Posted by: karisyd | May 14, 2013

Social or not?

Recently, I have again been irritated by a couple of blog posts about the problems that the term “social” seems to create when used in a business context. Here is my (polite) rant on the topic:

There seems to be a problem with the word social in particular when one wants to convince executives of the benefits of Enterprise Social Media.

Social it seems raises red flags in that any social business initiative is suspected to be a scheme for avoiding work and procrastination.

To address the problem it has been suggested to replace the term “social” with “network”, “open”, “collaboration” or avoid it altogether (e.g. to talk about Enterprise Collaboration Networks or just Enterprise Networks).

Frankly, I find these suggestions bizarre and dangerous. Since when is the term social considered anti-business or even taken to be a swear word?

A quick look at Wikipedia confirms that social is a pretty innocent term. Depending on  context the term refers to:

  • The collective co-existence with others.
  • An objectively given fact characterising humans as inherently social beings.
  • Attitudes or behaviours displayed by people when they take account of the interests or needs of other people.

Hence, social either means just being with other people, or to behave unselfishly taking others into account. At no point does it say that social might be the opposite to terms such as “working effectively”, “doing business” or “being rational”. If anything the opposite of social is selfish, acting with no regard for other people.

If social behavior means to take the needs of others into account how can this be regarded negative in the workplace? And what does it say about a person if they think that is to be avoided and has no place in business.

On the contrary, isn’t all business necessarily and by definition social?

So, should we avoid the term? – No! Of course not.

Will that make it harder to sell the idea of social business to (some!) executives?  – Maybe.

But in my view it is dangerous to give in to an overly reductionist management attitude that tries to free all business matters of “social” aspects and reduce it to rationalistic task execution. This needs to be resisted in my view. Not (only) because it is the right thing to do, but because it is good for business.

The whole point of the recent push for social business is to recognize that work in a modern knowledge economy has as much to do with effective task execution as it has with engaging in ongoing conversations and sense-making with others about the work we are engaging in together. How else can the organization innovate, change, adapt and evolve with the changes that go on around us in an economy that is being disrupted by the emergence of a stream of new digital technologies?

It is precisely in the vision of initiatives such as ESN to point out that overly reductionist approaches to management and work are not suited to cope with the demands of digital change.

So, my argument is that if we avoid the term social we are complying with the rules of the very game we need to change.

What we should do is educating people about the social nature of business, not pretending it’s not. Recognising that all business is social is an attitude, a state of mind that is a prerequisite for success in our changing economy.

But there is still hope. It might well be that being cautious about social when approaching executives is more a reflex anticipating resistance than a reflection of actual management attitudes. I know many managers and executives who are well aware of the need to engage with social business, their questions often naturally revolve more around the ‘how’ not the ‘if’.



  1. The thing is that “social” in many organisations means “social club” – i.e. staff hanging out but not doing work. This then applied to a solution that may be sold is as “Facebook for the Enterprise”. Which also brings to mind thoughts of staff goofing off.

    Unfortunately most managers on superficial first impressions – and that especially applies to language. In many organisations, “social” has specific connotations that are counterproductive for social business.

    If you get the language wrong in the first conversation wrong, you may not get the second one.

    • Yeah, I know and understand. But still, I think the problem runs a bit deeper – there is a certain worldview of the organisation as a machine in which social has a distinct negative meaning. This in my view is still all too frequent. Change will come but it might be slow.

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