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9 Dec 2011

Once again, social business

George Onisiforou

‘Social business’ is not a new term. It was first introduced by Nobel laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus to describe non-loss, non-dividend businesses focusing on social rather than financial objectives.

However, in recent blogosphere and consulting speak the term has been introduced with a new reference — businesses creating value through social media and social computing interactions.

A whitepaper by technology and consulting giant IBM has been the prominent source of this new spotlight.

IBM’s whitepaper proclaims the advent of a new age for business — the era of social business. For IBM, this new evolution has the same potential for changing business as with the advent of the Internet, admittedly not very long ago.

While IBM’s motives for highlighting such a business model are mainly commercial, its ideas are worth examining.

The whitepaper defines social business as the integration of social computing and social media into enterprise design. This means developing people-centric approaches to work and commercial interactions by encouraging establishment of networks, social and realtime collaboration, mobility and integration.

This new model accepts and embraces the changing social and commercial landscape — the ubiquity of smartphones, personal lifestyles performed increasingly through online means, and the availability of computational power and smart analytics.

A successful social business model assumes that individuals will be willing to collaborate and share useful information, and develop ideas and opportunities for businesses. Such behaviour will require a corporate culture characterised by employee empowerment, trust, transparency, and appetite for innovation.

These characteristics sound ideal and challenging to achieve, but their potential value suggests that the social business model may be worth its investment. Such value may include deeper customer relationships, operational efficiencies, and optimised workforce.

Ironically, this new model overlooks creating value that transcends (though not negates) commercial and technological focus. This is an important aspect of business sustainability. If a business defines its relevance as constrained within the intersection of business and technology (as the new model suggests), it risks becoming peripheral and unwelcomed, or ultimately unsustainable. On the contrary, if a business reaches out to create value for individuals and their social networks (online or offline) it will seal its place as a long-term member of such communities.

In this sense, it is essential to reconcile the new social business model with its predecessor, and acknowledge that business has always existed within a social era.

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