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Co-evolution has always played an important role in the history of humankind, specially when it comes to the complex relationships existing between technology and social behaviors. The social tools sweeping over the web and entering at increasing pace into our organizations are no exception. But evolution is neither linear, nor always a positive-sum game. Social business, in its present acceptation of defining a new way to get work done, might actually have reached a crossroad.
“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” This famous quote from Archimedes illustrates the dual nature of technological evolution: while giving a theoretical and scientific framework to the lever, he invented pulley systems allowing the handling of up to then unbelievable weight, but also the catapult, one of the first mass destruction weapons. From invention of fire to nuclear fission, whether it be through disruptive progress or through incremental adaptation, technological innovation has always been a curse as well as a blessing.
Every light comes with a shade
2.0 technologies are no exception. Each day comes with its load of dithyrambic articles about how the social web is transforming our reality, driving empathy, making the world and organizations better places. How cool. How wrong. Social technologies have the potential to transform our world for better, but also for worse. Empathy might turn into hate in a snap, or be actively used in psychological manipulation of crowds and individuals. Every light comes with a shade. I am not talking here about reputation crisis or so-called social media disasters, which repeatedly sustain the content of so many “marketing” blogs, and usually result from unsustainable product positioning or from some employees’ childish behavior, but about a stronger, deeper threat to the social web potential: a call to the dark side of the human mind.
Time to walk the talk
Failing to taking this threat into account, while keeping on focusing on social media blunders to claim that social technologies are transforming the world is not only stupid, but harmful, when the very same attitude enters the business realm.
Tangible evolution of the nature of work, and actual transformation of organizational structure, mostly exist for now in marketing hot air. Things change slowly, and by far require more of a culture switch than simple tools’ adoption. As Mark Tamis judiciously pinned out (in French), Social Business (as now defined by IBM) is in fact much closer to the original definition of Enterprise 2.0 than it is to the collaborative enterprise described by Esteban Kolsky, or to the Wirerarchy envisioned by Jon Husband. Changing the terminology doesn’t make the smoke screen any thinner.
‘Taskization’ of the conversation
Furthermore, tools, like Salesforce Chatter, or more recently Tibbr, are appearing which allow for direct integration of business applications outcomes into social platforms. I am convinced that socialization of business processes is not a meaningful track toward social business, but the real treat stands elsewhere. Tibbr allows people to choose which information they want to receive, and when they want it delivered in the middle of their conversation stream. Although this might (for some) look like a great idea, how de you think such a feature would be used in the vast majority of companies, for which ‘becoming a social business‘ (to quote IBM’s words) merely means throwing tools to employees without relinquishing their traditional command-and-control structure? What would it mean to those businesses focusing on process-based productivity, workforce optimization and costs reduction?
You know the answer: such tools will give managers new opportunities to control their teams’ workflow, in real time, new ways to tie workers to their tasks. In a world where not answering an email ten minutes after receiving it is considered as an error, there won’t be any more excuse not to check outputs from ERP every half an hour. Conversations will turn into more interruptive tasks, empowerment will turn into less self-organization opportunities. The dark side of business exists, it is alive and well.
Social business offers businesses a major opportunity for redefining the nature of work and the structure of companies, freeing knowledge workers from organizational-only pressure and defining a new social contract between customers, workers, firms and their ecosystem. On a dark side, it also gives companies novel ways to enforce business-as-usual and to further exploit the outdated legacy of our industrial era. People-centric or IT-centric, the use of social technologies for enterprise is at a crossroad, and it might be time to face it without self-indulgence.