The European Social Business Design Summit (#sbs2010), which took place for the first time in London last thursday, is the latest in a chain of many similar named events since Andrew McAfee coined the “Enterprise 2.0″-Meme in 2006. Since then we are struggling with the difficult challenge to translate the new forms of collaboration that emerge in the Web into the firewalled enterprise gardens. The starting point is always the same: Business IT as we know it is doomed because the Web perforated the walls, and so are many of the overformalized “business processes”, powered by Microsoft and SAP. Now it’s all about eliciting the underlying structures from newly emerging Web practices, adapting them and pack them into well-designed ecosystems.
So why was there another Social Enterprise 2.0 Summit?
This one was the second of a series of three similar events in Austin, London and Sidney initiated by the Dachis Group. And Jeff Dachis really is a celebrity: He’s been the the legendary CEO of razorfish, the archetypical dotcom-bubble-firm. “Everything that can be digital will be!” was their rallying cry, and the mission was “Recontextualize Business!” (This quite comprehensive Wired article from 2000 vividly recalls some of the hilarious details.)
In 2008 Dachis went to conclave with the Ex-Forrester-Consultant and Marketing-Expert Peter Kim. Months later they resurfaced with a quite complex concept (presentation). “Social Business Design” became his new trademark: the conscious re-design of all aspects of IT-based information and communication processes within the enterprise, internal and external, using the means of the social Web 2.0.
Dachis got a 50 Million capital injection for global expansion. But his first acquisition, of all firms, was the London-based social media consultancy Headshift – relatively small, highly intelligent, very serious, and in any case unsuspicious of any bubble 2.0 attitudes. Since 2002, Headshift is really recontextualizing structures and processes in big law firms, in public services and non-profit organisations (among others). Lee Bryant, one of the founders, is still a sort of leftist intellectual an intellectual person leaning to the left turned entrepreneur. When Jeff Dachis founded razorfish, Lee had his first experiences with social media in Bosnia 1995, where he acted as an international media and communication consultant for the Bosnian government.
Lee and Jeff still showed signs of heavy jetlag when they welcomed us, having only just arrived from the Austin summit (see here for a few soundbites). The London crowd was slightly less glamorous, with the exception of the brilliant JP Rangaswami, who actually inspired McAfee’s “Enterprise 2.0″ concept back then in 2006. Now he is “Chief Scientist” at British Telecom where he has intiated some interesting experiments with Open Source und Social Media software. Other attendees were quite a mixed blend: many British Enterprise practitioners, not too many social media-marketing people, and a lot of idiosyncratic protagonists of the ongoing Web 2.0 culture revolution.
So when I got the chance to randomly shake hands with Jeff Dachis that was quite an unlikely encounter that could well stand for the scope of this Summit: At the time when Jeff sipped cocktails named after himself (“Dachismo”) at razorfish penthouse parties in Manhattan, i still was deeply involved in the Gutenberg Galaxis, giving my habilitation lecture on modern diaristic literature to a Liberal Arts department. I didn’t know nothing about the Web before 2000, when I immigrated with an iMac and found Google.
I had expected the CEO of Dachis Group to be a smart, cool and hard-boiled businessman, but was surprised to find him almost shy and quite likeable. He seemed even a bit nervous speaking to the European intelligentsia, as he repeatedly got stuck with his keynote. And obviously he was serious about what he said: That he was again feeling the spirit of 1995, because the new socio-semantic media now, at last, provide the preconditions for really being able to fulfil the void promises of the bubble era. I do believe he is right. (I doubt he will be making even nearly that much money once again, though.)
The Social Business Design Summit took place at the Green Park, opposite of Buckingham Palace, hosted by the Malaysian Limkokwing Multimedia University at it’s London outpost. 106 Piccadilly, a listed monument, has been home of the exclusive St. James Gentlemen’s Club for 100 years, where diplomats and intellectuals debated world domination. So what we did was vaguely similar, also in that women were a small minority, about 1:15 I’d think. (This is peculiar, by the way: After all the event was about social media, and nerdy male techno-discussions had explicitly been factored out.) We were about hundred people, and the vibrations were very laid-back and positive.
There was an odd feeling of disproportion too: On one side, this was a gathering of thought-leaders from all over Europe who felt to be in harmony with the digital weltgeist. On the other side, the whole thing still felt startingly small and pioneer-like. Still the main purpose of this kind of event seems to be mutual self-affirmation between the like-minded. But if it is true that the “nature of the firm” itself is changing profoundly, as JP Rangaswami told us in his excellent keynote (which will hopefully be published there) – then it is about time to get to the unconvenient subjects too. It is not enough to tell each other again how the others out there are still not getting it.
It seems that generally the inner dynamic of all those Web 2.0-ish events, unconferences and barcamps has arrived at some dead spot. Since one year at least we seem to repeat ourselves. The foundations have been laid, but we don’t seem to advance anymore. Partly it is just preaching to the converted. For the other part (but not at #sbs2010) the reason may be the arrival of many newcomers who fail to see that what really is happening here is a fundamental change, not just adding some slight flavor of wikis, facebook and microblogging to the same old ways.
E-mail: Social Web of the office native
The most important, and most inconvenient subject IMHO is not “external communication” (a.k.a. marketing), neither it is the new hybrid forms of collaboration which result from the dissolving of the borders of the glass-concrete-and-streel-organisations into distributed digital projects. (Both subjects got their own working group at #sbs2010.) The fundamental problem lies in the change of internal structures, which was discussed in the third and largest workshop: inflexible daily work routines, the ubiquituous SAP-inspired planning delusion, multitasking, the permanent defensive block of everything by notoriously overstrained workers.
It is not even true that old business is not social. More of the opposite. There is more than enough talking anywhere, in the floors and around the coffee machines. Problem is, it’s the wrong kind of sociality: the ongoing unconstructive babble that is always only repeating that we are right and they are idiots. This kind of collective egocentric sociality culminates in the
e-mail inbox. In the e-mail world everything is a “message”: something important with a sender and an addressee, always giving hidden hints about social status. Each mail claims undivided attention, and processing it takes always longer than one thinks. The average IBM worker is spending 2- 3 hours a day in the inbox, says Luis Suarez, Web-evangelist at IBM, who is demonstrating in public for two years now how man can survive without e-mail.
E-mail may really be the heart of darkness. For the ordinary organisation man it’s the surrogate for all the nuanced, sophisticated forms of communication that the Cambrian Explosion of social Web 2.0 applications continues to explore and create. The main mistake is making a strict difference between working and socializing. “Social Media” is not building Just Another Network. It is not the facebookisation of the enterprise. It is about “object-centered sociality” (#, #, #): What Web 2.0 applications really are doing is to make visible the loose structures that cristalyze around the (digital) social objects put and held in circulation.
Everything is social in organisations where the old hard-wired office workflows are dissolving, because everything is an impulse. Each step in the work process, each thought, each text creates an impulse that goes into the social cloud that really represents “business”. “Social business design” is to tinker with elements to create ecosystems that are good for recording and collecting these sublime signals, translating streams and clouds into something more tangible. Social media is not about people in the first place. It is about collectively doing things with microcontent.
I think most attendees of the Summit knew that in a way or another, but it wasn’t really expressed. “Discussions veered off quite quickly into a general chat about how we overcome barriers to social business”, as Lee Bryant recalls in his round-up. And this unconnected thoughts, as Ton Zijlstra critically remarks, were often somewhat helplessly expressed in the sterile vocabulary of those management dialects that are part of the problem, not of the solution.
In this rhetorical quicksand, we didn’t find ground to build on because we still don’t seem to have a shared analysis and terminology that is differentiated enough. We even still don’t have an analysis that shows which are the multiple and often ‘irrational’ functions e-mail really does fulfil in daily practice, and why it is so much becoming an almost indispensable part of the identity of knowledge and information workers. As Luis Suarez said, the first step would be to understand the existing social tools and ecosystems.
Coukd be that also the S-word itself is a problem, as Andrew McAfee suggested lately in his blog. His post triggered an intense debate in the comments about whether to use the term “social” in recontexualizing the enterprise. Dennis Howlett argued that hard-boiled managers would pull their colts when only hearing this wishi-washy hippie word. “Social” would always sound like snake-oil marketed by “Social Media Gurus”. One should talk about ROI and productivity instead, backed up with as many numbers, charts and pie charts as possible. I’d rather agree with Stowe Boyd and Lee Bryant who dissented with quite good and sophisticated arguments, saying somehing along the lines that it would be wrong to abandon the term “social” for tactical reasons and should work at making it more precise instead, eg. considering new forms of “indirect socialisation” via Web 2.0 practices and tools.
But maybe in discussions like we had at the Summit, using the word “social media” still is sometimes problematic. It seems to trigger too many vague associations. If not sharply defined beforehand, “social” means too many things to many people. Maybe we should rather concentrate on the design of work environments, like Lars Plougmann suggested, designing flows for the circulation of information and knowledge chunks (and social signals, too).
In his critical review of the “internal workshop”, Ton Zijlstra has collected a list of good, but very complex questions that he thinks should be asked on future occasions. I’m not sure whether this would have worked on an event like this. But he surely is right in saying that in London we didn’t even start with that, and that a bunch of so many brilliant people should have been able to reach at least some new level of clarity on some points. I tend to see it more mildly, though: Obviously we have not come as far in the necessary collective thought process as we imagined. Obviously it is still early days, and we still need exclusive meetings of the Initiated in a Gentlemen’s Club (which will hopefully become more gender-neutral in the future).
Personally I enjoyed this Summit a lot, having had many inspiring talks with very interesting people. But I also think that this is no reason to be saturated. We should, and could, do better. And I don’t even think the problem is “variable velocities of clients and practitioners / evangelists”, like Lee sugeested. We ‘evangelists’ are not that far ahead. We just have to wrap our thoughts around the complexity of everyday use cases much more than we did yet.
“Do not change organisations, let’s hack behaviours.” This was Luis Suarez’ major key learning he took away from the workshop. A good slogan, not least because “Enterprise 2.0″-discussions are much too often led from the (imaginary!) green table of Big Management. In fact the real processes we deal with also in large enterprises have much more resemblance to the flexible and dynamic structures in small enterprises. Small is beautiful, as Lee said:
“That is why we [Headshift] are happy to spend a lot of time in the trenches, digging away alongside people who are trying to change their companies from the inside, encouraged by the many small ways in which we can demonstrate progress towards the goal of socially calibrated organisations. A bit like Wikipedia or Twitter, the most interesting ideas and phenomena will be those that arise from practice.”
Exactly this is the reason why I have been a fan of Headshift for a long time now. Livio and Lee cover the inconvenient perspective of the trenches as well as the high-level debates. We need both. The bad thing is to get lost in the middle-muddle in between. Headshift is the only European firm I know of that is really professionally working at “Behaviour Hacking” (#) over a long time, on a high level. If their partnership with the Dachis Group now helps to transfer this somewhat subversive approach into an ambitious global scale, I’m really holding my breath.
(Eine etwas abweichende deutsche Version ist bei den Blogpiloten erschienen.)