adapt and evolve with the changes that go on around us in an economy that is being disrupted by the emergence of a stream of new digital technologies?

It is precisely in the vision of initiatives such as ESN to point out that overly reductionist approaches to management and work are not suited to cope with the demands of digital change.

So, my argument is that by avoiding the term social those responsible are complying with the rules of the very game that needs to change.

What perhaps needs to be done is educating people about the social nature of business, not pretending it’s not. Recognising that all business is social is an attitude, a state of mind that is a prerequisite for success in our changing economy.

But there is still hope. It might well be that being cautious about social when approaching executives is more a reflex anticipating resistance than a reflection of actual management attitudes. I know many managers and executives who are well aware of the need to engage with social business, their questions often naturally revolve more around the ‘how’ not the ‘if’.

Author : Associate Professor Kai Riemer
Chair of Discipline of Business Information Systems
Kai's research covers the areas of Enterprise Social Media, Digital Disruption, Technology Appropriation and Sense-Making, Virtual Work, and the Philosophy of Technology. You can read more at his blog. Also follow Kai on Twitter.

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