Social media and a fundamental shift

Can social media change the rules of old-world business?

That’s a question I’ve been mulling over during the past week or so in thinking about how and where social media fits into an organization’s business planning as part of the array of communication tools and channels available to everyone today.

Yet social media are simply tools and means that people use to connect with other people. They represent different ways of communicating than we’ve been accustomed to, as well as different approaches to communication brought about in part by changing behaviours.

So perhaps there is a better question to ask, the right question to ask.

Maybe it’s this: Can changes in society, people’s expectations and behaviours change the rules of old-world business? Social media is right in the middle of that question as social media is a preferred toolset that many people choose from to connect with other people, whether on a personal or business level.

To me, the answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ based on a mixture of personal belief and experiences as well as what I see happening right before my eyes, both at a society level and within organizations.

Paul Seaman says social media can’t change the rules of old-world business. Moreover – I’m summarizing rather loosely the various arguments he makes in a rather good post some ten days ago – he says that social media is an irrelevance to business.

Clearly, I don’t agree with that, and I want to outline here what I do believe in this regard.

First, though, I’d encourage you to read Paul’s post and the comments offered by others with points of view. Understand everyone’s points of view. You may or may not agree with some or all of what Paul says. Either way, it’s something to think about in context when you read different views in a blog post like this one I’m writing.

So this isn’t really about arguing over tools and channels. It’s about fundamental shifts in behaviours that I believe are having a powerful effect on many organizations and how they conduct their business.

For instance, take a look at companies like General Motors and their experiences with blogs and other social media around the world; and Dell Computers’ IdeaStorm as well as the $3 million revenue Dell earned via Twitter. These are legitimate examples that illustrate how those firms’ embrace of new forms of communicating, connecting and engaging with their customers have directly influenced the way they conduct their business.

In essence, leaders within those companies recognized a behaviour change by some employees in how those employees believed they should engage with customers, and so changed their own rules in how they conduct their business.

Look, too, at organizations that would not be likely to spring to mind when you think about fundamental shifts in behaviours that change the rules. Central government, for instance, a bastion of traditional organization behaviours, hierarchies, silos, command and control.

Consider the example in the UK at the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and their guide to Twitter as a strategic communication channel – created by one individual in a central government ministry rather than in the dynamic environment of a private sector business.

Such shifts are influencing the traditional business rulebook many organizations rule themselves by, whether they’re big multinational corporations or government departments. In cases such as the few examples I’ve cited, the rulebooks are actually changing as a result.

Of course, such shifts don’t translate into change, radical or otherwise, in a universal manner. We’re certainly not seeing changes everywhere we look – consider Apple and command-and-control leadership behaviour, for instance.

On the contrary, more in organizations is not changing than is. There are lots of reasons why including resistance to change (a common one, in my experience) and organization culture and structure that severely hinders change, whether that’s wilful or accidental.

While I could say “That’s fine: tools such as social media aren’t for everyone,” it’s a bit of a cop-out view.

I don’t think it’s fine at all.

While I do believe that social media really isn’t for everyone, I also believe that as communicators, we must take a longer-term view on the likely impact that shifts in behaviours in our society will have on our organizations, our customers, our marketplaces, and myriad other things to consider, and make the necessary preparations to equip everyone to take advantage of those changes.

As with all effective business planning, you have to define a clear and measurable objective that would warrant any role for social media – or any other communication medium.

So unless you have that clear and measurable objective, don’t use social media.

Here’s a pretty good way to illustrate what’s happening now and what shifts in behaviours herald for many organizations and their old-world business rulebooks in the very near future, in this video produced by Erik Qualman to promote his book Socialnomics: How Social Media has changed the way we live and do business, and posted on YouTube last month:

Enjoy the show.

Then, ask yourself: Can changes in society, people’s expectations and behaviours change the rules of old-world business?

You know my answer. What’s yours?

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