Is Social Business Dead?

graveMaddie pointed me to this great post by Stowe Boyd on the GigaOm blog, which is in reaction to this great post by Chris Heuer over on Brian Solis’ blog. They are both fairly long posts, but here’s the gist.

Chris Heuer declares the term “social business” dead. He says the C-suite just doesn’t resonate with the ideas and the proponents have not been successful in describing just what social business is. Examples from the real world (IBM, Ford) seem close, but not quite there. The result: the leaders don’t care about the idea. They’ve got bigger fish to fry. So forget the term social business, and try to identify what’s next, because the ideas behind social business are still critical to the future of work.

Stowe Boyd disagrees with Heuer’s analysis, mostly. He does agree that the term social business has failed to galvanize a strong push for a new way of doing business, but that doesn’t mean we should retreat away from the debate about the term social business, he argues. By staying with the debate, and pushing it to a new level, we’ll finally get clearer about the way business is changing and truly needs to change.

They both agree that the future of work is going to be different, but I guess disagree about what to call it and how we should embrace the term social business.

I’m torn about debates like this. On the one hand, I think language really matters, so we should be intentional and careful about the words we use to describe what is happening. It’s not just what we call it; it shapes the way we think. On the other hand, we often get lost in the words during these debates and end up missing the opportunities to actually do something differently. The door opens for innovation, and then quietly shuts as we stand by, fervently debating our terms. The debate in the association community over the “death” of strategic planning a few years ago falls in to that category, I think. For all the talk about “strategic thinking” and having plans become “living documents,” not a whole lot has changed in practice. Not enough, anyway.

So I don’t know if the term “social business” is dead or not, but I’m beginning to think it just doesn’t matter. It’s not what we need to be talking about, and it never was. The real challenge here is management innovation. We are trying to revolutionize the way business gets done. So, since “social media” completely revolutionized media, then I guess we are hoping that “social business” will revolutionize business and management.

But here’s the trick. Social media didn’t change things because it was called social media. And it also didn’t change things because a group of people rallied around the “social media” cause and ushered in the change. Well, okay, the people who rallied around the social media cause did usher in change. I’m not trying to sell that work short. But they were rallying around something that already existed and was already changing things. The practice was well established before anyone rallied around a cause.


If our goal is management innovation, then I think we need to care less about what it will be called three years from now and much more about actually doing the work. We need to establish the practice of management innovation. We can worry about what to call it later.

Of course, I say this as if it’s not already happening, but it is. It has been for years. Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management cites examples. Our Humanize book cites examples. The book I’m reading right now (Small Giants, a good read) has another set of examples I hadn’t heard of, because they are not popular, public companies that are the target of most of the management research. Some of my clients are examples. There are organizations out there innovating management and showing us a better way, and there are management thinkers who are identifying the principles behind it (in the books I mentioned, as well as many others). Call it social business, call it human organizations, call it “mojo” (an attribute of the small giants)…call it whatever you want. Just keep doing it, and keep drawing attention to those examples that seem to fly in the face of the “logic” of our current management regime. The more this practice becomes visible, the sooner we can rally around a new movement—whatever it might be called. 


  1. 02.11.2013 at 8:38 am

    That’s pretty much where I came down, in the end, although I didn’t call it some thing as narrowly defined as ‘management innovation’. I wrote “Social business isn’t dead, but it isn’t enough, either. And simply getting the meaning of the term straightened out — if such a thing is possible, at this point — won’t add much, either. At the best, there are a set of ideas derived from the social revolution on the web — like pull versus push communication, and the benefits of defaulting to open, not closed, communication — that can be productively applied to make working socially easier and faster.

    What is needed, though, is not a retreat to arguing about the term social business, but a movement forward, a movement embodied as a community of people committed to advancing new principles of learning, organization, leadership, and management, pushing forward into a new future of work.”

    And I invited people to get involved with, a newly launched open community of people pursuing those ideas.

    • 04.11.2013 at 8:21 am

      Yes! I’ve signed up for the Chautauqua conversation. Looking forward to it.