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.

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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?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. David Phillips

    Neville, this is a post, I have been meaning to write for a long time.

    Through history mankind has advanced into a dominant species role because it was able to extend its physiology. A bike means we travel faster than out legs can carry us, Google means we can remember more than our brains can know.

    Mankind has used this ability to do the other thing that makes us really effective. We can change our rate of productive output. In a word we have greater productivity.

    The organisations that harness the internet’s tools to extend the physiology of its participants and use their internet enhanced productivity, will be more competitive.

    If an organisation does not let its employees use the internet, how can they use Google to find out about suppliers, prospective employers and how to do things better? Is it all going to be invented behind closed doors? If an organisation cannot engage with its constituency to develop and improve products and services when its competitors can, can it remain competitive.

    So, I am with you. The internet and social media are a great business opportunity and, when not used, an even greater (competitive) threat.

    The real problem we all face is being able to engage with the community enough to gain its insight into how we can harness business advantages that are available through these tools. But that ius another and different conversation.

    • neville

      That’s an especially good point re prohibiting employee use of the internet. Shel and I discussed this topic in the last episode of FIR, referencing a report from Jakob Nielsen.

      I can never really understand people in organizations who say they wish to engage out there on the public internet yet disallow their own employees access to the tools and channels that people they need to engage with are using. Makes no sense.

  2. tom murphy

    The biggest change I have that social media in the six or seven months that I have taken a real interest in the subject is that it is becoming much easier for a person in the street to reach a person in an organisation.

    New relationships have developed and are developing between one person and another in a normal human way. Instead of the the the bleak and oblique idea of the objectified customer and the anonymous business entity we have more and more people dealing with each other if not face to face but certainly person to person.

    This is a radical breaking down of the barriers that have served to divide a socially constructed entity such as company or government body from the general public. This has always been a false and irksome division that has served neither side well.

    I am not sure that it changes business in its fundamental operation. Preparing accounts etc., but social media has and does change attitudes and makes business and trade a lot more human. Even governments are participating in various ways and anything that makes dealing with the government easier has to be a good thing.

    The use of social media works for all parties concerned. Customers feel that their voice is being heard and those who want to listen can now hear those voices.

    Instead of dealing with the rock face of brand identity people can now deal with other people. Folks know who to go to when they have a problem as the barriers to communication are broken down. There is a sense of greater accountability within the organization. There is no corporate logo to hide behind. This is also beneficial to the organizations as they are getting better data on how they are doing and what their customers want and how they want it.

    Sometimes the criticism is painful but as long as there is a plan to respond appropriately (in a human manner) then fires can be put out very quickly. Resentment is ameliorated and the toxicity of bad worth of mouth can be avoided.

    I read the Paul Seaman article and his conditions for the debate are largely straw men arguments. While I disagree with his ground rules they are ultimately of no importance. His definition of what business is misses the point that any human endeavour can be construed as business activity. A successful outcome could be defined as great Q3 profits or successfully getting a class of children through their exams.

    The point is that businesses are part of society and have to respond to cultural forces as the rest of us. Look at at how many businesses were run in the fifties and how they are run now. Very few female managers, people smoking at their desk, very little mobility and so on. The list may be finite but it is very long. A modern well-run business is a reflection of the times it lives in.

    To argue that social media will not have any effect on the way we do business is like arguing that we should have four different bathrooms for four different levels of workers each with a different quality of toilet paper. And make sure that we eat in four different canteens because that’s the way we’ve done business for the last four hundred years. (I was in a factory just like that in Coventry in 1981. It was a wonder it still existed at all. I am pretty sure it didn’t last very much longer.)

    Business like society will change because of social media. We see evidence of this all around us. The really interesting and, to me, fascinating thing is that no one can predict how it will turn out. Humans are so dynamic an unpredictable that it is anyone’s guess what they will make with this new tool of social media.

  3. Jo Jordan

    You have an interesting approach – that our behaviours will change business. I come from social media and business in a structural way.

    Computers allowed BPR to improve cross-functional communication and remove a lot of managers who were needed to manage the up-down communication in old organizations. Computers also allowed Toyota to manage their supply chain and changed the role of managers in the organization (at least relative to GM).

    Social media simply allows new forms of communication. Where those allow one or more companies to seize competitive advantage, change will happen. But the time lag between leader moving ahead and follower failing entirely can be long. Ford after all is still breathing, just, though they were overtaken by GM a long time back. GM survived cardiac arrest but were overtaken by Toyota, when? 20 years back? I’ve found it interesting that Toyota is still barely discussed in university text books and we are almost at the end of its dominance.

    In short, I think structural possibilities drive organizational form but the time lags and warps muddy the waters and make it hard to see what is going on. And vested interests cloud our vision further.

  4. Lisa Lomas

    I know their is a shift, I myself went through an intensive Social Media Training Course. I have seen my place in the market place expand. So I know its not for everyone, however I tend to think Every company will soon have virtual assistants or staff doing their Online Marketing with Social Media. It gives their customers what they want. Its great that Media change has brought about more people that would normally not have a voice, a very loud one. It also gives companies way more credibility adopting these methods.

  5. Mary

    That’s very interesting post Neveille. Lot of Insights given in your Post. Social media are tools through which a brand can connect to their target audience.
    Brands these days use Social Media to increase their credibility; it has revolutionized communication across all levels. It has given people and businesses a platform to share their views with the world. Engaging with consumers adds value and helps strengthen a brand’s identity. This is almost as effective as word of mouth but has an impact on a larger number of people. Social Media plays a significant role in influencing the buying decision of consumers since people now search, read, review, discuss and then consider before making a purchase.

    http://blogs.position2.com/category/smm/page/2

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