The 6 meanings of “social business” and what you’re really trying to say

April 22, 2015 by
6 meanings of social business DWG

“Social business” has meant a variety of things over the past eight years, few of which have been clearly defined. This post explains the definitions, what the term really means today and the relevance to intranet and digital workplace managers.

Here I go again. It’s the return of the “language police”. That was my nickname in high school.

Hot on the heels of my article on the 8 definitions of “digital workplace” I’m writing a short history of the term “social business” and what it actually means.

For years “social business” has played a starring role in countless pitches by intranet and digital workplace managers to their executives. And perhaps vice versa.

But the phrase has evolved quickly over the last 7+ years and seems never to have had a crystal clear meaning. As a lover of clarity and simplicity, I feel deeply compelled to articulate the different meanings of this term and to hone in on what I think most of us digital workplace professionals really mean when we say it.

So here, a brief history of the term “social business”, the six definitions of “social business” and what we really mean.

#1: A business-oriented towards positive impact on society

Up until 2007 “social business” referred to a business with a for-profit model, but oriented around a strong mission to do social good.

The Grameen Bank is one of the most well-known examples. It was a bank. It made profits. But its purpose was always to provide small, collateral-free loans to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to capital, with the purpose of helping poor people improve their lives through their own small-scale entrepreneurial endeavours.

A woman who needed to buy three cows to start selling milk in her village? Investment banks weren’t exactly playing in that space. But the Grameen Bank was able to provide short-term loans to help hard-working, capital-poor entrepreneurs start small businesses that would make a big difference for their families.

The latest incarnation of this idea is that of a “B Corp” or Benefits Corporation, a business that is equally committed to having a positive social impact as to delivering shareholder value.

Of course, this isn’t what digital workplace managers mean when they use the term. But this was the original definition and people outside of our industry still think of this meaning sometimes.

#2: Replacement for “Enterprise 2.0”

The first new use of “social business” came circa 2007 as an alternative for the term “Enterprise 2.0”, which Andrew McAfee had introduced the previous year.

In 2006, McAfee’s article “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration” appeared in the MIT Sloan Management Review, followed in the fall of 2009 by the book Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization.

McAfee basically described how “web 2.0” (remember that term?) tools such as wikis, blogs and social networks within organizations, led to knowledge sharing and innovation by enabling rich online interactions. Large, distributed organizations could suddenly build and spread new ideas and innovations, unbounded by geographical limitations.

McAfee’s coining of the term “Enterprise 2.0” ignited a movement, bringing the concept of social software into the enterprise. “E2.0” conferences popped up in Europe and North America, people at large companies took on job titles like “Enterprise 2.0 Evangelist”, and the world of intranets and digital workplaces has never been the same since.

But just as people had argued over what “web 2.0” meant, the exact definition of “Enterprise 2.0” was unclear. Vendors started co-opting the term and it took on a note of hyperbole.

In 2007, the term “social business” started to be used as a synonym for “Enterprise 2.0”. It likely gained popularity because it referred more directly to the phenomenon at play. “Enterprise 2.0” was clever, but “social business” referenced the “social software” at the heart of the changes we were seeing.

But, the meaning of “social business” never became much clearer than “Enterprise 2.0”. It was mostly a change in rhetoric and the new term carried the same basic meaning as its predecessor.

#3: A less hierarchical organizational structure

With the boom in enterprise social software came a rich public dialogue about concepts such as knowledge networks, online collaboration, the use of hyperconverged infrastructure solutions, innovation and adaptability in an increasingly complex business world.

Enterprise social networks allowed internal thought leaders to share their ideas, expose their expertise and gain social capital within organizations. Examples emerged of front-line staff sharing ideas on the social intranet that led to huge innovations and massive financial savings or new revenues.

This pattern, along with decades of prior academic work, demonstrated that knowledge and innovation – the emerging currency of the digital age – were not owned exclusively by senior managers, but were actually being locked down and suffocated by organizational hierarchies and silos.

The idea emerged, or re-emerged really, of designing businesses to be less hierarchical. The concept was to let people’s knowledge, know-how and position within organizational social networks demonstrate their value rather than focusing on their hierarchical roles.

Dave Gray, author of the book The Connected Company, wrote extensively about the idea. He wrote about how companies are not machines but complex adaptive systems and described podular organizational design.

The core purpose of this restructuring of a business was to make it more adaptive in a complex world that is changing faster and faster.

This meaning of “social business” never gained as much momentum or mass industry appeal as other meanings, but did derive somewhat directly from the previous meaning as a synonym for “Enterprise 2.0”. Perhaps because this definition was so squarely focused on organizational structure rather than technology, it was an area that few people had the power to influence.

It was a logical and academically rigorous extension of the potential impacts of “internal social software” on organizational design and behaviour. But this meaning for “social business” never took centre stage.

#4: Social software, internally and for marketing

Next, the term “social business” started to refer to an organization that fully transformed all its digital environments to use social software. This meant implementing social intranets (“employee social networks”, “collaboration platforms”, or whatever synonym you like to use) as well as refocusing public marketing onto social media channels.

This definition aimed to conceptually extend the boundaries of your “social” organization so it also took in the outside world, suppliers etc., enabled by social tech. It aspired to a more complex and interdependent vision of the organization.

This meaning of “social business” referred to transformed companies. No longer rooted in a dull, blind past, these organizations were social, adaptive, creative. They really “got” what it meant to be social and modern. Or so the hype went.

While this concept isn’t pure hyperbole, it never quite achieved escape velocity and did not become the definition of record for “social business”.

The cold fact is that marketing is different from internal employee communications. Engaging customers through Facebook and YouTube is not the same as building online employee communities on a private, protected system.

Customers are lured to social networks with fun and compelling content. Some concepts cross over between the two areas, but they ultimately need to be managed differently. However, if you can not reach your customers through social media you might want to look into using other marketing methods. Using emails as a way to of reaching customers, is a good way to of interacting with them.

So this idea of “a social business” ended up just being a bridge between earlier definitions and the next one.

#5: Social media marketing, or so the vendors told us

As tends to happen with buzzwords, vendors often get hold of them and redefine them, or use them to confuse people (thank goodness I’m not jaded or cynical).

Software and services vendors quickly discovered that large organizations’ budgets for rebuilding the intranet were dwarfed by their marketing budgets. Consumers were moving onto social networks en masse and traditional marketing started to lose its power.

Marketing departments had to rethink their strategies, relearn how to market to customers and discover entirely new ways to interact with audiences over social media channels. These channels include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube. For a marketing department to be successful, they need to be getting lots of engagement/views on these social media channels.

The rules of marketing changed, and consultancies that had been trying to sell “social business” as organizational transformation pivoted to selling just services and software that operated around the new rules of social media marketing.

All of a sudden, “social business” was no longer about what happened inside organizations, but was about new social marketing analytics and integrated multi-channel marketing platforms.

This was a bit confusing to us zealots who’d put faith in the ability for enterprise social software to transform organizations – to make them more human, more engaging. The term had jumped the shark.

So, what does “social business” mean to us today?

#6: It’s basically just a social intranet or internal social software

Strangely enough, despite the shifting sands and evolution of this term, for those of us in the digital workplace industry it means just what it did back in 2007.

“Social business” refers to the use of social software within organizations for employee communication, collaboration, knowledge sharing and improving business processes.

Synonyms, though with more targeted focus, include:

  • Social intranet
  • Enterprise social network (ESN)
  • Enterprise social software
  • Collaboration platform
  • Social collaboration (don’t get me started on this term!).

There’s no great mystery about what social business means in this context. The problem though is that it obfuscates the actual purpose of the tools and puts the emphasis on the technology rather than the purpose. Enterprise social software can have either a general or a specific impact.

It can support employee engagement by making an organization’s digital workplace more inviting, more engaging and more nurturing of connection and community.

It can also be used to improve specific areas of work, such as:

  • sharing knowledge among employee communities of practice
  • streamlining team collaboration
  • enabling structured idea sharing (ideation)
  • improving knowledge sharing through employee profiles and social networks
  • any number of specific business processes.

The fact of the matter is that all enterprise software should become social. “Social” just means “interacting with other people”. The advent of social software is just a natural step on the path of computer technology becoming more human. We are social animals. We learn behaviour from each other and gain knowledge through our social networks (which we’ve had for eons). We rely on human contact for health and happiness.

“Social” just shifts the software from facilitating a relationship between a person and a database to facilitating relationships between people, often within the context of data or information.

I have a secret to share: we were social even before the term “social business” came into being. “Social software” is just the humanization of work. So much of the innovation and business transformation that it can enable happens simply because it makes the digital workplace more human. It’s eliminating a deficit in the design of digital technology.

This is not so much an argument against using the term “social business” as a suggestion that we don’t rest our business cases on the implied importance of the term. Instead, we need to highlight the intended purpose of social software within organizations, even if it is simply aimed at generally making the digital experience of work more pleasant and human. That is a worthwhile cause in itself. As is using online collaborative tools to streamline the sales team’s process of preparing a client proposal.

Bottom line: “Social business” is just the internal use of social software within organizations, and social software makes technology and work more human.

Related research


Successful Social Intranets

Digital Workplace Fundamentals

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The Art of collaboration

Setting up a Digital Workplace Checklist


Categorised in: Collaboration, Digital workplace, Strategy & governance

Ephraim Freed

Ephraim is a communicator, community builder, digital strategist and employee experience leader. He helps innovative, growing organizations provide meaningful experiences of work that enrich employees' lives, grow strong, positive organizational cultures, build community, drive productivity and performance, and bring employer brands to life.

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