The Battle for “Social Enterprise”
To call it a David and Goliath story probably isn’t fair. Goliath after all, was a huge, mean brute. And while Salesforce has certainly gotten huge, you’d be hard pressed to describe its CEO, Marc Benioff’s behavior in this struggle as mean or brutish. You see, he and his company had been feverishly transforming their Customer Relationship Management tools to take fuller advantage of the social web. They’d also been working hard to move more fully into the market for enterprise corporate customers. So, perhaps Benioff and crew can be forgiven for a little myopia in trying to merge the words “social” and “enterprise” to create a new meaning that would distinguish themselves in the market.
In steps David, played by Peter Holbrook, the CEO of Social Enterprise UK. The social entrepreneur community was concerned that Salesforce’s use of the term would create confusion around their already well-established usage of “social enterprise.” And so, when Salesforce applied for a trademark on the term in July 2012, Social Enterprise UK formed a coalition called “Not in Our Name.” They carefully aimed their stone, and let fly with an open letter asking that Salesforce cease “to use the term ‘social enterprise’ for private profit.”
Not long afterwards, the title for our Dreamforce panel was discreetly changed from “Social Enterprise for Social Good” to something without any reference to “social enterprise.” I didn’t know the reason at the time, but within a week or so came this public response from Salesforce:
“It was never our intention to create confusion in the social sector which we have supported since our founding. As a result of the feedback we received, salesforce.com has decided to withdraw its efforts to trademark the term ‘social enterprise’ and plans to discontinue its use in our marketing.”
Marc Benioff CEO, salesforce.com
To their credit, how many companies do you know that would make this same call, and so quickly and decisively? I worked with Salesforce for several years in my last job. While legal and PR considerations no doubt played a role in this decision, I can tell you that this company does care about the social sector, and I’m betting that was a real factor here.
A New Front: Define Social Business
As this saga illustrates, there is a struggle going on right now over how we use the term “social” within the context of business. For technologists “social” means people’s social connections – as in social networks and social media, as well as tools for engagement and relationship management. For social entrepreneurs,”social” means “societal” – as in societal impact and societal good.
Right around the same time that Dr. Yunus was working with Dannon to build a proof of concept for his brand of social business (in the form of a joint venture yogurt business in Bangladesh), IBM began organizing itself around the market for social technologies. IBM has a long history of developing knowledge management and collaboration tools, and they began to see social tools like blogs, communities, microblogging, bookmarking, and wikis as a natural extension of this work. A new software category was emerging – some called it “Enterprise 2.0” while others called it enterprise social software. IBM embraced the social framing and began describing this technology revolution as “social business:”
“From marketing and sales to product and service innovation, social is changing the way people connect and the way organizations succeed.”
IBM Social Business website
How Does “Social Business” Impact You?
Technology terms come and go like fashion. In the nineties, it was e-commerce. That technology hasn’t disappeared, of course. It’s just become so ubiquitous that we no longer define companies by their use of it. We don’t call Amazon an e-commerce giant. It’s just a retailer; a huge, online retailer. The same will soon be true for “social business.” To succeed in business, you will be social – in the IBM sense. It’s just that we won’t call you a “social business” as if that were some separate category of business. In order to compete, all businesses – including yours – will be using social tools and strategies. It is the new nature of business.
More importantly though, social technology is particularly important to social entrepreneurship. Dr. Yunus is keenly aware of this importance, even devoting a whole chapter to it in his book:
“The new IT’s unique contribution comes from one fundamental fact: it is creating new relationships among people.”
Muhammad Yunus in Creating a World Without Poverty
Social technologies do create new relationships – and help companies put those relationships to work. Arguably, these tools may even be more important to businesses like yours that care about their impact in the world than they are to regular businesses.
Mission-driven businesses have an edge over regular businesses when it comes to engaging people because they draw upon the power of purpose. This sense that we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves is a powerful intrinsic motivator that almost always outshines the drive for money, prestige and power in building deep and lasting commitment. Combine that with social technologies, and you have an amazing engine for engagement – a ‘platform’ through which people inside and outside the organization can contribute both economic and social value.
Companies that practice stakeholder principles draw on a much broader set of relationships than most normal businesses. They build healthy partnerships not just with customers, distributors and suppliers, but with all of the people with a stake in their work. Relationship management and social technologies will play a particularly critical role in helping firms like yours manage this complexity so that you can maintain the vitality of these relationships over time.
All it takes is a little courage and some good aim.