#sbf12 Social Business Manifesto Live in Milano

Big up to the Open Knowledge team, especially the relentless and talented Emanuele Quintarelli for organising such a great event. A very popular one on top of that with more than 1500 attendees and a very active local scene with many enthusiast speakers.

The 2012 edition of the Social Business Forum 2012 in Milano have been the opportunity to reflect on the work that has been carried out this year around the social business. As usual in such events, it has also been the time to meet, hang around and engage with the #socbiz mob, a bunch of smart people with the likes of @MikeGotta, @elsua, @oscarberg @AnaDataGirl, @rawn, @bduperrin, @demeto, @meganmurray, @bjoern_n, @tdebaillon, @rwang0, @sysiphe and, last but not least, @jhagel.

Different themes have been addressed as keynotes, panels or case studies and there was a lot of material. You can tell it was a great conferences by the number of questions that it has spawned. Some of #hypertextual’s below …

What is Social Business ?

This is Open Knowledge definition Emanuele Scotti and Rosario Sica offered during their opening keynote on the Social Business Manifesto :

An organization that has put in place the strategies, technologies and processes to systematically engage all the individuals of its ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize the co-created value.

As an IT professional, I proposed a far more technology centered definition :

Business leveraging Social Software to get things done.

I am not a marketing guy but my take is that is it probably is easier to sell the second definition then the first one to executives. This is why I still am not really comfortable with the Social Business Moniker and I’d rather talk about Social Software, i.e. the technology.

So what is Social Software then ?

This is the question I’ve tried to answer in the presentation. Most important aspect of Social Software is the disruptive nature of this technology. Clay Shirky has clearly explained : social software platforms are the first many-to-many communication set of tools.

This transforms the dynamics of communication and the flows of information while used for business purpose.

What is the impact of many-to-many communication platforms on the organisations ?

There are 2 main impacts. The first one is from an internal organisation perspective. John Hagel is the one bringing the best insight on this question :

“Information is power. Institutions are designed to provide some people with information which is power. If knowledge flows, it is undermining the foundation of people power in organisations. How do we confront that power ?”

The second issue is from an external perspective. Frank Eliason made a passionate talk about engaging with the Customer (capital C is his) and pinpointed issues that social media made visible :

“Marketers thought that social media was the marketing nirvana. Wrong. A strange thing has happened : customer has answered (…). Social media show the reality not the official message. Marketers used to hide the truth for years. That is some kind of shock.

Are we asking the right question ?

I have been a bit torn on the subject : is the goal of a company to become a social business ? I’m not sure. As Mike Gotta said during one of our dinners, “The aim of an airline is to be a great airline, not to be a social business”.

I fully buy into that. My take is that Social is not part of the question but it definitely is part of the answer.

So what is the right question ?

In our hyper connected economy, we need to create resilient and adaptive organizations (Ray Wang) to cope with permanent changes (Rawn Shah). We need to create an environment for employees to engage (Luis Suarez), so that they can be innovative, and for employees to be inspired to provide great quality service to customers (Frank Eliason). We need to provide people with tools so that they can collaboratively learn (Oscar Berg) on a permanent basis.

So the right question should be How to make an organisation able to thrive in the 21st century economy ? How to make it resilient, adaptive, engaged and able to learn fast and continuously ? Though Social Business is a major part of the answer, we have to be careful not to base our implementation strategy on false assumptions : Thierry de Baillon great speech addressed that very risk.

What’s wrong with the tool ?

This is a question @raibaz the nice IT guy from Open Knowledge asked during his company party. “People say it’s not about the technology but what would you do without it ?”. I fully agree on this. And this has been the starting point of John Hagel awesome speak : “We have many new tools to face today challenges, challenges we are not prepared for. There are huge opportunities for those who can use these tools.

The problem is what John added “As evangelist we have a natural temptation : let’s invest money and eventually it will work out”. Esteban Kolsky summarized it as Technology is not the solution.

The interesting thing is that this is the very approach adopted by Alcatel Lucent with some success. The new CEO Ben Verwaayen has put Social Platforms at the heart of his strategy to transform the organisation culture and make it more collaborative as Jérôme Colombe reported.

Why should we fix the organisation ?

Oscar Berg gives the definite answer : because Knowledge work is broken.

Steven Denning brings some more perspective on this : traditional management has killed lean, agile methodologies and social ; all great initiatives. Though quite spectacular, the problem with this type of burning platform speak is that it does not offer much solutions.

Rawn Shah‘s is proposing some while wondering is Social Business can reshape the organisation. We are stuck with predictable and Planned models while change is omnipresent and continuous : this does not work. Luis Suarez tends to agree while reminding us that there cannot be a community manager, it is more a facilitator. Rawn insisted on how continuous learning was critical in this context for company to strive, drawing on a wonderful quote by Alvin Toffler :

“The illiterates of the 21st century are the not those who can not read and write, but those that can not learn, unlearn and relearn.”

How to fix the organisation ?

Oscar Berg solution is to provide knowledge workers with a system that brings awareness and makes work visible – activity streams being a great tool for this. This also is one of the key recommendation by John Stepper : make your work observable and narrate it.

There is some convergence on another point : John Hagel, John Stepper or Megan Murray all suggest we should start with a clearly identified problem and try to fix it. John Hagel and Esteban Kolsky both stressed how important it is to use operational metrics to track progress on these items.

“When it starts to work, it starts to cascade as people can see the value. You have more champions and enemies have a harder time. (J. Hagel)”

The second recommendation from Hagel is to start on the edge, moving away from highly strategical central issues to enjoy enough freedom to try different approaches. The example of SAP developers community is quite telling, bringing the average time to fix problem down to 17 mns. Even though one could argue that software developer is an easy population to implement a community, it’s in their DNA.

Depending on the target population, building communities is not so easy but we’re lucky to have community Jedi such as Luis Suarez to show us the way (and to sort out the remaining orechiettes).

Will Social initiatives fail like Knowledge Management’s did ?

We could feel during the conference some surge of pessimism. This tweet from info cloud probably is the best example :

This is our third modern wave of social (groupware & KM) and we are near the same spot others died out.

I strongly believe there are many big differences with Social Software. The main one is that this technology has been strongly adopted on the public internet. The second one is that it is simpler than traditional enterprise software, which removes an obstacle to adoption. The last one is that it captures tacit knowledge through conversation which makes it relevant in the knowledge economy.

Will private organisations be able to leverage these technologies to get things done faster and better while engaging more with their employees and customers ? We have passionate people working on that question so let’s see how it goes.


  1. Thanks for this wonderful overview of a meeting I would have loved to have been at. Some of my favorite people tackling an issue near and dear to my heart.

    While I understand the frustration many feel with this “third-wave” of social, I think it’s important to realize this wave presented more of a threat than any other (IMO) to the hierarchical authority of our command-and-control leadership, which means just about all of them. People do not easily give up their power (as it sounds like John H. was pointing out), but the success on those edges is slowly turning the behemoths around (again, IMO).

    I, for one, believe that social business is the latest stage of KM; hardly something different. There is an evolution taking place in how we create value and do business. The transition is never fast enough for some (I’m one of them), but I believe the change is inevitable. It wasn’t that long ago that Euan Semple offered his thought it would be half a century before real change occurred. I tend to agree with him.

  2. Hi Rick,

    Thanks very much for your comment. It was a great conference, for sure.

    I see many people making relationship between KM and Social Software. I’m not too sure bout this. Social Software is a child of communities and as such has already proved on the web how efficient it was for collaboration. Knowledge Management software is nowhere near this.

    I’m curious to see if organizations will be able to afford half a century before changing to adopt technologies. I strongly doubt. We’ll see.

  3. Cecil – What I’m suggesting is that Social Software is where the now profusely bleeding edges of KM are, or necessarily ought to be. KM – and its software/tools – have tended to spend a great deal of energy on either making explicit knowledge searchable or making tacit knowledge explicit and then making it searchable. Social Software, and the thrust of what we’re now calling Social Business seeks to connect people more and more seamlessly for collaboration (or, at the very least, education) and getting things done effectively and efficiently. Isn’t that in large part what KM is supposed to accomplish for us?

    David Gurteen has edited a new book that addresses the subject. It’s entitled “Leading Issues in Social Knowledge Management”. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I have read David’s Editorial Commentary contained therein. I’m in the process of reading the papers. I think it’s worthy of checking out. Thanks again.

  4. I am not comfortable with this comparison of KM Vs Social Software. I don’t think it makes sense. Probably because I’m a huge fan of Social Software and I never thought KM software was relevant. I think the big mistakes KM made was to think it is possible to capture tacit knowledge into structured data. A typical rational analysis flaw.

    Social Software is great at capturing knowledge because it is unstructured data and it is, well, social i.e related to people. Tacit knowledge is continuous flow of people thoughts. Breaking it into structured data dissociated from the people breaks the continuity and lose the social bit : it breaks tacit knowledge. As Ross Mayfield said Knowledge Management is a by-product of Social Software : we find content through people and people through content.

    IMHO, KM as a goal is broken for that very reason. On the other hand, Social Software is everywhere. If it does not work out for organisations now it will eventually because people are using it on a regular basis for their own purpose. The problem is not on social software side it is on organisation side.

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