May 24, 2012

Social Business and the Myth of Equilibrium

The pace of change in our communication and computing environments is unrelenting. You might even say that there is an increase in the pace of the pace of change (to mathematicians, its second derivative is positive).

Social business emerges onto the scene as yet another disruptive agent of change. One of the challenges with social business, when fully embraced, is that it isn’t simply an incremental change, it’s closer to a transmogrification.

The natural instinct of many businesses is to treat social technologies as “yet another channel”, and add a line item to their marketing or HR budget to “leverage” that channel. This approach will have modest results, at best. In fact, it will more likely fail to deliver expected returns.

“It will be wholly insufficient to put the word “social” in front of existing business models and expect things to change. Instead, we need to imagine the fundamental enterprise anew for the social era.”

So writes Nilofer Merchant in an excellent post called Rules For the Social Era, part of a  recent series on the Harvard Business Review.

Misaligned external and internal personas

There are two frontiers in the ecology of social business: outward facing and inward facing. That is, social platforms can be used to better connect with agents outside your organization – customers, markets, partners, suppliers, analysts, etc. – and social platforms can be used to better connect resources within your organization. They are related, but not as synonymous as you might think. At least not yet, though the merging of channels and capabilities seems inevitable.

One common mistake companies make is to kick off externally oriented programs using social channels, without making any meaningful change internally in how they are organized, and how they communicate and collaborate. This creates a tension where an organization is attempting to maintain one persona on the outside, without a corresponding orientation internally. And we know what happens when our professed external principles aren’t aligned with our internal orientation. The inner self always emerges to sabotage and undermine the outward persona.

The importance of internal social platforms such as Convo is that, when fully embraced, they orient your organization to better embrace the new business realities driven by external social business environments.

Change vs. Equilibrium

So why is it so hard to actualize this internal change in orientation? It must relate to our natural disinclination toward change (much as we might profess out openness to anything new). In a business especially, change is problematic because it disrupts stability and equilibrium. And by nature, organisms – you, me, ducks, beetles and organizations – constantly drive toward equilibrium, which can be construed as safety and lower risk. Any perturbation in our little ecosystem disrupts the sense of equilibrium, and often some form of triage is performed to, essentially, regain a former equilibrium.

Change, it could be said, is the state of transition between one state of equilibrium and another. Organisms that resist change cling to the prior state of equilibrium, much like the scientific world clung for decades to a geocentric model of the universe, in spite of impelling evidence presented by Copernicus and others.

In a business context, disruptive events and developments in our markets are often met with dismissal, rationalizations, or PR campaigns in an effort to retain the previous equilibrium.

Social channels increase the volume and awareness of the disruptive changes outside your organization. These changes may come from customer feedback, suggestions and intelligence. Or the disruptions can come from competitive challenges, or from a myriad of other sources that can change the operating environment. External social channels aren’t per se disruptive, they just provide a much clearer window into the environmental changes that were previously easier to ignore or rationalize.

A simple approach to countering natural aversion to change is to acknowledge that, in fact, there is no such thing as equilibrium. At least, in a business context, there is no such thing as equilibrium from week to week, perhaps even day to day.

Change from the inside out

“The world has changed; how we create value has changed. Organizationally we have not.”
Nilofer Merchant

This is where internal social business platforms like Convo can play an important and profound role, because a social environment changes an organization’s orientation from the inside out. Social Business Networks naturally orient participants to the flow of information, content and updates through which changes – small and large – are created and communicated.

Getting your organization on an internal social platform re-orients your people, and will better equip your organization to be more open, agile and adaptive to the changes driven in the external social environment.

Adopting an internal social network like Convo is incredibly easy. Just go to, enter your company email address, and you’ll be off and running. Of course, get others to join you (collaboration is lonely without your colleagues), and focus your initial efforts on a focused work project or initiative. Gain a toehold there, and build on the success to get your organization to change from the inside out.

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