What Factors are Relevant to Becoming a Social Enterprise?
Many leaders are still trying to figure out whether, when and how they should begin to transform their organization into a “social enterprise.” This post addresses the organizational and workforce characteristics that should be considered in making that decision and taking the necessary actions by addressing three sets of factors: those that matter less than people think, those that matter more than people think, and the one factor that matters most of all.
Even though they may have moved past the idea that it’s a passing fad, many leaders are still trying to figure out whether, when and how they should begin to transform their organization into a “social enterprise.” Others may feel they have made the proper commitment to start down the path to becoming a social enterprise, but they have been disappointed with their results. Something seems to be missing…
I’m often asked what organizations are the best candidates for social technology initiatives. Sometimes people are looking for me to validate their decision not to get started with social media – hoping I’ll tell them that it doesn’t apply to them (yet), or that the demands of social media make it beyond their reach. But just as often the question reflects legitimate confusion over who needs to be paying attention and taking action. I find that people make erroneous assumptions about the applicability of social technologies to their organizations, assumptions that can cause them to delay taking any action, or to take actions that ultimately aren’t in their best interests.
This post addresses the organizational and workforce characteristics that should be considered in deciding whether and how to move toward becoming a social enterprise. These characteristics fall into three categories: factors that matter less than people think, factors that matter more than people think, and the one factor that matters most of all.
Note: The term “social enterprise” – and to a lesser extent “social business” – is generally defined as “an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders” (Wikipedia). In the context of this post, however, I use it to refer to organizations that leverage social technologies extensively for internal communication and collaboration. I apologize in advance for the confusion, but at this point there’s no term that captures what I’m referring to that doesn’t have an alternative (and in some circles more widely known) meaning.
Factors that Matter Less Than People Think
People tend to put a lot of weight on organizational demographics in their efforts to assess whether and how to move forward with social technology initiatives and become a social enterprise. In many respects this thinking reflects the realities of a world that no longer exists. Here are some of the factors that matter less than people think, along with some of the reasons why.
Organizational Type and Focus. Although most people recognize that social technologies can be leveraged by any type of organization, there’s still a strong tendency to focus on its value for consumer-oriented companies and their interactions with customers regarding their products and services. Similarly, in spite of the acknowledged importance of engagement, many organizations (as well as their technology advisers) fall into the trap of using social channels to broadcast messages, focusing more on talking than listening.
Given social media’s emphasis on community and dialogue (and in some cases, multi-logue), people who believe social media’s value is in creating and delivering messages through channels that treat the recipients as audience members rather than conversation partners are missing the point. It’s also important to remember that customer-focused applications are a subset of the ways in which social technologies can be leveraged by organizations. They can also enhance internal communication and collaboration, as well as communications on an organization’s boundaries (e.g., with former students/employees through alumni networks and with key clients on specific projects).
In a social enterprise, the communication focus should be on WITH, not TO. It’s not about whether you have something to sell or something to say, it’s about relationships – relationships that ultimately boil down to individuals. Organizations of all types can leverage social technologies to maximize the effectiveness of their interactions with individuals who are both internal and external stakeholders. They can also enhance the ability of individuals within their organizations to interact more effectively with each other.
Organization Size. Can an organization be too small to become a social enterprise? No. Social technology is not just for large organizations, with lots of employees, customers or other stakeholders. What matters more than size is the physical location of individuals, as well as how workplace boundaries are defined and maintained. If all members of an organization work in the same physical location, with the same work hours, and spend very little work time outside of the workplace, they can probably function very effectively without leveraging social technology – or even digital technology for that matter. When people are geographically dispersed, work on different schedules and in different locations, however, social technologies enable them to stay connected and work more efficiently and effectively to produce quality results. That’s true whether the organization has 2 members or 2,000 members.
Organization Age. From a change perspective, it may be easier for younger organizations to leverage social technologies, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or even overwhelmingly difficult for older organizations to become social enterprises. If the benefits of change are perceived to outweigh the costs of making the change, organizations and their employees will make the necessary investments and sacrifices. The U.S. Department of State, for example, through its Bureau of International Information Programs, leverages social media in a variety of ways to pursue its diplomatic mission.
Financial Resources. Given the low financial investment needed for many social enterprise tools and platforms, small organizations can leverage new digital technologies as easily as large organizations – maybe even more easily. In addition to services that can be obtained for free (e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), there are many organizations that provide web-based business applications and services at low monthly costs (e.g., Basecamp, Box.com). Cost is therefore not an obstacle to overcome.
Financial barriers may be low, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the total investment required to become a social enterprise is low. Capacity matters a lot – more than most organizational leaders realize and are willing to commit to, it seems. The engines of social media are fueled by the time, effort, and expertise of human beings. Even in an era of trying to do more with less, organizations need to allocate human resources to their social enterprise initiatives and give them the training, space and support they need to be successful. There are no shortcuts here.
Workforce Characteristics. I hear people use demographic arguments as reasons for not leveraging social technologies regularly:
- I’m too old to learn this stuff
- I’m not a digital native, so it’s much harder for me
- Our blue-collar workers won’t use the technology
- Our employees aren’t sophisticated enough to leverage the tools
Forgive me for saying so, and with all due respect, but “Blah, blah, blah.” I am not a digital native, and I seem to have acclimated just fine, as have my septuagenarian parents, many of my peers, lots of blue-collar workers and folks with all kinds of education levels. People are exploring and using these technologies in their personal lives with increasing frequency, and they have begun to expect to interact with others in similar ways at work.
For most organizations the question shouldn’t be IF they will become a social enterprise, but WHEN. Eventually, everyone will be using these technologies in one way or another. The current characteristics of an organization’s stakeholders may mean they’ll be later adopters, but they will adopt. And given the speed at which the technologies are spreading, the sooner organizations start preparing for that day, the better.
What matters more than workforce characteristics is access to technology. Organizations can provide access to relevant social enterprise platforms through mobile devices or kiosks or work stations in break rooms and other central areas. Technological sophistication is also important. Employees need to understand how the technologies and platforms work so they can use them in the most efficient and effective manner possible. If an organization’s workers are not technologically sophisticated, the interfaces need to be simple and user friendly. The organization may also need to provide the necessary training to increase workers’ digital literacy and capabilities.
Factors that Matter More Than People Think
Though people tend to focus on organizational demographics in their efforts to assess whether and how to become a social enterprise, they tend to underestimate the cultural values that determine whether these initiatives are appropriate and how successful they’ll be. Here are some of the values that should drive organizational leaders’ decisions about leveraging social technologies.
- Accessing information and resources quickly and easily
- Responding to questions and issues in a timely manner
- Carrying out job duties with fewer disruptions and slow downs
- Producing higher quality work
- Providing better service for both internal and external “customers”
- Creating and using higher quality information and resources
- Accessing subject matter experts and other resources when facing new challenges
- Enhanced communication and collaboration within and across groups, as well as with external stakeholders
- Producing more output for the same input
- Increasing revenues
- Decreasing expenses
Innovation and Optimization Values
- Continuous improvement
- Openness to change
- Willingness to experiment
Human Capital and Communication Values
- Employee engagement
- Open, two-way communication
- Talent management
- Honesty and transparency
These values are obviously not unique to social enterprises, and that’s part of the point. Leveraging social technologies should be part and parcel of an organization’s sound management principles. As new tools for doing old things, they should be integrated into the work an organization is already doing rather than being viewed as separate initiatives.
Most organizational leaders would agree that all these values are important. But as with any initiative, the leaders have to be able to enact these values, not just espouse them. In other words, they have to be prepared to walk their talk. If they’re not, the impact in a social media context will be much more severe than it would be if these technologies were not in play. The public and viral nature of social media exposes weaknesses, failures, and hypocrisies much more clearly and rapidly than may have been the case in the past.
The fact that the stakes are much higher in the Digital Era doesn’t mean organizational leaders should hesitate to move forward, however. As I discussed in my previous article, they don’t have the luxury of that particular vote. The vulnerability exists with or without their active engagement, so it’s in their best interests to prepare themselves and their organizations for the shifts in power and control that social media has enabled. The sooner they embrace these values on social media terms, the more successful they’ll be.
The Factor that Matters Most of All
The single factor that trumps all others, and the factor that must be considered first, is an organization’s strategic goals and objectives. I’m not talking about generic, “no duh” objectives like “We want more customers” or “We want to make more money.” Those are givens. What organizational leaders have to do is unpack those ideas and identify in more specific terms what they mean in the context of factors such as their organizational mission, their values, key stakeholders, and the competitive landscape in which they operate (even non-profits compete). Currently, social media tactics are being over-emphasized relative to strategy. I provide guidelines for taking a more strategic approach to social media initiatives here.
As always, let me know if I’ve missed something or something seems unclear. And please feel free to share your thoughts on other factors you believe are/are not relevant for leaders to consider when deciding whether their organization should become a social enterprise. Thanks!