The Confusing World of Social Business

I have the privilege of working with two gentlemen that put most “thought leaders” to shame.

I am referring, of course, to Emanuele Quintarelli and Sameer Patel.

They are not only very bright in their perceptions of Social Business, but very active in helping make the changes that matter.  While I spend my time figuring out how to write about “the convergence” (later dubbed social business) and try to make sense of it for my clients, they are in the front lines at their companies (Sameer as a partner at Sovos Group and Emanuele as a partner in OpenKnowledge) making Social Business happen.

A large part of what they are finding and doing every day made it into the events they put together the past few weeks, both of which I was invited to participate.  Emanuele is in charge of the International Social Business Forum in Milano, Italy and Sameer led the Sales and Marketing track at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston, Massachusetts.  Having attended both gave me some great insights into the current state of Social Business, which I wanted to share with you.

First off, the label social is not good.  It does no justice to what we are doing.  This is not about being social; this is about creating collaborative platforms for users and organizations to co-create value.  There is nothing social to that (well, maybe you can label the interactions social – but if so, what were they before? anti-social? immature social?  Interactions have not changed; the value derived from having them is what has changed).

The value of what we are building is NOT in the engagement or in interacting, that goes back many, many moons.  I have been working in Customer Service for 25 years, as far as I remember – we had interactions. Social interactions.  We are building value in collaboration, not in being social.  The whole purpose to “being social” is to collaborate, if you don’t see it that way – you are in the wrong place.  I have been endorsing the term collaborative enterprise, it is not mine, but I like it.  It identifies very well, IMO, what we are trying to build – an enterprise where collaboration makes things happen.

That brings me to point #2, and one that I have been espousing for some time, Enterprise 2.0 is a used, old term.  It does not identify or represent what we are trying to do anymore than Social Business.  This is business, or enterprise, evolved.  Call it Evolved business if you need a label, or just plain business.  And drop the idea that collaborating should only happen inside the organization – that is rubbish.  This is about collaboration that crosses the membrane, which brings business users and customers together.

I guess Social Enterprise is a bad name then – right? Yes, terrible – but we will address that later… something tells me in early August we will have plenty of time to go into those details.  Intuition if you may.

Third, the most important point: business users are getting it.  Truly.  I have had many, many conversations in both forums (as I had last year) and the conversation is finally shifting: we used to talk about collaboration and tools exclusively, now we are talking about business value and strategy.  We used to talk about inside-out concepts only (company in control), now we are talking about outside-in as well (customer-centric).  These are not conversations with vendors and fellow pundits, those always had the element of bet-I-can-predict-more-than-you-can to then, but the conversations with the end-users, the organizations that are deploying these collaboration networks.  This is what we were aiming for: enterprise users that are tying it all together.

Case in point: during the event Clearvale put together, “An Evening with Paul Greenberg”, we got to hear a lot of the traditional questions – what is SCRM, how does it work, who sells it — but this time around they were uttered by end-users, those people that would’ve consider buying them.  And there was a lot of conversation generated around those topics as well – interesting conversation talking about compliance, use-in-business, proven business value.  It was great to see people that are getting past the hype and telling me that even though they did not purchase (or did purchase, in some cases) technology to support their efforts they are doing some very cool projects. More on that to come.

Finally, vendors are piling up on the concept of Social Business (and now even Social Enterprise).  Just a quick look at my inbox, which is mostly press releases these days thanks to other communication tools available – thank you, shows me the names of the largest vendors in Enterprise Software talking about their “Social Business” this or that.  Among the startups and newcomers, those that are not dealing with Social Consumers are focused on how to incorporate Social into the enterprise.  Of course, there is no possible way that all these vendors are right – or wrong – so where do we go from here?

Here is my take.

The evolution of business, propelled by the customers becoming more interested in participating in communities, led organizations to the point of having to decide: should they make the move to work closer with their partners, prospects, employees, and customers to build better products that meet expectations now – or later? Make no mistake; there are very, very few (if any) corporations out there that don’t believe this Social evolution will affect them.  It is not a matter of whether, but when.  Smart organizations that recognized these societal changes for what they are investigating, testing, or deploying new platforms and infrastructures to allow freer collaboration.  The few that don’t know they will have to do it in the future.  This is one of those very interesting times in Enterprise Software that is marking a fundamental shift in the WAY we conduct business – not in business itself.

The adaptation to that new way of doing business is what is going to make it very interesting for the two-to-five years.

Know what I mean?


22 Replies to “The Confusing World of Social Business”

  1. Way too kind, Esteban. I appreciate it more that you will ever know. And I’m blessed to have you come and moderate the panel.

    You make solid points with respect to the confusion out there. Id even go further and say that the level of ambivalence is not disappearing as fast as it should, by any reasonable yard stick. That will change gradually given the need for performance acceleration and the applicability of social and collaborative constructs to that challenge but its clearly taking its own sweet time.

    This closing statement really brings it home “This is one of those very interesting times in Enterprise Software that is marking a fundamental shift in the WAY we conduct business – not in business itself.”

    Thanks again for participating.


  2. I would agree that the level of ambivalence is not disappearing, but I would even bring forth the concept that it is being replaced with some certainty. We have been around the block of technology more than once, maybe more than twice even – we all know that nothing happens overnight or even close to it.

    I am encouraged by the discussions that erupted in the audience in the sessions and panels I attended, they showed a larger maturity level that I saw in the past in both events.

    Thanks for inviting me, the conference was as exceptional as people tell you – and all due to your work to make it so.


  3. Esteban, you are really too kind and I feel sincerely honored to have had you here in Italy and to have met you again in Boston.

    I don’t care too much about the terms but agreed, some companies are starting to get it or better to do it, maybe without calling this change “social business” or “social crm” or “social enterprise” but definitely exploring the business potential and the organizational impacts of what customers are pushing them to do.

    Even more, to me the most interesting difference with some years ago is the growing appreciation of complexity many companies are starting to show: while many brands are still looking at social media just as another channel for screaming and launching one-off campaigns, others are beginning to appreciate how letting your customers enter your organization’s door and co-creating with them is really the key to unlock unprecedented business value. As you said, doing this will inevitably change for ever how business gets done and this is good given the scarce attention towards human’s needs we have seen until now from too many corporations.

    So definitely a long, not linear, too slow for many evolution but one that, regardless of any label, is just taking place because it makes sense for business.

    BTW I still love the term engagement. Maybe I’m just too hyppie 2.0 as some common friend keeps saying!


    1. Gosh,

      I did not think I would get hippies to comment in my blog ever!

      Just kidding. As you can see below, Lee is also somewhat in favor of the term and concept of Social and Engagement. I am not against engagement, I am against the mock engagement that most organizations are conducting. They are taking to “engaging” with customers via multiple channels, including social, but don’t do anything with it. It is just lip service to say they are “social”.

      I am against giving businesses an easy way out of the evolution in the world. Just like I hated, still do, adding “e” to everything to signify it was internet-ready (when in reality nothing had changed, other than adding the “e”), I am against the term social as it distracts from the real need: to collaborate with customers. I love the way you put it: “beginning to appreciate how letting your customers enter your organization’s door and co-creating with them is really the key to unlock unprecedented business value”.

      That is what is all about: value. And you cannot build value by becoming friends, you build value by using the friendship to move business purposes further.

      Just saying, you know?


      1. Oh, boy, did someone say Hippies (2.0) by any chance? Someone calling me?!?! ;-)) Esteban, wonderful write-up and healthy debate that pretty much summarises both events and why I have enjoyed them tremendously this year even more! I feel you pretty much nailed it with this quote:

        “[…] This is about creating collaborative platforms for users and organizations to co-create value”

        I think that’s probably one of the best definitions out there trying to describe everything “social”, knowledge sharing or even collaboration and the way it should be! At the end of the day it’s about generating sustainable value, but I do think, with my hippie hat on…, that the equation has changed. It’s no longer vendors driving that value, but customers driving it AND with an important factor from another group I think is rather important as well: Employees. It’s both customers and employees who are helping provoke that healthy change of mindset with co-creative processes, but also with more openness, transparency, publicy.

        I, too, believe strongly in empowerment and engagement, but more in the shape of individuals, networks and communities than companies. If there is anything that social has awaken for us all is that sense of co-responsibility, ownership, commitment, passion for the job, having fun @ work, building strong social capital skills, trust, etc. etc. that have certainly unleash all of that human talent that was hidden behind the firewall for decades and which customers are helping and encouraging come out at a faster pace than most of us could probably handle.

        And that’s a good thing, imo. I don’t care about definitions, to be honest. I think they are deviating our attention from the real issue here: sustainable value. The same issue happen with KM, back in the day, and 17 years later we still can’t define it properly. Perhaps we shouldn’t. Perhaps we should just focus on helping progress that change of mindset; of helping vendors understand how they no longer control either their own customers, nor their employees. To help them understand it’s perhaps much more productive, effective and efficient to let them loose and see what additional business value they can generate.

        And certainly your blog post is hinting that shift we are finally seeing coming along nicely. It’s thanks to that shift that I, too, agree with you, we are living in exciting times and I surely hope we progress in the right direction; so far judging from previous conference events in previous years it looks like it. I am hoping we can continue the momentum for a few more years, till it consolidates and we stop trying to define such concepts and instead call it business… or simply work!

        Thanks much again for the wonderful conversations and look forward to seeing you again! 🙂
        Employee centric as well, as part of the ecosystem, participating in a co-creation process with customers.


  4. Hi Esteban,

    Sameer and Emanuele are friends and I admire their work, so nice to see you giving them a shout-out 🙂

    I just wanted to correct one error above, which seems to be a common misconception, namely the idea that “this is not about being social; this is about creating collaborative platforms for users and organizations to co-create value”

    I addressed both these points in my keynote at E2.0. First, direct collaboration will always represent a small proportion of the benefits to be derived from socially networked businesses. Most of the value lies in ambient information sharing and network effects (weak ties etc) rather than collaboration. Second, the terminology debate is really not that important. I tend to agree E2.0 was a transitional term, but those who reject ‘social’ as a term tend to do so out of fear that this makes what they are doing harder to sell. I find it sad that some smart people are retrenching to support old, process-driven ways of working just to chase the dollars. The fundamental shift from expensive, bureaucratic process-driven models of cascading management to more people-centred ways of working is pretty much undeniable, both in terms of need (lack of agility, high op-ex costs, declining productivity, etc) and in terms of the benefits. In this sense, social is a label for a people-centric approach (see for a definition) and … yes … many businesses were/are indeed anti-social, in the sense that they value process over people and ask employees to leave their humanity at the door.

    I really don’t care if the use of this term puts off some execs, since I am lucky enough to spend time with a number of very senior and intelligent business leaders who are not so insecure, and therefore buy into our thinking. There is always a niche to be found in taking the opposite view, and I know some commentators in our community are doing so, but ultimately, I am encouraged by the fact that we have been able to create a pretty successful consulting firm that stays true to the vision we have for improving business using social business tools and ideas.

    Given the optimism of your closing paragraph, I think we probably agree on that, if not necessarily on the terms we use to describe it.


    1. Lee:

      Could you please elaborate on the factual basis for your opinion that: “direct collaboration will always represent a small proportion of the benefits to be derived from socially networked businesses?”

      Seems to me like much of this “ambient information sharing” that goes on today in the “social” online world is of questionable value to most organization’s relative to the resources expended to read and write all this stuff.

      Collaboration with metrics motivating desired participation and measuring perceived if not actual value is mandatory for all this engagement to be more than just anecdotal talk dissociated with profitability.



    2. Lee,
      Wanted to think through what I wanted to say before replying – sorry for the delay.

      First, there is no error above to correct – you may disagree with what I am saying, but as far as I can tell — your opinion is equal to mine: just an opinion. Social, to mean anything to business and have some value, must have a goal. Being social for the sake of being social — or even just to tie people together must have a goal that business can understand. I am sure you can counter this with many examples, but each time I had conversations in executive suites about “ambient information sharing and network ties (weak ties, etc.)” the blank stares coming back were too much for me. Same as when we used to quote “intangible benefits” with ERP and CRM implementations.

      If you want to have the executives take Social seriously – bring it down to what makes sense: collaboration is something they understand and endorse, something they can get behind, and something they see as deriving tangible benefits – not “engagement or interaction”. I am talking about co-creating better products and services that are easier to service and faster to sell (or that they can charge more for), I am talking about outsourcing some of the expensive functions to cheaper resources (well, virtually free in most cases), and I am talking about finding the right people faster, easier, better.

      The way I see it, “old, process-driven ways” is what organizations are doing today and will continue to do tomorrow – except that the really, really forward ones will have adopted Social Media (channels and data) to help them do it better. Again, I am quite certain you can throw a dozen or so cases among your clients that will counter my claim, but the companies that “were asking people to leave the humanity at the door” will continue to do so.

      Being social is not about people, is about leveraging better communication channels with the purpose of interacting better. Paul Greenberg said something throughout this E2.0 presence that resonated and was re-tweeted many times: this is a communication revolution, nor a business revolution.
      If a company does not trust their employees sufficiently to empower them to act independently, becoming social won’t change that. I can limit what my people do in Twitter as well as outside of it (see HearSay Labs as an example and many other tools).

      Being social has to have a defined business purpose as anything else that businesses adopted before – and being more human is not it. Sorry, as much as I’d like to say there is value in more engagement, there is no value unless the data and information produced is used to further the business – and this is value to both, the customer and the user through co-creation.

      I am not going to engage in definition wars of social, collaboration, or anything like that – I know what my clients are asking and talking about, and I know what they are doing. I agree with you on some concepts: organization must become more human-centric and customer-centric, and obviously my closing paragraph.
      I congratulate you in building a successful consulting organization, and wish you continued success – but that success does not endow you with the right to call opposing opinions “an error”, nor to dismiss those that don’t think like you.

      I welcome the debate, bring your data and your case studies and we can compare.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your keynote at E2.0, you presented a good case for the use of Big Data (even tweeted so), and I am hoping this was just a case of using words in the improper context – I would certainly hope that was it.


  5. I saw your post via facebook from Emanuele Quintarelli.

    I tend to agree with Lee. but also extend his view. The same old problems exist within enterprises, but the way to solve these problems has changed. ‘Social’ will become embedded into how people work, and as Lee has said, through a people-centric approach. Leveraging from this social graph will be a key tool for day-to-day work.

    What we find is that if the focus is placed on solving business problems, no-one really care what it’s called.

    One final point – Social and ‘the art of the possible’ modifies and extends organisational behaviour. You can do things that you couldn’t do before if applied well!


    1. Alpesh,

      I agree with you on most things, but I don’t want they hype of what social “is” to cloud the benefits it brings to the business. I like your final point and agree — as long as you can apply it to business benefits (am i sounding like a broken record? sorry).

      Thanks for the read and the comment!


  6. Actually Lee brought back to my mind another piece I forgot in the previous comment: yes collaboration, in a proper way, just represents a tiny fraction of what you can do with social (business).

    I tried to make it clear a few years back through a simple model ( inspired by Andrew McAfee work.

    While collaboration works on strong ties and has always been among the most visible pieces of the social cake, you can do so much more than that even without interacting with others. Connecting with people and being aware about what they can have for you, sharing yourself valuable fragments of information, leveraging the aggregated collective intelligence of the workforce or of the entire customer base simply act on different levels if compared to collaboration.

    So yes, I agree that the point is “doing something meaningful to individuals and to the organization” but I wouldn’t call it collaboration. On the contrary to extract any kind of value some form of trust is probably needed (even for a collective intelligence setting). That’s why engagement to me looks very much like a common denominator, a substrate, for unlocking that business value.


    1. Emanuele,

      I don’t think a debate on what collaboration means and what it represents is in the best interest of the movement, but that is just my opinion. I wrote most of my reasoning behind using the term and the concept in my reply to Lee in this same page.

      I really, really, really don’t want to go through a definition war… pretty please, with cherry on top?

      I think we are all in agreement in that whatever-is-you-want-to-call-it is so much more than social and collaboration – but for the sake of communication, let’s just pick one word and use it. I propose collaboration, most people understand it and support it as a business function (from my conversations), and I welcome using any other word – but not to enter definition or semantic wars. Did not do it for social, won’t do it for collaboration or whatever-is-the-next-hypey-term.

      I would prefer not to use engagement as it means not much, has not connotations in business, and is (almost) impossible to measure properly or adequately. The actions that come from collaboration have a way to be measured: knowledge-sharing, information distribution, feedback, progress of a project — all these are actions that result from collaboration and that can be measured. Quantitatively.

      Again, not willing to enter into a debate war or a semantic war – let’s all use the terms we want, as long we all agree on the end-result: co-created value for businesses and customers.


  7. Esteban,
    agreed nobody cares about definitions and I didn’t mean to talk about that.

    More than definitions I’m interested to take advantage of the many ways to co-create value as there are many of those. In my experience, you have to consciously design and plan for the right kind of interaction at the right time on the right group of people.

    If you want to call it collaboration anyway .. I’m can live with that 😀


  8. Hi Esteban,

    Thanks for your kind words about my E2.0 keynote, and for graciously hosting this debate on your blog.

    First, let’s take it as a given that collaboration must have a goal (pace Ross’s keynote from Boston) and the wider field of social business must also have a goal or goals, but that these will obviously vary from context to context. Everything we have ever done with social tools inside enterprises is use-case and goal driven, and I personally do not know anybody who pursues ‘social’ for its own sake – this accusation is a straw man constructed by the revanchists in our field who want to chase the dollars without scaring the horses (if you will excuse the mixed metaphors). I am not in the business of giving middle-of-the-road managers what they think they want and are ready to pay for. Life’s too short and that is too boring.

    I am in the business of trying to find new and more successful ways of working that break out of the diminishing returns that people like John Hagel talk about, and which visionary business leaders know to be a problem. The fact that many organisations will continue to make people leave their humanity at the door is in no way a refutation of my argument. For there to be winners, there also have to be losers 😉 We are at the kind of historical inflection point where two opposing realities can co-exist for some time, and so yes, of course it is possible to continue with ‘business as usual’ for years to come, and it makes a nice easy (but very boring) niche for small players to make money comforting C20th execs who fear ‘social’ and don’t trust their people.

    FWIW, I disagree that this is about a change in the way we use ‘communication channels’. I think it goes deeper than that, which is also why I disagree with your “Being social is not about people, is about leveraging better communication channels with the purpose of interacting better”. Business is and always has been about people, and we are discovering better ways to do it than the C20th Taylorist/Fordist approach.

    Moving on to the issue of equating social business with collaboration, I understand you took this to be an opinion and therefore felt the term ‘error’ was too strong. In deference to subjectivity, I will happily use another word, but I think the evidence is pretty clear that direct, strong-tie collaboration can only ever be a minority use case in organisations of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, as Emanuele also made clear above. How could it be otherwise? Is knowledge and information sharing a form of direct collaboration? What about things like micro-blogging and Socialcast? What about the data-driven business ideas I talked about in Boston, or even more prosaically the fields of Social CRM and social media monitoring? I think it is a real stretch to describe these as collaboration.

    I like the term collaboration, and it is an important part of social business, but there is a whole lot more to what we do than direct collaboration. Ambient information sharing, collective intelligence, analytics etc, may be tricky concepts for you to get across in the boardroom, but then so was Bayesian probabilistic search technologies when Autonomy first launched – it doesn’t make these concepts any less true or any less valuable. Our challenge is to help business leaders understand the bigger picture issues, and the bottom line impact, and then secure the support and the budgets to do the hard, technical work of making it happen.

    I am coming back to you on this not because I am waving a flag for a particular term, but because I genuinely believe that it is factually incorrect to say social business = collaboration, and this could potentially create confusion. As always with debates of this nature, I only engage you because I respect you and we are broadly in agreement on the basics, so there is no hostility intended whatsoever 🙂

    Thanks again Esteban. Let’s do this next time over a glass of something nice…


    1. Thanks for taking the time to go into more detail. I can see one big problem with the debate – I never said social business = collaboration. I said social has to have a purpose, and that purpose is to collaborate. Collaboration is at the heart of the collaborative enterprise, which I see as the next evolutionary model for business – including those that are calling themselves social business.

      To me, social business, collaborative enterprise, social enterprise (hate that term more than social business) and their cousins all talk about the same: business. Business is what it was before, will continue to be in the future: make stuff, sell it, make some more, sell some more. Simplistic? sure…but works.

      However, the way business is conducted evolves, and these evolutionary movements are getting closer together thanks to technology. 30 years ago we did not have computers in business (for the most part), today we have iPads and Android.

      I agree with all your statements, don’t get me wrong – I am not naive. I think that data is the big byproduct of the social evolution, and analytics the necessary tools for it. Knowledge has not even shown what it can do to further business, and most organizations don’t see the connection there – but that is the next frontier (not to analyze the data, to find people how can understand how to do this well… stay tuned).

      I feel we are in agreement more than not, and as I said it is probably a case of improperly used words (semantics analysis anyone? that is another big one for the future – right?). I will take my bumps for the poor explanation I might have given that concluded with social business is collaboration, it is one of the engines for it — but, as collaboration is the purpose and reason for social, the reason for collaboration is far more powerful than the act itself. In this case, co-creating value and furthering business and customers through it.

      I totally appreciate the debate, and will gladly buy the first “nice thing to drink” next time. Thanks, again, for taking the time.


  9. Thanks Esteban – your clarification is helpful, and I think (a) I better understand what you were driving at, and (b) we agree on all the important bits 😉

    @Chuck: No, you shouldn’t.


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