Social Business or Humanizing Your Business Through Social?

Along with the term Big Data, “Social Business” has become one of the terms du jour when it comes to how organizations work.

Several agencies and organizations have come up with their definitions of what a social business is.

As we begin to be able to measure the degree to which employees collaborate in helpful ways through social technology, we will be able to build improved reward mechanisms to drive the desired behaviours and break down long-standing cultural barriers. Nigel Fenwick, VP and Principal Analyst, Forrester.

An organization must promote a business culture of transparency and trust from senior leadership to those working in the field. It must work to encourage a culture of sharing as well, employees need to feel comfortable sharing their sentiment and collaborating across teams and departments. Sandy Carter, VP, IBM.

Stop focusing on the technology and move into how people work… [in] their day-to-day tasks. Luis Suarez, Social Computing Evangelist, IBM.

A social business is something altogether different as it embraces introspection and extrospection to reevaluate internal and external processes, systems, and opportunities to transform into a living, breathing entity that adapts to market conditions and opportunities. Brian Solis, Principal, Altimeter Group.

As you can see, there are several takes on what defines a social business, yet they all have a common theme – the people behind the business.

It’s these people that both agencies and organizations alike are recognizing the need to empower with decisions and deeper interactions within the business, and to be able to do the work they’re best at and be provided with the tools – more often than not, social tools – to help them do just that.

Make that happen, and you have a far better culture, internally and externally. Achieve that culture, achieve more success.

Except, that’s not really what a social business is all about – instead, that’s more about humanizing your business through social collaboration. And there’s a difference.

A True Social Business

Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that so many seem willing to jump onto the social business definition as the one highlighted by the above examples. After all, social media has been a constant when it comes to definitions outside original scopes:

    • Return on anything (Relationship, Influence, Connection, Empathy, etc.) except what matters to the bottom line – Investment;


  • Explosion in marketing terms (Content, Influence, Social, Social Media, Empathy, Relationship, etc.). Even though they all have a singular goal – results through marketing.

These are just two areas where social has – forced or otherwise – changed the language while not really changing the methodology or meaning behind the new terms. Social business is a little different, though.

A true social business isn’t about using collaboration, social tools and technology to improve the culture of an organization. Instead, a true social business can be defined as such:

[A business] created and designed to address a social problem (with social being societal).

[A business that is] a non-loss, non-dividend company (either financially self-sustainable, or profits are reinvested in the business, or used to start another one, with the aim of increasing social impact).

The above descriptions of what a social business looks like come from Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Professor Muhammed Yunus.

Muhammed Yunus

Given that the actual term “social business” was defined perfectly in his books Creating a World Without Poverty – Social Business and the Future of Capitalism (PublicAffairs, 2009) and Building Social Business – The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs (PublicAffairs, 2011), I think it’s fair to say these definitions are the ones that truly identify what a social business is, and does.

Adding to this perception of social business are respected business professionals across various sectors.

That’s how I define it – not the social media one. Doing social good while making a profit. It’s why I love Beloved Beadwork in South Africa; they are a true social business and I love their energy and drive to make the world a better place. Anne Marie van den Hurk, Principal, Mind the Gap PR.

Unfortunately, web marketers got hold of the term and confused the meaning. Jon Aston, Consultant and Social Change Agent.

So if the definition of social business is that of a business looking to make a social impact, and better the world around them, where does that leave today’s term and its buzz?

Humanizing Your Business to Be More Social

Perhaps agencies and organizations need to look just a little more closely at their definition of a social business. By doing so, they’ll realize that what they’re actually referring to is two separate yet complementary terms – humanizing and socializing.

In their excellent book Humanize – How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World (Que, 2011), authors Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter share their years of combined experience in changing organizational culture to be more about its people.

In detailed analysis, Grant and Notter highlight why organizations struggle in today’s socially-savvy world, and where they need to improve. From the book:

We like being human. We like having the capacity to publish our own thoughts and to create things and share them with the people in our communities who actually matter to us. One of the reasons social media has grown so fast is that it taps into what we, as humans, naturally love and need and want to do – create, share, connect, relate.

Our organizations, however, are not as enthusiastic. We see the potential that social media has for our organizations, because of the energy and attention social media attracts, but we are having a hard time trying to fit these new practices into our existing systems. The challenge is to make our organizations more human.

Grant and Notter go on to break down what this challenge looks like, and how to overcome it.

By diving into all facets of the organization – Human Resources, management, hierarchy, silos, behavioural management, and decentralizing closed cultures for open ones – Humanize becomes the essential roadmap to change culture through collaboration and social tools. Sound familiar?

Yep, it’s exactly what today’s “social business” definition looks like. The closest organizational comparison to the social business meaning as defined by Yunus is “social enterprise”.

[A term used to describe] commercial activity by socially-minded organizations. – Wikipedia.

For example, a social enterprise may run employment schemes and opportunities to help those that would normally come up against barriers to that work. Additionally, by supporting the local community or sponsoring aid programs either at home or abroad, organizations can write off certain income and reinvest.

Having said that, even a true social enterprise goes beyond these two examples.

[A social enterprise] applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders. Social enterprises can be structured as a for-profit or non-profit, and may take the form of a co-operative, mutual organization, a disregarded entity, a social business, or a charity organization. – Wikipedia.

Which closes the loop and circles back to Muhammed Yunus’s definition of a social business.

The Future of Business is Social. Or Humanizing. Or Both

That’s not to say that businesses need to reconsider calling what they do today “social business”. After all, they may have a philanthropic involvement with either the local community or a need further afield.

Perhaps they allow employees time off for community projects, or they allocate their Christmas Party money to the local food bank. At its heart, these are the actions of a true social business.

But let’s not confuse how organizations are creating culture changes (humanizing their business) with real societal impact (social business) by and for business owners, employees and stakeholders.

The world of social media consultants and agencies already have enough adoptions of differing terminologies – it’d be nice to keep one that really matters true to itself.

image: James Dellow

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