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Are we finally seeing the death of "social"?

By Angela Ashenden posted Feb 14, 2014 9:46 AM

  

First, let me apologise for the shamefully sensationalised headline, but I just couldn't resist. I'm often nagged by my colleagues to make my headlines more attention-grabbing, and while this one may be a little tongue-in-cheek (I am generally pretty dismissive of over-hyped headlines like this), given the nature of the topic it seemed appropriate to take advantage of the power of modern media approaches. Of course, it could backfire on me, but that's just a risk I'll have to take!

Getting back to the point though. Since the emergence and subsequent incredible growth of public social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we've seen use of the word "social" increase in profile to the point where it has generally spiralled out of control in the business world. There's no doubting the impact that "social" technologies and (perhaps more importantly) concepts have had/are having on our approach to business and IT, but we are perhaps now finally starting to see the gloss coming off the term, with software vendors starting to shy away from defining themselves as enabling "social" business.

The first high-profile acknowledgement of the challenges associated with the term came with Salesforce.com's embarrassing climb-down from its attempt to trademark the term "social enterprise", which it had hoped would give it the edge over vendors like IBM and Jive who had successfully associated themselves with the alternative "social business" positioning. Not surprisingly, Salesforce experienced forceful backlash from the non-profit movement, which pointed out that this was an already well-established term which has nothing to do with "likes" and hashtags - I loved this quote from TechCrunch at the time:

Salesforce today acknowledged that the social sector uses the same term for “organizations that apply commercial strategies to improve human and environmental well-being such as reducing poverty or improving education.” In other words, not quite the same thing as monitoring a hashtag around the launch of a new perfume.

But now, we are seeing other vendors quietly disassociating themselves with the word "social". I noted in my blog summing up the IBM Connect 2014 event last month that while IBM has been studiously emphasising "social business" in its rhetoric recent years - most obviously in its event themes, such as "Get social. Do business." and "Business. Made Social." - this year there was a distinct effort to steer attention away from "social" to the "business" side of things, with the strapline "Energizing life's work". The same held true right through the conference, with more focus on people and business, and less on what "social" is, and why you need to be doing it. And in a conversation my colleague Neil Ward-Dutton and I had with Jive's EMEA General Manager, David Macmillan last week, he admitted that Jive is also actively toning down the use of the word "social" among customers and prospects.

I believe this is a really interesting development, because it prompts the question: if we're not calling it "social business" anymore, what should we call it instead? Because - despite my flippant blog title - this business trend is not going away; arguably it's simply reaching a more mature, sensible stage where the market is finally acknowledging that this is about changing the way businesses operate, the way we manage and organise our people, resources and relationships. It's not about some new-fangled silver-bullet technology that will magically change the world for us; of course the technology is a fundamental part of enabling a more interactive cultural environment, but the technology alone won't be enough in most organisations. We're talking instead about recognising the need for strategic business change, one that impacts the organisation from top to bottom, from inside to outside.

We in the IT industry do love a good buzzword, and - let's face it - "social" has been one of the most successful, in that it's crossed that line into widespread usage in the business (by which I mean non-IT) world too. But this is about much more than an IT trend, it's a shift in the way we do business. So what do we call that then? Answers on a postcard please. (Or in the comments if you prefer.)

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Feb 20, 2014 9:04 AM

Thanks for all your comments everyone. I think they perhaps help to highlight the challenge we have here - that the importance of having the right name for this trend depends on which side of the fence you are on (selling or buying the technology) and - as a buyer - where on the readiness/adoption curve you are. If your organisation "gets" what social collaboration is about, and is sufficiently far down the road of becoming a modern, networked organisation (as opposed to a traditional, hierarchical one), it really doesn't matter what it's called, since the discussion becomes more about the business impact and real business benefits around the shift. For those earlier in the cycle though, a name is important to bring focus to what you are trying to do - the hype around "social" has been extremely important in making senior executives aware of what can be achieved. Maybe we are generally now far enough down the line that the conversation is now able to comfortably shift away from the hype - I don't think anyone will object if that's the case.

Feb 18, 2014 4:34 PM

Great observations, and yes I was caught in the net cast by your title.
To me, "Social" is becoming hackneyed like "cloud" and "engaged". Accelerating toward its best-before-date and becoming self-conscious and conspicious. As the inspired name for an emerging trend, one evolving at the speed of technology we can't help clinging to to all its context and promise. Not to mention for want of a better word or phrase to describe the distinctive transformative power in our social lives, both private and commercial. Vastly interconnected, instantaneous, collaborative, democratising and liberating in as many positive ways as its detractors can think of negatives, the marketing of the ways we are evolving human transactions of all kinds is astonishing and inevitable. The task is to be as attuned to the next paradigm shift and to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the best way to market our collaborative competitive advantages going forward :)

Feb 18, 2014 10:41 AM

I'm not so sure we're getting a great deal of clarity.
1. Basing conclusios on one datum post (especially a "tone" or even promotion change) is problematic. And may very well be proven wrong.
2. Many company employee comminities are thriving and the Knowledge Management teas are capturing all sorts of tactit information made public.
3. At our place, the folks using the social community are dedicated to complaining, sharing and helping each other. This new, informal network empowers everyone to do the best for the customer, which then directly impacts our bottom line. -

Feb 18, 2014 10:39 AM

Perhaps it falls under the larger umbrella of digital business? Does it need a new term? "Communication" still seems to do the job in my opinion!

Feb 18, 2014 10:38 AM

I think we are seeing an end to the word 'Social' because it scares off executives and employees who don't get it. The way we do business and work is changing and it has too. Look at the way kids in school work today. They don't email. They use social tools and are going to expect to see that in the workplace.
What will happen is the word 'Social' will go away because it will become the norm for how we work.

Feb 18, 2014 10:27 AM

There's a second coming every other year and IT people like to think they're the first to discover something. Don't even think this one was ever actually alive.
Last two paragraphs nailed it.

Feb 18, 2014 5:37 AM

Technology marketeers (and journalists) are notoriously faddish, and there's no doubt that the social fad is dying. As is the delusion that companies are going tear up their org chart and restructure around social networks. The reality is that companies that make serious use of social software have probably only just begun to do so seriously, and will adopt slowly and cautiously. "Social" is merely a means to an end; the overall aim is better communication - communication between employees, between employees and customers, and between customers. Social is an important part of this, but ultimately it is just one part of a bigger communication and collaboration strategy. I've written a lot about this in "The Business Communication Revolution" (http://communication-revolution.biz)