The really big idea of social business

by eskokilpi

It is often said that the transformation to becoming a social business means facilitating activities such as transparent action and cooperation instead of the competitive individualism we are so used to.

Management buy-ins are also seen as a challenge that needs to be tackled. But can it be that the real challenge is not the return of investment of the new tools or learning new ways of doing things, but acknowledging that there is a need for rethinking what management is and refreshing the theories it is built on.

The way business thinking sees the self and its relationships is based on Cartesian philosophy; I think, therefore I am. Everything in management and thus also in mainstream social business takes place from the first-person point of view.

This Cartesian isolation was strengthened in Newton’s physics, where matter and also people, were seen metaphorically as billiard balls, bumping against one another every now and then. Billiard balls don’t really meet. They don’t get inside each other and alter each other’s internal qualities. During a collision they may undergo a change of position or direction, but they remain essentially the same. This is why psychology and sociology were separate disciplines. This also explains why human capital and social capital are seen as two separate things.

The Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm of isolated individuals having external relations underlies the mainstream thinking about what is going on in Twitter, Facebook and social media in general.

The often-asked question is what causes things to happen. When we seek for causal explanations, we begin to split the world into independent entities. There are causes on the one hand and effects on the other. Thus when we try to understand a person’s actions or try to understand what is happening, we search for an independent set of conditions that bring these about. This is why we search for the good managers and blame the bad ones. The manager is the independent cause – and deserves to be paid accordingly. The rest of us are the effects.

In attempting to understand the big idea of  social business, let us replace the metaphor of billiard balls by the metaphor of baking as Kenneth Gergen suggests. It is then about the combination of ingredients and how the ingredients co-create the end result. With the right combination you get delicious food. The elements don’t independently cause the end result to be a success. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. In the same way, a rude remark does not start a fight. The argument starts as a combination of an offensive remark and a coarse response

The really big idea of social business is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings relationships into the centre. The task is to see action within relationships. It is about interdependence instead of independence.

Every human relationship serves as a model for what is possible. As we observe others we incorporate their actions into our own repertoire. Learning is the fundamental process of socialization. Within any relationship we are also in the process of becoming. We come to play a certain role, a certain identity. With my deceased father, I came to being as a child. This happened even when I was a grown up. With my son, I come to being as a father. Each relationship will bring me into being as a certain kind of person creating a huge repository of potentials. What social technologies are making possible is a much, much richer repertoire than what we were used to in a traditional firm.

Amyarta Sen has written that wealth should not be measured by what we have but what we can do. As we engage in new relationships we are creating new potentials for action. There is still the little boy in me but also much, much more, not least because social media are part of my life.


Thank you Kenneth Gergen for great conversations! This is based on my notes from our meetings. Thank you also Stu Kauffman and Doug Griffin