Just three or four years ago, when I had just published my “business” book Get Back in the Box, most organizations still thought of the Internet as a distraction from their core competency. They saw interactive media as a marketing opportunity, and little more. At the time, I could only conclude that on some level businesspeople understood that engaging with the Internet in any real way would force an openness for which they were still unprepared. Competency on the American business landscape is down; any form of transparency would just expose the dearth of expertise at the company’s core. Most real processes had already been outsourced to the lowest bidder, so the only way companies had of distinguishing themselves was marketing.
Outsourcing scandals, economic tightening, a long hard war, and a declining currency have forced everyone to reconsider this strategy. Though the shift has been motivated by tough times, I’ve been glad to see so many companies, organizations, and even political campaigns attempting to embrace the “real” Internet and cultures making it up. Instead of just buying banner ads or conducting new forms of computerized market research, many of these players are coming to understand that the Internet is a social phenomenon – not a content revolution – and that it offers the opportunity to connect to a real culture and its most competent members in a real way.
At the same time, most of them either fail to recognize the full impact that an Internet community can have on their ethos and operations, or they do recognize it and fear it. That’s understandable. When the Obama campaign says it’s here to listen and enact the will of its constituency (“we are the change”), they get a constituency prepared to have its will enacted. This is a great thing, but it also presses their hand. When BP announces it wants a conversation with environmentalists about how to get “beyond petroleum” (also a great thing) the green press accuses the company of “greenwashing,” while its shareholders (another constituency) get up in arms. When Apple asks its users to consider themselves part of the Jobs family, all these brothers and sisters get upset when Jobs doesn’t tell them that he’s struggling with a disease. This is not to say that the initial efforts to engage broader constituencies in honest conversation is wrong – it’s quite right. But it demands a level of honesty and breadth of participation foreign to companies used to doing public relations in a traditional and controlled fashion. So most companies either abandon their efforts, or limit them to superficial displays of Internet savvy that they hope will get covered in secondary media.
Going “social” online means more than hiring a company to create a ‘white label’ version of Facebook for your organization to chat with customers, employees, shareholders, and others. It means understanding the real value of creating a “transparent” company; it means understanding why sharing and collaborating beat hiding and competing; it means learning to work with unfamiliar measures of success – like how many new unsolicited resumes from people looking to join you come over the transom, instead of just how many “unnecessary” jobs could be cut.
Becoming a truly interactive company goes deeper and wider than starting up a new server, which is why I’m glad an old friend of mine, Jeff Dachis, is starting up a new company dedicated to helping organizations of all kinds implement an interactive communications infrastructure, and helping them understand just what everyone has to gain. As I’m arguing in the book I’m currently working on, organizations have for too long looked to generate value by extracting energy and resources from the periphery. And this bias has been supported by an economic model and currency system based in scarcity.
Embracing the social means embracing the abundant – and emphasizing instead the way an organization might actually help people on the periphery generate value for themselves. Google AdSense, eBay, Paypal and Amazon associates are just the first primitive nudges in that direction – conducted by almost completely ‘virtual’ companies who still have little understanding of the cultural forces they’re playing with. Once traditional, non-internet companies begin to realize they’ve been social enterprises all along, things will start to get truly interesting.
Jeff told me that his approach to social networking that he hopes to spread was inspired – at least in part – by some of what I wrote in Get Back in the Box. And he asked if I’d like the chance to help him put some of those ideas into practice. Like raising my child using the principles I outlined in Playing the Future, it’s something of a challenge: to put my theories into practice with living people instead of just pondering them in the ultimately safe realm of non-fiction writing.
So I’m taking him up on the challenge, and going to start engaging with some of the organizations he gets to the table. This should be an interesting opportunity to effect some change – or at the very least learn more about what prevents it. I’ll keep you posted on what transpires.