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Why ‘Social Business’ doesn’t work

When I wrote one of the first books about what was then referred to as Enterprise 2.0, it was because I saw a trend whereby the social collaboration that was emerging on the web would move inside the firewall as companies strove for greater and better communication, cooperation, collaboration and connections amongst employees.

Fast forward a couple of years, and some of those early entrepreneurs that helped me with quotes, case studies and insight, such as Headshift’s Lee Bryant, have turned it into good business (Headshift was acquired by Jeff Dachis’ Dachis Group in September 2009, and the group has since acquired many others).

With the maturity of the industry, there has also been a change in how it gets referred to. Out goes ‘Enterprise 2.0’ (“too narrow, too corporate and too managerial!” says Euan Semple) and in comes ‘Social Business’ (there’s a good primer by Dion Hinchcliffe on ZDNet).

As I reflect on what I wrote two years ago, and recall the debates I had in my own head about the pros and cons of using the ‘Enterprise 2.0’ monicker as the title for the book, I can’t help but feel the same way about ‘Social Business’.

The fundamental problem for me is that fact that – in the UK at least – social business already means something else; a different industry of, according to the venerable Wikipedia, “non-loss, non-dividend companies designed to address a social objective.” The social objectives in this case are not how you get employees to share knowledge using micro-blogs, though. They are societal objectives such as health, housing, sanitation and nutrition.

So, social business, whilst certainly softer and less “corporate” than Enterprise 2.0, still doesn’t work for me. We need to find a new descriptor for this growing industry – one that distinguishes it from externally-facing ‘social media’ and cause-based ‘social enterprise’.

Answers on a postcard, please…

  • I still end up muttering “blogs n’ wikis n’ stuff” on a frighteningly regular basis. Part of me thinks it might help to have an appropriate phrase but part of me thinks it doesn’t matter. Avoiding turning what is happening into a thing rather than just seeing it as increasingly how we do stuff is probably my preferred option.

    • I agree, but don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. There’ll always be a need for a “thing” to refer to (otherwise, how will the VC’s know to invest in it!)

    • Rex

      I’m leaning more and more to the “it doesn’t matter” camp Euan. When I talk about it, I end up focussed on “collaboration” and go right into real business examples to illustrate how collaboration is greatly enhanced with a combination of new technology and theory.

  • I still end up muttering “blogs n’ wikis n’ stuff” on a frighteningly regular basis. Part of me thinks it might help to have an appropriate phrase but part of me thinks it doesn’t matter. Avoiding turning what is happening into a thing rather than just seeing it as increasingly how we do stuff is probably my preferred option.

    • I agree, but don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. There’ll always be a need for a “thing” to refer to (otherwise, how will the VC’s know to invest in it!)

    • Rex

      I’m leaning more and more to the “it doesn’t matter” camp Euan. When I talk about it, I end up focussed on “collaboration” and go right into real business examples to illustrate how collaboration is greatly enhanced with a combination of new technology and theory.

  • Anonymous

    This problem may fix itself as business cultures all change to embrace ‘social’ practice and it becomes the norm – a redundant prefix. Social enterprises may well remain distinct.

  • mattlawton

    This problem may fix itself as business cultures all change to embrace ‘social’ practice and it becomes the norm – a redundant prefix. Social enterprises may well remain distinct.

  • My 2 cents: the collaborative enterprise, or social collaboration as Dion calls it. The risk with inlcuding social in a descripter is the C-level doesn’t get social.
    I, however see external social media and internal social software merge but that’s another discussion

    • I like social collaboration, but share your concerns. I also don’t think all social business is about collaboration. The discussion about internal/external is, as you say, one for another day…

  • My 2 cents: the collaborative enterprise, or social collaboration as Dion calls it. The risk with inlcuding social in a descripter is the C-level doesn’t get social.
    I, however see external social media and internal social software merge but that’s another discussion

    • I like social collaboration, but share your concerns. I also don’t think all social business is about collaboration. The discussion about internal/external is, as you say, one for another day…

  • I’ve been waiting for the same answer too http://theparallaxview.com/2009/01/call-intranet-social-media/ looks like the postie has lost the cards…

  • I’ve been waiting for the same answer too http://theparallaxview.com/2009/01/call-intranet-social-media/ looks like the postie has lost the cards…

  • Lee

    Hi Niall. A rose by any other name, etc. Labels not as important as the substance of what we do.

    Soc. Biz. is nto trying to sound less corporate, merely less techno-determinist – so whereas E2.0 sounds like a software category, Soc.Biz includes the people and process issues as well, which are just as much a part of designing C21st organisations.

    The point about social enterprise is made occasionally, but my view is that they should (and do) share some common ground – i.e. being people-based and network-based, so I am not concerned by the semantic overlap. Businesses can and should have a social purpose – it’s just their constituency might be limited to employees and customers, rather than society at large.

    • Yes, yes, get the substance more important argument. But firms like yours have to be able to describe yourselves as something, right?

      I like the common ground argument though. Although I’m not sure Jeff would be so keen on the “non-loss, non-dividend” part! 😉

      Thanks for stopping by. Your insights, as always, are well received.

  • Lee

    Hi Niall. A rose by any other name, etc. Labels not as important as the substance of what we do.

    Soc. Biz. is nto trying to sound less corporate, merely less techno-determinist – so whereas E2.0 sounds like a software category, Soc.Biz includes the people and process issues as well, which are just as much a part of designing C21st organisations.

    The point about social enterprise is made occasionally, but my view is that they should (and do) share some common ground – i.e. being people-based and network-based, so I am not concerned by the semantic overlap. Businesses can and should have a social purpose – it’s just their constituency might be limited to employees and customers, rather than society at large.

    • Yes, yes, I get the substance more important argument. But firms like yours have to be able to describe yourselves as something, right?

      I like the common ground argument though. Although I’m not sure Jeff would be so keen on the “non-loss, non-dividend” part! 😉

      Thanks for stopping by. Your insights, as always, are well received.

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