“Our goal is to become a social business but how do we get the revolution started?”

revolution Ukraine demonstrators

During a deep and meaningful conversation recently, my interlocutor declared:

Our goal is to become a social business but how do we get the revolution started?

This post addresses two problems integral to this statement.

A means not an end

Social business is a fairly fuzzy concept at the best of times. Some consider it synonymous with terms such as Enterprise 2.0, Agile Business, Responsive Organization, and Future Work, whereas others more deeply invested in any one may argue the differences. For the record, I describe social business by way of the following challenge:

Do you help all the individuals associated with your organization (employees, customers, partners, suppliers, shareholders, etc.) build worthwhile relationships with each other and others, coalescing by need and desire, knowledge and capability and shared values, to create shared value?

Shared values

Some pundits prefer to talk about shared purpose rather than shared values, and I think this may well be akin to Stowe Boyd differentiating between collaboration and cooperation with shared purpose relating to collaboration and shared values relating to cooperation. In his words:

Collaboration is where individuals work socially toward a shared goal. Cooperation is where individuals work toward personal goals, while at the same time working with others toward common ends.

The idea of shared values is central to the concept of brand in the 21st Century, a progression enabled by the fact that the "it's got our name on it" proclamation of quality (fitness for purpose) is increasingly a given; a qualifier rather than a differentiator. And let's be realistic about this purpose thing – there are very many organisations serving many different purposes that few people could get truly excited about, but they can strive to do it in a way that's aligned with its people's values.

Social business is respectful of values, of the human spirit, of the belief that everyone involved can give more and get more. But it is a means not an end of itself. No entrepreneur sets out to start an Enterprise 2.0. Rather, she sets out to build a business and recognises that the ideas encompassed by social business might be useful in building it better, creating value for all stakeholders faster than otherwise.

So when my conversationalist asserts the need for his organisation to become a social business, I would argue that his organisation needs a clear understanding of why it exists, its values and its capabilities, its competitive advantages and weaknesses, and how social business thinking and behaviours might help it achieve its objectives.

(I should note here that there is another school of thought called emergent strategy which in its purest sense asserts that strategy emerges from the social business. However, as I argue in an earlier post here, it's rarely if ever manifest so purely. It's usually moderated by deliberate strategy. Moreover, in this instance, I'm pretty sure the chap I was speaking with did not have this in mind.)

Vive la Revolution!

In the most dramatic interpretation, a revolution is a forcible overthrow of a system in favour of a new one. It's marked by substantial change in a compressed time period. Now I ask you, when was the last revolution at your organisation?!

revolution Ukraine

It should be said that there are varying definitions of what constitutes a revolution, and Alexis de Tocqueville for example included the slow but sweeping transformations of society that take at least many generations to come about. I don't think this is how we necessarily think of revolution in general parlance today, and perhaps we're more likely to describe slow change over generations as evolution not revolution.

It's in these terms that I consider the adoption of social business qualities, systems, behaviours and culture as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Saying that, one hopes we might secure rapid evolution given that time is so frequently a critical dimension in creating competitive advantage. Revolution, on the other hand, is simply too risky. The difference comes down to how we treat flow.


Being a chartered engineer I've always enjoyed viewing organisational design through the lens of the physical sciences, from evolutionary theory to thermodynamics. To my mind the 21st Century will be defined by such transdiciplinary analysis and insight. I have a decent enough appreciation of public relations theory, but I only wish I was a psychologist, sociologist, linguist and philosopher too!

A couple of topics in particular keep cropping up – complexity and flow. I posted about the first of these recently ("You have to deal with both complication and complexity, so you’d better know the difference") so I'll focus here on flow.

Organisations are dynamic not static. They don't so much exist as transmute, continuously. They entail flows of money, materials, time and influence. They cannot be considered in isolation but in dynamic tension with the rest of the world. They are a system of systems and a system within systems, always attracted to but never reaching a stasis.

This understanding is critical to effecting organisational change. You might consider revolution as the abrupt interruption of flow and evolution as a process of bending flow, nudging flow, improving organisational sensitivity to flow.


I realised in the process of writing The Business of Influence in 2010 that the Latin origin of the word influence is influere; in-flow. Flow is a critical facet of social business design, and I'm not the only one to think so of course. The description of The Power of Pull (Hagel, Brown, Davison, 2010) includes the following:

Individuals and companies can no longer rely on the stocks of knowledge that they’ve carefully built up and stored away. Information now flows like water, and we must learn how to tap into the stream... Understood and used properly, the power of pull can draw out the best in people and institutions by connecting them in ways that increase understanding and effectiveness.

In an October 2013 article in Scientific American ahead of his 2014 book Social Physics, Alex 'Sandy' Pentland writes:

Patterns of idea flow … are directly related to productivity growth and creative output

The relationship between engagement and productivity is simple: high levels of engagement predict high group productivity, almost no matter what that group is working on or what kinds of personalities its members have.

… exploration – a mathematical measure of the extent to which the members of a group bring in new ideas from outside. Exploration is a good predictor of both innovation and creative output.

Increasing engagement is not a magic bullet. … we found that at a certain point people become so interconnected that the flow of ideas is dominated by feedback loops. Sure, everyone is trading ideas—but they are the same ideas over and over.

According to Pentland’s theory of idea flow, certain network structures are more conducive than others to the emergence of innovative ideas or to the coordination of collective action (reference).

I can only conclude that we must use this understanding of flow, of influence, to transform the network structures accordingly. We can't go from typical command-and-control hierarchy at 5.30pm Friday and commence an organic "wirearchy" 9am the following Monday. We need to tap the flows to re-flow. We need to infect the business performance management of today's organisations to catalyse, to encourage, to inculcate the appropriate topological and behavioural metamorphosis – a process I usually think about in terms of one to three years – and this is precisely the mechanism I had in mind when creating the Influence Scorecard.

To rephrase my companion's intent then:

We think social business will help us achieve our goals and create more value for all stakeholders faster than otherwise. Now, how can we set this transformation in motion?