This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Business Agility, sponsored by IBM. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Business Agility site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

A Primer on the Social Enterprise

Sara Roberts lays down the law about what works and what doesn't as an organization moves to become more social.

Those participating in this week's Business Agility realtime chat were treated to Sara Roberts's bracing introduction to social enterprises -- what works and what does not.

Roberts is CEO of Roberts Golden, a boutique organization performance consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco. She and her team have lead large-scale change management, employee engagement, and culture transformation efforts for a wide variety of Fortune 250 companies, including Cisco, Safeway, The Gap, Disney, Hilton, and PG&E.

In the chat, Roberts defined the social enterprise as one that uses appropriate social tools to interact both with customers and internally, in "an integrated value chain."

Here at Business Agility, when we have considered social enterprises, we have looked at the subject mostly from the point of view of the tools and processes used to enable them, and in particular IT's role in their deployment and use. In the chat, Roberts put more emphasis on the cultural readiness of an organization to embrace a new way of relating to employees, customers, and partners:

I find that if the organization isn't "collaboration ready," putting in the tools and processes is futile. It mostly goes to the culture, incentives, and peoples's willingness. My personal opinion is that 80 percent of it is about business culture and the other 20 is about the technology.

As to where the cultural shift originates that allows social thinking to begin pervading the corporation, Roberts was emphatic that it's not all top-down -- though the active involvement and support of top management is essential. "It's critical to identify and engage the influencers in the organization wherever they may sit in the org structure," she stressed.

It's interesting about who can spark this culture change -- the primary difference between social and other change efforts, is that this isn't just top-down, executive-led anymore. It's really being catalyzed from top-down, middle-out, and bottom-up (multi-directional) for it to be successful.

When planning begins for movement towards a social environment, it needs to involve all levels of the organization as well. "You really need to understand where your execs are and meet them where they're at (with the business case)," Roberts said. "You need to make sure you're solving managers' operational issues, and getting to the constraints that employees feel in terms of lack of tools [and] inability to cut across silos."

For Roberts, the connection of the social enterprise with agility is crystal-clear: "I don't think you actually create an agile organization if you don't equip your employees internally with the tools to leverage others' expertise and allow collaboration -- these tools are truly one of the only catalysts that you could have to elevate that."

Roberts recommended a series of articles in the Harvard Business Review by Nilofer Merchant, the first one of which includes this magical image: "I think we can get the 800-pound gorillas of our day to act more like 800 gazelles -- fast, nimble, and collaborative."

Wrapping up, Roberts delivered five cardinal rules for the social transformation of an organization.

  1. Really understand your objectives (we don't need to be social [just] to be social or because everyone else is doing it).
  2. Make sure you know your stakeholders, internal & external -- moving too quickly [before] the org readiness is in place can hurt your efforts. Practicing Open Leadership takes time; [it's] not going to happen in one fell swoop.
  3. Real engagement isn't how many followers or likes you have. You have to look at and shift your fundamental beliefs about how you engage customers and employees -- and start engaging in co-creation.
  4. Don't assume people know how to engage on these platforms and that they want to. It's not the same as why we engage in social media for our personal lives.
  5. Galvanize influencers (much like Tipping Point theories). It's not just about who has the most visible power on the org chart... Get these people to spread the news.

We touched on a wide variety of other topics, including finding the best language to "sell" a social initiative to top management, and cataloging some of the tools organizations are using in their social endeavors. You can read the chat transcript here.

Please join us for our one-hour weekly chats on Thursdays at 10:00 a.m. California time, 1:00 p.m. Eastern. You can find each week's chat by clicking Message Boards at the top of any Business Agility page, and then selecting Reader Boards.