In this video, Andrew Walker and I speak about the 'decentralization' effect modern technology has on business culture.


Sometimes you need to step back a bit to get perspective. That's what this post is doing.

Let's ditch the term 'social media' and let's replace it with 'social computing'. That's a more accurate description of what we mean by social media and establishes the first unshakable value proposition of the phenomenon, i.e. it's computing and nobody, no matter how skeptical, can argue computing isn't integral to businesses the world over.

Secondly, let's qualify what we mean by 'social'. Skeptics argue social media is dominated by teen pop idols like Justin Bieber, holiday snaps, talking about what we're having for lunch, chat for chat's sake and consuming content as a leisure activity.

This, the skeptics conclude, means social computing for business is not applicable for anything other than consumer brands. That notion is so deeply flawed that, to quote physicist Wolfgang Pauli, "'s not even wrong."

Everything in the era of networked computing is data. Any file is data. Text is data. Messages are data. If we're talking about a system where people "like" a pop star or "tag" their buddies in their holiday snaps, what we're really discussing is data capture and data processing on a multilateral, distributed network model.

That's what businesses need. Anything comprised of data that can be shared and processed by people in a society using computers is social computing. In the era of digital communications, that includes everything from Facebook to email, mobile phone calls and accessing documents on a the office intranet. There isn't a professional in the world who doesn't rely on some form of social computing to facilitate pretty much everything from communications to transactions. That's a fact of modern life.

So why the skepticism? It's got nothing to do with technology, it's a cultural issue. It's the issue of decentralizing business processes.

There's fear around the boardroom table of a workforce that can share, process and manipulate data directly using mobile devices and social networks. Many senior people in business have seemingly justifiable concerns about working remotely and communicating in real time.

It means letting the staff bypass the 'comms' team and talk directly to the world without supervision. It means the legal compliance team can't sign off on everything before it leaves the safety of the office.

It obligates companies to ensure their staff are trained and responsible enough to be left to their own devices without breaking the law or inadvertently committing PR suicide on behalf of the company. But is that really a problem? I mean, really?

In the financial services world less than a fraction of a fractional percentage point of staff break the rules, but nearly the entire workforce is banned from using social computing, denying the company the obvious benefits of a workforce that can work faster and harder in real time.

Why are we missing out on an obvious boost to profitability and source of business innovation? Because the centralized institutional processes that govern modern corporations mostly grew from an era when people feared finding 'Reds under the beds' and thought smoking cigarettes enhanced your sexual desirability and social status.

Here's a simple analogy from that same era. Back then you couldn't call business people directly. You had to phone a receptionist on a main number, who would then route your call via an internal extension line to an individual's desktop telephone handset.

Today, everyone has a direct line that enables efficient multilateral phone communications between business people. This is made possible by digital phone networks, because telephone numbers are no-longer mechanically connected to physical wires and making call connections doesn't require human intervention. That's a decentralization effect of digital technology making phones more efficient as business tools.

Social computing decentralizes business processes in exactly the same way. Faster, direct communications and data processing via shared networks and mobile devices is the modern equivalent of replacing the old company telephonist with direct lines and replacing handwritten telephone messages with voicemail. It offers reduced costs, increased profitability and creates a more efficient workforce.

It means making some changes to company culture, but then again, so did offering crèche facilities and banning smoking at your desk. I don't hear anyone moaning about that these days, but lets not forget at the time plenty of respected, intelligent, senior business people were skeptical about those kinds of cultural changes too.

Decentralizing business processes from the ground up is, in the Facebook era, mainly a cultural issue rather than a technological one. That makes cultural inertia is the enemy of business innovation, not Justin Bieber, my lunch or my holiday pictures.

That’s my perspective.