Stowe Boyd talks about making social business happen with Philip Sheldrake

According to his profile at Gigaom Research, “Stowe describes himself as a web anthropologist, futurist, and analyst. His focus is the future of work, and the tectonic forces pushing business into an unclear and accelerating future.”

Stowe publishes an IBM sponsored series of interviews he calls Socialogy. The latest is with our Philip Sheldrake, available on Stowe’s website and reproduced here in full for your convenience.

Stowe Boyd: In a recent post (see Our goal is to become a social business but how do we get the revolution started?) you back away from a contact’s question about needing a revolution to get his company to become more social. First, you looked at the conclusion that the answer to his business’ circumstance was to become social, and instead suggested an examination of shared values. But aren’t many businesses considering a digital/social transformation in the pursuit of another round of productivity, rather than soul searching about meaning and purpose?

Philip Sheldrake: My first point emphasizes that social business is a means not an ends of itself. A delightful means. A rewarding means. A welcome means. But a means nonetheless. You may well argue that the corresponding values and principles could represent an endgame for how you’d like society to be, but from the perspective of the business man I was talking to, and indeed all of my clients, the success of that business is foremost in his mind.

And what a loaded word that is – success. It seems, particularly in the light of recent calamitous events, that more than a few people are searching for a post-capitalist reality, one that at least recognizes and attempts to make up for some of the serious flaws in free-wheeling market economies. Articulating what success looks like exactly in terms of a country or an organization or other community has exercised greater minds than mine, but I simply talk to creating value for all stakeholders faster than otherwise, and value in its fullest meaning. In words a card-carrying capitalist might recognize, we’re talking about shareholders benefiting greatly because other stakeholders benefit greatly too; a win-win rather than a win-lose.

Interestingly, placing any one stakeholder on a pedestal is stupid period. It’s not just the primacy of the shareholder that’s in question, but the concept of customer-centricity too, as I explore in Attenzi – a social business story.

So to your question about the motivations for investigating and pursuing social business.

I couldn’t agree more with your intimation that the landscape appears polarized. Perhaps the majority (from observation rather than empiricism) are intent on little more than “another round of productivity” as you put it, a euphemism for getting more done with fewer bodies. At best this may be wrapped up in maxims such as “work smarter not harder”, but it doesn’t address the meaning we all look for in our day-to-day existence, meaning that propels us to build relationships, form great teams, do awesome things, and then disperse when the time is right to re-form; meaning and belonging and contribution that creates more value for all involved faster than otherwise.

I don’t ascribe this failure to any kind of belligerence towards new thinking by the way, just the simple pressures of every day life keeping us in the same old groove.

To me, social business demands we build mutual understanding to develop mutual influence (thinking and behaviors) to create mutual value. And such mutuality is founded on identifying, nurturing and celebrating mutual values. The excellence model of public relations (Grunig et al) emphasizes mutual understanding to build goodwill, and it has informed much of my thinking including my extension of the model, the Six Influence Flows.

SB: What are the six influence flows?

PS: The excellence theory of public relations focuses on the two-way symmetrical model – using communication to negotiate with your publics, resolving conflict and promoting mutual understanding and respect between the organization and its stakeholders. The Six Influence Flows model prompts those interested in understanding how influence goes around comes around to look beyond the publics the excellence model proposes an organisation identifies for itself, and look beyond communication as the sole means to influence and be influenced.

SB: In the second sidestep of your post, you decoded ‘revolution’ to mean a relatively fast transition to a new operating regime through evolution, not revolution. Isn’t that hair splitting? If there are some behaviors or practices that need to stop in order for progress to be made, that’s revolution not evolution.

PS: Ah semantics. I’m a sucker for definitions it has to be said; after all, if we’re invoking the same language to mean different things, that path to mutual understanding is going to have too many twists and turns.

So for the purposes of the post I take pains to define revolution and evolution in terms of flow. Revolution disrupts the flow of things. There is a disconnect, a decoupling. A revolution demands serious resource and momentum and is typically associated with increased risk for good reason.

Evolution on the other hand, whilst perhaps taking longer, aims to re-flow with less perceived risk. It identifies the mechanisms – the dials and levers – to twiddle and pull to coax the system from one state to another. It’s responsive in terms of agility (strategic) and flexibility (tactical). It’s both deliberate and emergent. And because people are inclined towards behaving as they are measured, I consider the organization’s existing business performance management system a good place to start even if such systems are contrary to some people’s expectations of social business practice. I think of it in terms of tapping the monster’s own strength, as I explain at greater length in a guest post to Brian Solis’ blog.

SB: That last point about ‘behaving as we are measured’ seems loaded. Aren’t the strongest motivations intrinsic? Our desire for autonomy and the trans-personal that Maslow hit on at the very end, the capacity to put the good of others before our own? While on one level the notion of influencing people to change behaviors through recognition and reward is almost trite, on another this almost smacks of coercion.

PS: I feel an affinity with the sentiment of your question Stowe, and interestingly Adam Pisoni, co-founder and CTO of Yammer, challenged me similarly when he penned the foreword to my ebook last year. I think the answer is reasonably straight forward, at least I hope it is – we have to deal with the nature of the beast as we find it. We must recognize that the typical organization today isn’t designed and doesn’t function with the kind of things you raise here in mind. Sure, there’s a book or three on the windowsill in HR talking about Maslow’s hierarchy and finding meaning in our work, but too rarely is much of it translated into the organizational fabric.

As I know you know, when considering the spectrum of deliberate and emergent strategy, today’s organizations are mostly up the deliberate end. And they have developed systems and process and checks and balances and culture designed to pursue that strategy and lock-in what the performance management system tells them is working. If we wish to inculcate change prior to there being competitive pressure to do so, that change must start from within by tapping into the only mechanisms available.

As for coercion, fortunately I’ve had no personal experience of that, but it has been made very clear what’s expected of me.

SB: The third question of a Socialogy interview always returns to this: what scientific discipline should we be looking to for a better grounding to business thinking?

PS: Oh crumbs. My post identifies engineering, public relations theory, psychology, sociology, linguistics and philosophy. But if I had to pick one, it would be the one that’s manifest in nearly everything our species is interested in right now, yet too frequently under-appreciated or misunderstood – the science of complexity.

SB: Thanks for your time, Philip.

PS: Stowe, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.

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