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Will McInnes

Social business: more of the same, or real change?

So much of what seems to be written about Social Business feels like advertising copy for Information Technology cut and pasted from the 80s.

For me, it’s all cold, technology-centric, empty hype. Yet what is happening is organic, is about regrowth and change, and fundamentally about humans, that’s the SOCIAL bit, right?

I am afraid, genuinely afraid, that what is a once-every-100-years opportunity to hugely and positively shift the whole notion of ‘business’ is going to buried under a pile of technology lingo and four-by-four models.

When what we have is the opportunity to harness a whole set of trends to change business for the good.

We have the opportunity to take Umair Haque‘s concepts of new capitalism and Meaning Organisations [see my talk at Rebuild 21, Copenhagen] and combine them with the trends in social technology and the behaviour around those technologies.

To combine Gen Y’s search for higher causes and refusal to be conned into a ‘job-for-life’ fallacy, and harness the same positive energy that fuels Kiva and Kickstarter and Wikipedia and Mumsnet, to create organisations that create profits AND…. And meaning. And change for people’s lives. And a contribution to society rather than an extraction. And and and.

The social business opportunity is to take the seeds sown by pioneers like Ricardo Semler and the WorldBlu movement, and brilliant big-business-insiders like Vineet Nayar at HCL, and sow these radical, powerful working practices in every corporation, not-for-profit and government institution.

As Indy Johar put it at the Do Lectures, we need to create more than the ‘single-outcome’ organisation.

All of this, to me, is the Social Business opportunity.

As I just said on Twitter, “for me social business is about humanity, about values, openness, agility, authenticity & meaning. A breaking down of barriers and veneer.”

It’s about REAL change. Not lipstick on a pig, as I have heard Lee Bryant say before. Amen to that.

But despite that intent what I hear and see and read about social business is just more of the same, served up in opaque lingo, talking about business-as-usual, but with a load of new tools…

That’s just deeply wrong.

We have to take this once-in-a-century opportunity, and harness its fullness. Celebrate the breadth and depth of the new possibilities. And not cloud or hide them in business-as-usual language or mental models.

And we must be clear in our communication and human in our approach, remembering that the greatest opportunity is to make things better, not just do them differently.

In business and in not-for-profit and government.

That is the real change we are making in Social Business. For the sake of a better world.

This post was filed under Digital transformation, Not for profit, Technology, The future, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. Nice post Will. I agree with you, but then I have long ago stopped reading the social media “gurus” and the technology determinists.

    We have been pursuing this goal since 2002. It’s a long haul, so you need to be patient. It’s coming. Not because it is “right” or because it feel nice, but because there are more and more examples of how social business methods and thinking are producing low-cost, agile firms and groups that are simply more competitive than the big hulking Stalinist bureaucracies.

    I agree with your expressed sentiment almost entirely, but for this case to be proven, it needs to make sense for selfish, profit-driven people and firms who are in it for the short-to-medium term, not people who want to change the world. And it will be. It promises dramatically lower operating costs, lower customer (and employee) acquisition costs, less middle management and a more effective role for leaders.

    Business and trade was social for a very long time. It will be again. Chin up!

    Posted 28th September 2011 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  2. The spirit of what you suggest is overflowing in the Social Business Council. But, don’t take my word for it. Ask our G2000 members. Some of the largest enterprises in the world are engaged in changing the world for the better. It starts with people and a passion for change. Lee’s correct in that sometimes you need to sell the vision in terms the buyer will understand. Don’t confuse that for the underlying motive driving the change agents who are on the front lines of this modern-day Reformation.

    Posted 28th September 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  3. Love this post. Wanted to reply when I had more time but that ain’t going to happen so my quick thoughts:

    For decades, people have approached raising their kids, treating their friends or their local communities so differently to the way they approach their work.

    Male bosses for example telling their little girls they can do or be anything but then treating women/working mothers like crap in the workplace. Honest, ethical people, leaving their beliefs at the office door and working for industries they don’t believe in or are embarrassed to be associated with.

    To me, social business is about being human, being decent, being giving and being helpful. Treating your customers and suppliers and competitors as you treat other people.

    Dropping the “work personality” and being yourself.

    Looking at what you can be part of on a local and global scale that will improve the lives of your wider supply chain and network. It isn’t a holy grail or an unachievable nirvana… is just about living and working a meaningful life.

    Don’t be afraid it will get buried. We won’t let it….

    Posted 29th September 2011 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Lee, Susan, thank you for your comments.

    I agree with you.

    I guess what I am trying to get my head around is the extent to which – as pragmatists – we must describe the benefits in a language and style that they will be heard and understood against the need to remain authentic and not lose the fullness of what we are really talking about here.

    At NixonMcInnes we’ve been treading this path for years, working with big, conservative organisations, so I know absolutely that this is right. We do have tread the path balancing pragmatism with idealism.

    I guess I was just railing against much of the hype and terminology around social business that I feel is a total sell-out of the purpose.

    Perhaps I feel the market as it is is too pragmatic, and too cold and hollow, when what we are ALL trying to do is fundamentally human. To unlock the potential of the people working in the world’s organisations.

    Yes, we must sell the benefits. But I personally also plan on appealing to buyers guts, their instincts, their knowing that business has to change not just because of spreadsheets and systems.

    But thank you, this has been useful.

    Posted 29th September 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

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  1. [...] Much of the discussions about Social Business don’t quite click for us at NixonMcInnes. It all feels a bit tech-oriented, a bit cold, a bit process-y. (Previous rant on this here). [...]