First, let me apologise for the shamefully sensationalised headline, but I just couldn’t resist. I’m often nagged by my colleagues to make my headlines more attention-grabbing, and while this one may be a little tongue-in-cheek (I am generally pretty dismissive of over-hyped headlines like this), given the nature of the topic it seemed appropriate to take advantage of the power of modern media approaches. Of course, it could backfire on me, but that’s just a risk I’ll have to take!
Getting back to the point though. Since the emergence and subsequent incredible growth of public social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we’ve seen use of the word “social” increase in profile to the point where it has generally spiralled out of control in the business world. There’s no doubting the impact that "social" technologies and (perhaps more importantly) concepts have had/are having on our approach to business and IT, but we are perhaps now finally starting to see the gloss coming off the term, with software vendors starting to shy away from defining themselves as enabling 'social' business.
The first high-profile acknowledgement of the challenges associated with the term came with Salesforce.com’s embarrassing climb-down from its attempt to trademark the term “social enterprise”, which it had hoped would give it the edge over vendors like IBM and Jive who had successfully associated themselves with the alternative “social business” positioning. Not surprisingly, Salesforce experienced forceful backlash from the non-profit movement, which pointed out that this was an already well-established term which has nothing to do with 'likes' and hashtags—I loved this quote from TechCrunch at the time:
Salesforce today acknowledged that the social sector uses the same term for “organizations that apply commercial strategies to improve human and environmental well-being such as reducing poverty or improving education.” In other words, not quite the same thing as monitoring a hashtag around the launch of a new perfume.
But now, we are seeing other vendors quietly disassociating themselves with the word “social”. I noted in my blog summing up the IBM Connect 2014 event last month that while IBM has been studiously emphasising “social business” in its rhetoric recent years—most obviously in its event themes, such as “Get social. Do business.” and “Business. Made Social.”—this year there was a distinct effort to steer attention away from “social” to the “business” side of things, with the strapline “Energizing life’s work”. The same held true right through the conference, with more focus on people and business, and less on what “social” is, and why you need to be doing it. And in a conversation my colleague Neil Ward-Dutton and I had with Jive’s EMEA General Manager, David Macmillan last week, he admitted that Jive is also actively toning down the use of the word “social” among customers and prospects.
I believe this is a really interesting development, because it prompts the question: if we’re not calling it “social business” anymore, what should we call it instead? Because—despite my flippant blog title—this business trend is not going away; arguably it’s simply reaching a more mature, sensible stage where the market is finally acknowledging that this is about changing the way businesses operate, the way we manage and organise our people, resources and relationships. It’s not about some new-fangled silver-bullet technology that will magically change the world for us; of course the technology is a fundamental part of enabling a more interactive cultural environment, but the technology alone won’t be enough in most organisations. We’re talking instead about recognising the need for strategic business change, one that impacts the organisation from top to bottom, from inside to outside.
We in the IT industry do love a good buzzword, and, let’s face it, “social” has been one of the most successful, in that it’s crossed that line into widespread usage in the business (by which I mean non-IT) world too. But this is about much more than an IT trend, it’s a shift in the way we do business. So what do we call that then? Answers on a postcard please. (Or in the comments if you prefer.)
(A note from the editor: This post was originally published on 14/2/14 on the AIIM community blog, where Angela posts monthly as an invited ‘Expert Blogger’.)