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Perry Timms



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Social Business – trendy fad or saviour of “good” work?


It’s an interesting world of work we have upon us.  Interesting for a range of reasons and because of seemingly increased polarisation of views.

  • Telecommuting – aka working from home – is bad -v- why the heck are we still working 9-5 and wasting hours on road/rail to get to work?
  • We have to hold meetings to get things done -v- when the meetings are over I can get some real work done.

There are studies, research surveys and thought leadership pieces everywhere we turn on everything from the best way to use social media to recruit; to exit surveys – what are the trends?

One such “trend” that interests the heck out of me is Social Business.  Before you reach for your buzzword bingo microblog outbursts, stay with me.

Social Business is – IMHO- something to look out for, think about and act upon.  Why you ask?  Well, because it could be one way we will stay human in an ever technological, automated world of work.  Ironically we have the rise of social business THROUGH technology but it’s not just about technology (in particular social media).  Far from it.

What is Social Business then?  Here’s as good a definition as I’ve seen: –

“Social Business is the creation of an organisation that is optimised to benefit its entire ecosystem (customers, employees, owners, partners) by embedding collaboration, information sharing and active engagement into its operation and culture…”[1]

3 words stand out for me. Optimised. Active. Culture. A reason why social business might be good: what it delivers; how it feels and what it impacts upon.

So here’s my story of social business.

Once upon a time there was work that wasn’t particularly efficient.  There were errors, slower than expected production and delays.  Then along came Kaizen, Lean and 6 SIgma. Errors were reduced and efficiencies rose.  And we rejoiced.  Well, sort of.

Now I am not labelling these efficiency levers/methodologies as bad.  We are all feeling the benefit of cars, computers and cookers operating how they should.

What I do believe though is they are part of a range of events which have come together to make work automatic, transactional, heavily regulated, dull and just plain old labour. Underscore that word – labour. Laborious.  No love needed – just compliance and completion.

The “what happened at work today..?” conversation up and down households across the world becomes something akin to a Groundhog Day/Matrix like existence.  Same as the day before and the day before that ad infinitum.

People become less human. Clients become nothing more than revenue generating “wins” and jobs on a job sheet; customers become part of transactional relationships closed off as quickly as possible as long as there was a sale or a resolution.

We’ve become the proud participants in what we thought was Vorsprung durch Technik, it just turned out to be 50 Shades of VERY Grey...

How do we bring more technicolour to the workplace?  How can we help people discover a feeling of joy at work?  How do we improve the proposition that work provides?

Let’s face it, many roles have a huge stigma or a negative reputation.  Many of them not manual work (with only 8% of work in the UK left in manufacturing) more work that has an alleged low “cognitive load”. Scripted call centres, fund-raising campaign call outs and picking packages in a warehouse.  Some might say anyone would struggle to find any inner warmth in doing something where there’s no discernable or imagined “greater good”.  BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY.

Social Business has the answer.

Having to follow boring scripts on call centre work looking to sell digital TV subscriptions? Here’s my suggestions.

  1. Work together with some of your colleagues; build a script that STILL delivers what is needed but is more lively, light and engaging.  Add your own personalities into it and see what works.  Innovate through sincerity.
  2. Whilst you’re at it, create your targets and performance indicators.  Mentor and guide any new recruits with a programme of induction YOU create.
  3. Then have feedback sessions between you where you share those things you all ought to continue doing with some new things to begin doing (better or more of). You rejoice on the names and circumstances of the most challenging and rewarding customers.  You enjoy helping them – they become real people.
  4. You work out amongst you who rotates on what roles and covers the worst times/tasks as a “take one for the team” approach.

I guess you get the picture by now…no management “instructions” going on here.  Accountability, responsibility and ownership of the work here though.

THAT is for me what social business is about.  Active engagement said the description I used earlier and that is a key part of it – but not just active as in doing – active as in OWNING.  Social Business is like having cottage industries or social enterprises within big super-companies.  Ownership is CRUCIAL.  Less managers and barked / scripted instructions.  That’s monochrome compliance.  More shared inputs to achieve stated outcomes – now that’s technicolour.  Neon technicolour in some cases.

Give people sanitised, mechanical repetitive tasks to do and they will switch off and transact.  Allow people to own their work, have the ability to influence what goes on with a keenly stated outcome and you have interested people doing potentially clever, creative and constructive things.  That STILL deliver in those ways that are optimised, efficient but MORE effective.  Your people becoming your differentiation not your products/processes.  THAT’S why Social Business will take over.

Switch off the control; switch on the collaboration and with the right structures and culture in place social business could JUST be the saviour of work. 

Bring back social. Bring back our love and pride in work.

[1] Published in What Is Social Business by

7 Responses

  1. A more positive response

    Hi, thanks for the response.

    I re-read my post and it came across as more negative than I'd intended.  Just because these ideas can be hard to implement, doesn't mean people shouldn't try.

    For illustration, I remember when, some years ago, I was dealing with a member of staff who was about to be fired for capability.  He was working on the phones, and the time-limit allowed for calls was 3 minutes.  His average hovered around 20 minutes.  He'd been warned repeatedly that his performance had to improve, but it didn't seem to be happening.

    So the managers listened to some of his calls, because they were all taped.  Then they listened to some more.  Then they called the member of staff in and asked him if he'd like to help train up the other members of staff. 

    Because the reason he was taking so long, was that he wouldn't get off the phone with a customer until he was sure the customer had everything they needed.  He'd go over things as often as they needed, as these were, in some cases, quite complex transactions.  If they needed something mailed, he'd quickly type up the letter, print it, put it in the envelope with the required forms or brochures and send it out.  Then he'd take the next call.  The other members of the phone team would say anything, just to get the customer off the phone within the 3 minutes, and pass on notes to the other CSRs to send out anything the customer needed.  Of course, this meant that a few things got lost in translation, and customers got sent the wrong thing, but hey! they kept the call to 3 minutes and that was what was important, right?


    Obviously, wrong.  Measure the wrong thing; drive the wrong behaviour.  Someone, somewhere, had set the 3-minute limit, probably based on experience at other companies, where the phones were just cold-calls, and all you had to do was get permission for a salesman to call.

    So we ended up transforming the behaviour of an entire department, and making life a bit more interesting for everyone, because they dealt with the whole lifecycle of a customer query.  It also removed huge amounts of rework, because far fewer mistakes were made.  A positive outcome for everyone, but it only started when someone risked getting fired to do what he believed was right for the customer.  I'd like to think we could do a bit better these days.

  2. Getting it…

    Hi again Lucinda – I agree that where new is needed, definitions are helpful.  Even if they're not proven to be 100% spot on.

    Take the hacking style of innovation.  Open source; crowd sourced; ideas jams.  Yet not chaotic as some process needs following.  I think someone like Kjell Nordstrom or Magnus Lindkvist said "even innovation is a process".  I disagreed at first but there is truth there.

    So we will need some formative touchstones and handrails for this new model and way.

    Goodness knows it's more adult that than some of the current checking up philosophies.  Treat people like…behaviour breeds behaviour….tighter the grip the more star systems fall through your fingers…

    Anyway I am loving this debate.  I think I will be a stalwart advocate in social business just like I am a stalwart advocate for the act of continuous learning; showing respect; and having positivity no matter what.  I don't need metrics to convince me of any of these but I welcome the reassurances you do get from such evidence.

    I simply believe the social business construct is the way to go for work to be rescued from the greyness I talked about earlier.  Please look at Nick Isles' excellent book The Good Work guide.  He calls it before it was known as Social Business.

    Enjoying this thoughts and words kick around.  Keep it coming.


  3. Handbags and SweatShops

    Mr Lizard you are of course onto something regarding the lack of spirit in such workplaces and the nearness to sweat shops.  I paint a little more of an ideal than an actual of course so thanks for the earth wire/grounding moment.

    What I HAVE seen is the shadow culture that prevails where such malpractice reigns.  People do good stuff IN SPITE of the system, the protocol and shoddy management. Again in my experience, I am yet to find a manager who isn't BUSY.  Often too busy  to attend to the people management elements of their role and instead are in meetings; working up project briefs and answering emails.

    So there's room, yet you're right again, there are often punitive measures where people are trying to innovate.

    I guess I've been idealistic and so instead of saying this is the norm; I'm more saying wherever you THINK you can't do something, you probably can.  It just needs to be worked through in the construct of that particular business.  Even the most oppressive management regimes can see where customer satisfaction and efficient handling wins and if people play it right, they can influence the work they do more than they think.

    Organisations may never wake up to the benefits of a social business construct until others are shedding management positions in favour of experts in frontline services who are self-driven and self-regulating – then when it saves a fortune, they'll all fall in behind that one.

    I have a growing belief in social business constructs from my time in charitable enterprises, from what I see in technology and now in startup land what I see there. Sure it won't be for everyone but some kind of proving ground will shine the light on the best ways and hopefully people will be alert to this beacon.  I see it as part of my role as an HR professional to at least stimulate thought, debate and find research that allows people to move in this direction.

    Will we ever get rid of sweatshop call centres or cubicle farms?  Maybe.  We certainly won't if we don't surface other ways and at least build some momentum towards a more positive way.

    Thanks for commenting.  You've tested my belief and I come out stronger in favour so for that I thank you.

  4. Getting it…so how do we develop/recruit for these skills

    Hi again

    Yes I can really see the distinction in the behaviour you discuss and also Mr Lizard's point and I think it raises new challenges for the individual, manager and organisation – interested in your view.

    As an individual – you need to be engaged/driven/proactive/self motivated to make this work. This is great if you are an empowering manager but the behaviours could lack visibility and there is danger of 'loose cannons' all over the organisation working for themselves not others.

    As a manager you have to be able to engender respect and give space while still remaining connected and I guess coaching skills to ensure the individual is heading in the right direction. Clear goals linked to the org strategy are going to be vital to ensure efforts are focused in the right direction.

    From the organisations point of view – equipment, culture, skills and inspirational company goals and targets are needed…

    Just initial thoughts – not fully thought through but am thinking there are subtle behavioural competencies that may need shifting to enable this to work effectively.


    Good food for thought

  5. Great ideas…

    …if we can just persuade the cat to wear the bell.

    In the sort of work you're describing, there's usually a prevailing management attitude.  And it's usually the pure antithesis of the enlightened management attitude you're looking for to let scenarios play out the way you suggest.

    Because those sort of managers are almost invariably unwilling to relinquish that low-level control.  If they do, and let staff do the work their own way, then what will they do all day if they're not micro-managing?  In a decent workplace, the answer would be, of course, learn to lead.  Maybe pitch in, lend a hand, find out by first-hand experience where the bottlenecks and problems really are.  But those workplaces don't work like that.  They're about the profit margin, sales numbers and nothing else.  Staff are disposable, because the work is of a standard that it could be taught to any reasonably bright 10-year-old.  They don't care about whether staff are enjoying their work, except maybe to make sure they aren't, because if you're enjoying yourself, you're clearly not working hard enough.  Innovative thinking is not encouraged, because if you try something, and it doesn't work, you might make things worse.  And then people get fired.  Again, not what would happen in a decent workplace, where such an event might lead to a 'lessons-learned' scenario, but these aren't decent workplaces.  They're probably the closest thing we have to the legacy of Victorian factories, or third-world sweat-shops.

    I believe that anyone wishing to sit their driving test should have to spend the first three months on a scooter, to ensure they're fully aware of how dangerous the roads are, and sharpen their road skills whIilst not surrounded by a half-ton of crumple zones and airbags.  In the same vein, I believe everyone should have to start their career for two months at a call-centre, just to give them a feel for how bad things can get, and what they've got to look forward to if they weaken later on…

  6. Is this the new “teamwork”?

    Thanks for the comments and feedback Lucinda and a really good question.  It IS a little like teamwork of old but I think there are some differences.  It's not old wine/new bottles.

    I think the differences are choice; connectedness and communities.

    Here's what I mean:

    In days of yore, teams were constructed by recruitment to  them internally or externally and the rituals, MO and roles were ironed out by the team leader and then we shifted occasionally and met and decided etc.  We helped each other out, we had shared and common goals etc.

    NOW – in a social business model – we are talking less about constructed teams and more about communities.  Where people don't necessarily belong to a team or unit with their every being, more a "home address" but a tendency to go where the work is and not the other way around.  Communities form and forge rather than are forced.  Interest groups; project attachments; client focus; innovation driven or simply geo-locationally derived.  It's less the same faces every day and more a spread of people who – like film production crews – assemble and disassemble with some ease and regularity.  It's like Tuckman but on Fast-Forward and without much of the latterly added mourning-stage.

    Choice comes into play because where you locate yourself and who you "socialise" with in this social business model.  I found myself (and this was in corporate life) sometimes being with Press; sometimes the Marketers; sometimes the Exec Support; sometimes Policy but never in the same place and I learned and gained by varying my routine of actual desk attachment.  I was a cuckoo, a nomad and a guest but I chose to vary according to whim or tactic.  I hear of similar choices being made in organisations that are truly social and mobile.  Choice also comes into the place where you need to get decisions and traction on.  Choice is also there in how much time you actually spend with those in your unit – not so much you MUST sit with them, more do you choose to because it's beneficial and sociable to do so.

    Connectedness comes from the tools that now allow us to "graze" what we're all up to and there's less need for team "checkpoints".  So the team gathering element isn't necessarily for progress updates it's for innovation hubs and planning jams.

    So I think some of the old archetypes and artefacts of teamwork are no longer necessary or desired and a newer more fluid approach is set for who you refer to as "your team".

    The basic construct of "we're better together" and "networked intelligence" is a critical feature of social business, it's (ironically) like the community structure of small holdings.

    A post-industrialised model for teams it may very well be.  Whatever it is, it feels much better than forced into a relationship with people doing a similar grey job to yours and expected to form loops in a chain.

    It's more colourful, varied, cooperative and generally more driven by people not process.

    Hope that helps with my take on the new teamwork element within social business.  You make raise a great point that I'd not really deeply thought of until now.  Thank you.

  7. Is this the new “teamwork”?

    Perry – I love this article, particularly your reference to shades of VERY grey having spent quite a lot of my career in an extremely grey german organisation. Just one point though – what is the difference between social business and good old fashioned teamwork?

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