Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Social Enterprise - Blurring the Lines of Business

Do you ever stop and try to remember what life was like before we were armed with phones and tablets, connected with Facebook and Twitter? I often think about how, only a decade ago, our dependence upon social media and technology was much different. The way we interacted, our behavior, and our thought processes were so much more independent. But with the ability to instantly connect, share, and browse, our way of life is intrinsically different.

Last week I rode the train into downtown as the morning crept over the skyline, arriving in the heart of the city before the bustle of the day had begun. A brisk walk through concrete and steel, past museums and parks, a refreshing view of the lake, and finally I arrived at the business  conference I was attending.

The event was impressive in its integration of technology and streamlined presentation. The hosts of the event highlighted the innovations of several model corporations who utilize social media in both their internal and external communication. The idea, thought of laughingly as a novelty only a few years ago, is now being grasped as an integral way of conducting business in a new millennium.

This event, resplendent with iPads and interactive presenters, offered some interesting ideas about the next evolution of business in our global society. Sharing examples of centenarian paper products companies as well as hip new start ups, the conference regaled us with a glimpse of what many believe is the future of commerce. While I see the value in many of the trends that businesses are adopting, I also have to wonder what these revolutionary ideas will mean, when applied at a larger scale to the rest of our economy.

The entire thesis of this event revolved around the use of social media as a platform to interact with customers and among employees. As highly produced customer testimonials from the owner of ski manufacturer Rosignol and the CEO of Toyota flashed across giant screens, I realized that the concepts that were being introduced were so new that neither language has derived a native phrase for the ideas. As the testimonials spilled forth in French and Japanese, the English words "social network" and "social enterprise" stood out as glaring reminders that we are utilizing ideas and social constructs that are so new, society is barely able to grasp them before something different comes along. The exponential speed at which we are striving for efficiency and productivity is sometimes hard to grasp.

The argument is that social enterprise is how business is done in the new business model, and social enterprise is an extension of social media. But how can Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, Instagram, and the countless other social media sites out there translate to viable business growth for brick and mortar, commodities and services companies? According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook is valued between seventy seven and ninety six billion dollars. That is with a B. Their offering to customers? The like button, and now Instagram. But perhaps Facebook offers more than just a glimpse into the mundane lives of our Milquetoast acquaintances.

Social media is now the centralized marketplace.  A business must sell where the people are living, eating, interacting. Only a century ago, it was an open air market downtown, or a specific district where the consumer came to the vendor. The newspaper might advertize a sale, but the onus was on the buyer to make the trip into the store. Then radio brought the product into our homes with the magic of engaging audio advertising. Next came television, again revolutionizing the way we consume information about the goods for which we yearn. Each permutation of the media changed the relationship between consumer and producer. And now social media is the catalyst that is revolutionizing the way we engage, and this evolution is more than simply the medium through which the message is shared. Social media is changing the way we interact with a brand, from first introduction to final consumption.

Seemingly a recent occurrence, consumers in the social enterprise world are fierce advocates for the products they use. A perfect storm has arrived in the form of a generation severely unnerved by economic hardship and generic big business, yearning for a personal connection to the products and services they consume, and the ability to blog, tweet, or comment about their experience, for the positive or the negative. Add into this mix the burgeoning technologies that make connecting with ones tribe and audience instantaneous, and that perfect storm grows to a level that would make El Nino look like a Seattle afternoon. 

Social media is so much more than the virtual chat rooms I zoomed on America On-Line in the late nineties. Social media is tangential to the physical world, virtually connecting people with physical and tangible needs across the globe. Whether those needs be the best locally sourced grocery store or the unification of Egypt against political oppression, these platforms are much more than the virtual space on which they are hosted. When a customer engages a company on social media, that customer is invested, for better or worse, and is holding a megaphone. That person can either be a passionate advocates for a chosen products or they can be an irate detractor to a cause. As the old advertising adage goes "A happy customer tells one person. A dissatisfied customer tells three." The customer has always been a form of advertising, but with social media, the customer is the strongest form of advertising.

The way people do business is changing, but is this change necessarily all positive? Take Groupon as an example. Chicago's home-grown, social shopping, coupons-of-the-new-millennium tech company is a peek into how virtual, social, and tangible collide in an incredibly appealing way. This organization has been heralded as an exciting new way for traditional companies to engage customers, citizens to explore their under-utilized metropolitan commerce, and everyone to save a few bucks in the process. But as news comes out about questionable accounting practices, overloaded small businesses, and misinformed consumers, the rose tinted glasses seem to lose their luster. Groupon was founded by a twenty-something with ingenuity and a dream, creating a corporation that many of us admire from the ground up. But the negative press that Groupon has received in the past few weeks makes me fear that this will turn out to be a caustic tale of how the innovative young tech start ups still need the tried and true business acumen of the stalwart companies who thrived during the millennium of business past.
On the other side of the coin sits the megalith brick and mortar organizations who have survived by adapting to the volatile changes in economy, military conflict, political whimsy, and consumer scorn. They don the guise of hip, new, employee friendly organizations, complete with "Take your pet to work" days and intimate retreats for departments to increase productivity. But as more and more of the household names delve into the social enterprise, I am still skeptical. Are these old dogs of the business world truly revolutionizing their productivity models, or are they merely wolves in sheep's clothing? Is Generation Y changing the way business is done, or is “business as usual” indoctrinating fresh minds into the status quo with their IPO’s, Board Meetings, and stock options?

Unfortunately there is no way to know how this evolution of social interaction with shape our world - at least not for another decade. Inevitably, the new and the old will meld and balance, culling away the inefficiencies of the old and blending the sound business practices with the innovation of today and beyond. There will be scandal and miscalculation, just as there will be wild success and advancement. We are on the cusp of a new permutation of social engagement, one that we cannot yet fully define, as we are not far enough separate to reflect upon it with any accuracy.

I left the conference exhausted by the implications that lay ahead. I strolled back through the vibrant Chicago downtown, musing about how a virtual platform, a disparate consumer base, and a physical goods and service market can come together in a seemingly harmonious collaboration. What this new endeavor will look like is still unclear, but as it takes shape, it is certainly fascinating to be involved.


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