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Beware The Social Business Siren Song

January 13, 2014 by Olivier Blanchard - No Comments

The problem with assumptions is that they always come with blind spots.

The friendlier and human a company is, the more potential for success it will have. This goes back to the theory that the company with the least amount of assholes wins. I think it goes without saying that unfriendly, emotionally disconnected, self-interested employees (and managers) always act as hurdles to internal collaboration, process improvement and the adoption of new ideas. They build walls. They create silos. They are agents of “no.”

Friendly companies are created by friendly employees and friendly management. Great customer experiences (whether they come in the form of great customer service or simply pleasant shopping adventures) begin with a culture of “we give a shit.” These customer-centric companies understand the need for fluid internal collaboration and the continuous improvement of process that affect, somewhere down the line, consumers’ perception of the brand.

But is that enough?

Consider the following two lists, and ask yourself which company you would rather buy your products from:

Company A:

  • It’s a great place to work.
  • I read an article about how cross-functional teams brainstorm to develop new products.
  • They offer trainees $5,000 to quit their first week. No one ever takes the money.
  • They have awesome customer service.
  • Returns are never a problem. They treat you so nicely.
  • I love shopping there.
  • Their CMO seems like a really cool guy on Twitter.

Company B:

  • I’ve heard it’s kind of a revolving door there.
  • Made in China, I think.
  • They have horrible customer service.
  • Have fun getting them to send you a replacement.
  • The lines at their stores are a pain.
  • I have no idea who their CMO is. He sure isn’t on Twitter.

Obviously, Company A probably has a market advantage, right?

Maybe. What if Company B makes much cooler products?

What if Company B’s products are equal in every way to Company A’s but at a much lower price?

That changes the equation a bit, doesn’t it? Now, Company B might become far more competitive (and successful) in spite of all of the negatives listed above.

Now let me throw in a twist: What if, against all logic, Company B’s process actually requires an antisocial environment in order to produce cooler products? What if it requires a quasi-tyrannical leadership and hermetically-sealed silos in order to be successful? What if becoming a “social business” actually ended up hurting it?

Under Steve and Walt, Apple and Disney weren’t exactly examples of what a “social business” should be, and yet they became, in spite of many of the things that the social business model preaches, enormous successes. They changed technology. They changed entertainment. They changed culture. They changed the world for the better.

How can this be?

Would Apple and Disney have been better off with a stable of bloggers and community managers on their payroll? Twitter accounts? Facebook pages? YouTube channels? Foursquare promotions? Would they have been better off if Steve and Walt had been avid proponents of “social business” ideals, flat organizations and crowdsource-driven product design? Really?

I want you to think about that for a minute, before you go back to reading blog post after blog post about the coming “social business” revolution and all the good it will bring to the world. It just isn’t that simple. Becoming a social business doesn’t necessarily help a businesses create more value for anyone or become better at what it does.

Becoming a more social company is not the same as becoming a better company.

I am not at all suggesting that companies are better off ignoring the social space. I wouldn’t dream of ever advising a company to stay off Twitter and Facebook. It would be irresponsible of me to drive a wedge between an organization and the amazing potential that social media has in store for them. BUT, it would be equally irresponsible of me to suggest that trying to become a “social business” is always going to be  in their best interest.

If you are a CEO, ask yourself why you really want your business to become “more social.” Is it because you really love your customers? Is it because you are looking for better, faster, cheaper ways to gather consumer insights? Is it because becoming “more social” allows you to increase your reach into social channels? Is it because industry experts told you it’s the thing to do this year? Why are you really focusing on this?

Here’s a better idea for you: Focus on building a better company, not just a more social one. Identify key areas of potential improvement and make those your focus. If social media can help you in this endeavor, then by all means find out how and do it:

Use social technologies to improve your customer service and reduce purchasing barriers.

Use social networks to help more people discover your great products or recommend wonderful employees.

Use social platforms to give your customers a reason to be loyal and act as good will ambassadors for you everywhere they go.

Improve internal collaboration and organizational efficiency.

Infuse your product management groups with insights and ideas from followers and fans.

Use social monitoring tools to identify new opportunities and spot potential threats.

The sky is the limit when it comes to how social media can help you become a better company.

But “being more social” doesn’t, in and of itself, amount to a whole lot. What does that even mean in a business context? Paying someone to hang out on Twitter all day and push out links to marketing content? Write formulaic blog posts to hopefully attract visitors to your website? Hire an agency to manage a Facebook page for you so you appear to be “more social?” Hire a ghost blogger to pretend that your CEO is committed to the social web? What’s the point of any of that? Why waste so much time and energy on pointless bullshit that isn’t benefiting anyone?

Now consider these two questions:

1. Will adopting a “social business” model really help patent-driven, data security conscious companies like Michelin, 3M and Pfizer become more competitive, more successful, and better at what they do?

2. Would adopting a “social business” model have helped Apple and Disney accomplish what they did? Or might it have gotten in the way by creating too much of a distraction or altering internal focus? Might an effort to become more “social” instead of generating brilliant products have worked against Apple and Disney?

Before you answer, consider this: The value of social media adoption and social process integration comes in degrees. Because every company is unique, every company will become more or less “social” based on its needs, capabilities and the dynamics of their internal cultures. Each of them will decide to what extent, and in the service of the improvement of what function, “social” will become part of its process. And guess what: There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

So again…

Question: Should Michelin, 3M and Pfizer, Disney and Apple become more “social?”

Answer: Only to the extent to which they and their customers will benefit from it. That could be a little, a lot, or not at all.

There’s a why question hidden in that Q&A, and a how question as well. You need to help companies answer both if you really want to help them.

Recap.

1. The “social business” ideal doesn’t apply to every business. That’s the problem with ideals: Ideally, they’re great. In reality, the world is messy. Things don’t always work the way we wish they would. “The road to hell,” as they say, “is paved with good intentions.” The road to epic screw-ups is as well. Proceed with clear purpose, and caution will mostly take care of itself.

2. Beware the salesmen of utopia. Selling ideals is one thing. Adapting them to your company’s needs is another entirely. Good consultants should be able to successfully put their advice into practice, not just suggest unrealistic goals and then watch you fumble at an impossible play.

3. If you focus less on “being social” and more on becoming a better company, you will be much better off by the end of the coming fiscal year. If social platforms can help you become that better company, great! Get working on it. If not, don’t sweat it. Focus on what matters, not on the flavor of the moment, no matter how many consultants and tech bloggers come to you carrying buckets of freshly brewed Koolaid.

Now stop reading blogs and go kick ass. Cheers.

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