People speak of creating the social business. What does that phrase mean? Do we sip lattes and play foosball in the break room? How does this magical entity differ from its anti-social brethren? In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores the intent and possibilities that define the social business.

Societies define themselves by the assumptions members hold in terms of what constitutes acceptable norms, practices, and behaviors. Satirists from Euripides to the Marx Brothers have sold books and seats poking fun at our conventional notions of society: high society, in particular.

The latter’s film, A Night at the Opera, ranks as one of the funniest of all time. A “talkie,” we can nevertheless enjoy it without sound because—eighty years after its release, we recognize the settings, dress, and postures that defined refined society. We feel the bite of Groucho’s wit.

We come to the table in jeans and Birkenstocks. We appreciate what dressing for dinner once signified.

The Anti-Social Business

If wearing morning coats and tails at one time telegraphed one’s place in society, what norms, practices, and behaviors define people who live in a social business? Would we know them if we saw them? Would we laugh if the Marx Brothers satirized them?

Today, Ricky Gervasis and his American counterparts in the U.S. help us answer this question in the affirmative through the popularity of their satire of what we might call the “anti-social” business: The Office. The Office serves as the comedic complement to earlier, more tragic forms of perspective on the anti-social business such as The Apartment, which stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. (Add this film to your queue.)

The defining characteristic of the anti-social business: no assumption held by those who hold the reins of power, no matter how absurd or counter-productive, merits exploring or challenging. In the comedic—and more positive—form of satire of the anti-social business, the protagonist experiences a painfully slow series of epiphanies through which they see the light, relative to having their long-held beliefs challenged and ultimately toppled.

In the tragic form, the protagonist actively rebels against challenges to their biases, no matter how well intentioned the instigator. They ultimately slaughter or—fast forward to today—let go of everyone they associate with the source of unwanted change. King Lear meets Kodak. Cordelia and Rochester suffer.

Most people, at some point in their careers, find themselves working in an anti-social business. The experience for most, no matter how comedic to start, turns tragic. The organization fails to prosper. People fail to realize their potential. The rate of attrition accelerates with each passing year. The Digital Age grows increasingly efficient at disrupting, dislodging, and disintegrating anti-social business, however.

Lively Enquiry before Prosperity

Realizing the “social” business serves as the rallying cry for those who would prefer that their organization not go gentle into that good night of financial and existential oblivion by running afoul of the norms, practices, and behaviors that the Digital Age brings.

The critical question becomes: By what means do I gain the cache that signals I am worthy—a natural—to enter the realm of the social business? The writer Edith Wharton spent the larger part of her career observing how the newly wealthy entered—or failed to enter—high society during the Gilded Age. She drew fine distinctions between the outer trappings and the sense of sensitive refinement that defined class versus the ersatz alternatives available to those with funds to acquire the latter.

What of our time, the Digital Age? What characterizes the essence of “social,” relative to the modern-day equivalent of putting on the Whartonian façade of taking Central Park carriage rides on Sundays to be seen by the right people?

The social business enjoys two essential characteristics: a spirit of lively enquiry and an inherent belief in the transformative power of the gifts that people can bring to the table. The Office, for example, works largely in the realm of comedy and not tragedy because, while the boss has no real sense of the former, he can be endearingly wedded to the ideal of the latter. He can realize, in rare moments, authentic transformation.

Some equate social business with social media. Is our web site “user friendly”? Do we have a presence on Facebook? Have we been liked enough? This emphasis is as misguided as the rube from Ohio, newly wealthy from the profits of his tanning factory, who attempts to buy his way into the Gilded Age by paying too much for a coach-and-four.

Rather, the Digital Age has a way of revealing clearly and publicly the foibles of the anti-social business that attempts to assume the trappings, but not the essence, of the social business. The web page is not navigable because the anti-social business enjoys no real spirit of enquiry that would permit it to engage deeply with its customers in a way that would inform its decisions about what would make for a user-friendly design. The anti-social business is seen as saying very little at all—little of import, certainly—as it values little what its people bring to the table and, thus, they remain largely silent. They feel compelled to observe that whatever views they do express “do not express the views of their employer.” Sad.

For the anti-social business engagement with the world remains firmly on the basis of the one-to-many broadcast model: the press release and the 30-second ad. Disruption in the Digital Age follows because one-to-many calcifies behavior and practice that turns the anti-social business into a commodity business and, finally, into an irrelevant business.

Parting Thoughts

I have written at length on the practice of collaborative innovation. Pursuing the practice allows the social business to perfect its form. Yes, the Digital Age has brought with it many tools and technologies that have made the practice easier to pursue. Yet, the essence of the practice that gives social business its character has resided with us for a long, long time. They include a spirit of enquiry and a belief that the gifts that the people associated with the enterprise matter (figure 1).

All else—from web enablement to cloud-based gamification—serves as a means to an end, only. For the Marx Brothers, all else, too, serves as rich, satirical fodder that brings a smile to the face and joy to the soul.

Figure 1: contrasting the essence of the anti-social and social business

Click to enlarge

By Doug Collins

About the author:

Doug Collins is an Innovation Architect who has specialized in the fuzzy front end of innovation for over 15 years. He has served a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. As an author, Doug explores the critical questions relating to innovation in his book Innovation Architecture, Practical Approaches to Theory, Collaboration and Implementation. The book offers a blueprint for collaborative innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management.