Gartner predicts that four of five large enterprises that pursue social innovation with their employees and the world at large will, over the next couple years, fail in their endeavors. Ouch. Meatloaf gave better odds. In this article innovation architect Doug Collins explores how you might increase the odds of gaining a coveted membership to the twenty percent club.

The Procter & Gamble Company has enjoyed many notable firsts. They discovered in a proper eureka moment the first manufactured soap that floats, for example: handy for bathers; not so handy for those of us who shower.

The P&G first that captured my attention at an early age was their perfection of the authoritative testimonial. Specifically, the company argued that we should brush our teeth with Crest toothpaste because “4 out of 5 dentists recommend” that brand.

The question that comes unbidden to mind whenever I hear this phrase is, “What about the fifth dentist?”

Did the fifth man harbor deep reservations about Crest which the company’s omnipotent department of public relations suppressed? Or, was the fifth man a bearded iconoclast, drilling and filling in the hinterlands, who counseled his patients to brush with clean river sand applied lightly with toothbrushes fashioned from the greener branches of the yew tree? The latter scenario appeals to me—particularly the beard. We may never learn the truth.

Four Out of Five Enterprises Anticipate Failure?

The Crest testimonial comes to mind as I read news of a report by the intellectuals at Gartner. Gartner predicts that, come 2015, “80% of social business efforts will not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology.” Gartner estimates that by 2015 about half of large enterprises will have installed some form of internal “Facebook-like” social network.

Did four out of five enterprises surveyed predict failure for themselves? Or, did Gartner deduce the outcome by applying a predictive model? I do not know. I suspect the latter. People tend not to report expectations of failure.

And, what of the fifth enterprise—Gartner’s mirror equivalent of P&G’s iconoclastic dentist? What bolsters their confidence? Do they enjoy more authentic leadership? More fluoridation?

In this article I share with you insights on this topic which may help you to predict whether your enterprise will join the 80% or the 20%.

IT or GBU?

Every enterprise supports the equivalent of an organizational interface, or API: a way to connect and relate to the world at large. Enterprises may, for example, have a supply chain group that engages vendors. Enterprises may have a marketing group that engages consumers and clients. They may have a legal group to engage disgruntled vendors, consumers, and clients.

In my experience, the success of a social business endeavor depends in part on which group within the enterprise leads the engagement with the provider of the social business capability. Specifically, if the information technology (IT) group serves as the primary interface, then the likelihood of success decreases. If a business unit or function—a brand, product development, marketing, or sales, for example—serves as the primary interface, then the likelihood of success increases.

Why? Intent. Purpose. The IT group has the charter to serve as the organization’s API in terms of seeking and bringing in house new technologies that may benefit the enterprise. Their focus tends to be on the discrete features and functionality that comprise the new technology. Work with multiple providers leads to a focus on benchmarking discrete capabilities grouped by attributes such as speed, storage, extensibility, and usability.

Technology enables social innovation. To this end, organizations should include the IT group in the conversation. The business leader, however—the person or group who expects to derive business value from the initiative—should lead the enquiry and serve as the organization’s API to the providers of the enabling capabilities.

I have on many occasions witnessed early attempts to introduce social innovation to the organization flounder when the IT group took the lead. While the IT group is accomplished in supporting the external API (e.g., vendor evaluation), they struggle to establish the internal APIs that define business value for their stakeholders.

The IT group observes, “This capability does A, B, and C.” The business leader replies, “What do A, B, and C have to do with improving the customer experience, associated engagement, or firm-level profitability?” Good questions. An inability to answer them explains why many who hold the CIO role enjoy the same tenure as the drummer for Spinal Tap (figure 1).

Figure 1: social business is an expression of business, not technology, leadership

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Bottoms Up, My Lads

The second factor that I observe with clients which I anticipate can predict the success the organization will have with their social business initiative is the extent to how native or organic the initiative goes how quickly. That is, in the early days of an exploration of social business, the organization will often designate a seed or catalyst group to experiment with the practice of collaborative innovation. This approach makes sense. There is a learning curve associated with the practice—a learning curve associated with the practical adoption of the capability (technological adoption) and a learning curve associated with embracing the practice of collaborative innovation in authentic ways. (Innovation Architecture speaks to the latter.)

Longer term success depends in part on how thoughtfully and how quickly the seed group disseminates both the technical capability and the practice knowledge to the early adopters of such approaches who reside in the organization. Make no mistake: as the seed group initiates and exposes the practice to the organization, early adopters will reveal themselves. The practice of collaborative innovation always resonates with a share of the people who experience it for the first time in the enterprise.

For them there is no going back.

Savvy seed groups quickly segue from scaling their own learning curve to serving as coaches and advocates for their peers who express a hunger for embracing the practice. They suppress their command-and-control tendencies, in which all expressions of the practice must be vetted and run through them.

This dynamic makes sense for two reasons. Firstly, the practice of collaborative innovation is inherently democratic. Demos: the people. The crowd. To manage the practice in a way that works against its nature invites failure. Secondly, I find that the seed group often wears itself out from trying to manage the practice centrally. They find themselves the judge, jury, and executioner in deciding, for example, which challenges to pursue, along with having to manage the associated logistics. Taken to the extreme, the seed group becomes a shadow development arm, running afoul of existing organizational power structures (figure 2).

Figure 2: the group chartered with seeding social business focuses on coaching internal practitioners

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Parting Thoughts

The Procter & Gamble Company, to my mind, allowed me to believe that the fifth dentist was a crank. Gartner, by contrast, holds the fifth enterprise high above our heads. What hearty souls amongst us will scale the heights that it has climbed in order to succeed with social innovation?

My own experience in this space tells me to look for two signs—leading indicators—that may help to predict the future of your enterprise in its own journey.

  • Are the business people—and not the technology people—leading your enterprise’s exploration of social innovation?
  • Is the group chartered with seeding social innovation in the enterprise serving as coaches and advocates for those of their fellows who wish to join in the practice?

If, for your enterprise, you can answer “yes” on both counts, then you may find yourself in the 20%. If not, then you may want to put down the yew branch and buy Crest.

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.