This blog is the first from a new contributor, Keith Holdt, Head of Global Sales at Swiss Post Solutions. Keith is a world leading expert on the digital revolution, and how digital data will transform the world of work. We’re thrilled to have him contributing on this blog.

Right now we’re in the middle of the Social Revolution, or as I like to call it ‘The Conversation Revolution’. The revolution taking place in the way we conduct our conversations, and interact with one another, online, through social media, is changing the world we live in, and the business world we work in. I want to highlight some of the things you need to thinking about related to this, and that will be critical to you if your business is to remain relevant in time to come!

Increasingly, and particularly over the last decade, one of the biggest global trends impacting our lives today has been the opening up of an increasing number of other ‘conversation’ social channels, such a Blogging, Instant Messaging, Texting, and one in particular that is now such a part of our daily lives most of us would probably struggle to live without it: social Media such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.

At the same time, two other massively accelerating trends and developments have literally caused the number of conversations we have each day to explode: the rise of ‘Smart Devices’, devices that are no longer simply just phones, but have access to the internet, our email, and the like. And, secondly, the spread of wireless connectivity, thereby enabling most if not all of us to be able to access the internet, and have multiple conversations, with many different people, around the world, all at the same time, from these self-same ‘smart-devices’. Just think:

  • 5.6Bn mobile phones in use (world population 7Bn);
  • Over 1m mobile phones are sold each day, 85% to emerging markets such as Africa, that’s 365m phones a year, mostly smart enabled!
  • There are 750m people on Facebook, with over 250m of them accessing via their smart phones/devices. That’s nearly a 1/7th of the world’s population.
  • 30Bn pieces of content shared on Facebook every month.
  • In January 2009 there were 2m tweets per day on Twitter, in June 2011 200m tweets per day, 73bn per year! Each of these is effectively a conversation!

This rise in the number of conversations going on each day has major implications for us at both a personal level and even more importantly at a business level. It has dramatically changed the way information flows and how knowledge is shared and processed, and I personally believe that businesses that do not take these changes absolutely seriously, will not be around in years to come as they find themselves further and further removed from both their customers and the employees that work for them.

While we could discuss many of the implications of this, such as the acceleration of business acidity/processes, big data, change in culture from privacy to openness; I want to briefly highlight just one area that I believe we all need to take seriously, that is the impact of the social revolution on business itself!

A lot has already been said about the increasing power of consumers as a result of this social revolution, so I’m not going to go into this more right now, except to say there has been a dramatic shift in power between companies and their customers and regardless of whether it is market research, sales or customer service, businesses who do not take this shift in power seriously will increasingly be left behind.

I do however believe that not enough businesses are yet acknowledging the big ways the social revolution is starting to have an effect on the internal mechanics of businesses and how they operate. It is not only important that companies do better and having ‘conversations’ with their customers, it is equally as important to understand how to use this to their benefit internally, through the way it engages with its workforce and transforms working practices to more closely align to this increasingly collaborative way of working.

As more people become increasingly comfortable sharing with each other online socially, so they are bringing this way of thinking to the workplace, and organisations are beginning to find that the traditional working practices and process-orientated approaches are simply no longer helpful to optimal working. Gartner: 95% of business activity can’t be modelled using tradition business processes.

However many companies do not make it easy to collaborate in this way. A comment from an EIU survey: “The way that people, especially the youth, work and interact online in their home lives ‘runs up against the 20th century workplace.’ We stick them in a cubicle and we supervise them, and then we take away their tools.”

Many of today’s businesses are lagging behind, and still harbour outmoded command and control practices with no understanding of how to engage with their employees in the way they are increasingly accustomed too.

A 2010 survey for the computer security firm McAfee of 1,000 companies in 17 countries found that about half banned such sites. One firm that does is Goldman Sachs, even though it has invested $450 million in Facebook.

A blanket prohibition is a self-inflicted wound. In practice it just displaces behaviour, increasing inefficiency: those who find social networking tools an essential part of how they work may simply buy their own mobile devices for use while at the office or use less efficient networking technologies such as email. It also sends a negative message. Banning social tools simply says to those of our people who actively use them “we don’t understand your way of working,” and do not value it. This has a particular effect on younger employees, many of whom know no other style, but increasingly it will have an effect across all age ranges. Such a ban is also ultimately unsustainable.

Companies need to adjust to the practicalities of the different work styles these trends bring. I know of an example of a law firm where the partners complained that “their new intake of lawyers were reducing billable hours, not because they were slackers but because they got information more quickly, and finished the work faster, using IM, texting and other tools. True collaboration! Businesses need to accept the value of giving individuals the scope to create or tap into their personal, ad hoc information networks, and recognise the extent to which this brings value to them as a business.

Businesses need to start thinking about how to build their businesses around collaborative networks, both internally and externally. Early adopters of this are pioneering approaches to looking at business not from a process perspective, but from the perspective that it operates around ‘pools of information’, and that what we need to do to free up flexibility and efficiency. The trick is not to force this information into rigid workflows, but to make it available to those people/capabilities/functions that require it. This is essentially a way of looking at the business and instead of defining it in terms of its processes, rather asking the question “what information does it need to function effectively, who needs access to this information, and how do we create an pool where this can be accessed and value created in a collaborative way.

Internal social tools such as Yammer, a company-specific ‘Twitter’ tool are increasingly being adopted by large, multi-national, blue-chip organisations, with a view to encouraging collaboration, knowledge-sharing and communication in a manner more aligned to way people are thinking today. This has had a massively positive response amongst employees, and I believe that tools such as this go one step further, they help to establish a ‘virtual community’ amongst the employees, in a manner that is similar to the many other communities they participate in socially, This then helps them to identify and feel a greater ‘sense of belonging’ to their employer!

McKinsey research indicates that there is big payday for companies using these approaches intensively to connect the internal efforts of employees and to extend the organization’s reach to customers, partners, and suppliers. This significantly improves their reported performance, they are more likely to be market leaders , gain market share and also use management practices that lead to margins higher than those of companies using the Web in more limited ways.

People have always been united by the communities they exist and co-exist within and the conversations they have with each other within these communities, and the new virtual ‘social’ world is no different. I have a 15 year old son Christopher, who plays online games with personal friends around the world, some in the USA, others across the UK, a few elsewhere. While playing, they are all in conference over skype, talking tactics, discussing strategy, having an ongoing conversation. To them it is no different from when I was their age playing soccer with my friends. Their conversations and social interactions are the same, and they can even see each other via video. He is the example of the person that is already coming into the work-force and changing the nature of our thinking and impacting the way we do our business.

Businesses need to transform themselves to both take advantage of and to survive the massive impact these changes to have we socialise and engage with each other. There is a need for business to be more flexible, more collaborative, and more embracing of this ‘conversational’ world we live in!

If we as businesses want to remain relevant to our customers, and want to enable our employees to perform at their best, then it is more important than ever that we begin recognise that unless our businesses evolve and adapt to the way our customers, employees, and indeed ourselves as individuals are thinking, working, and collaborating in this increasingly ‘conversational’ world we live in, then it is very likely that you will not be around for long enough to see the next big revolution that changes the world we live in!

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