Bee Coming a Social Business

Prof. Jürgen Tautz knows a thing or two about bees. A member of 
the German bee Institute, the International Union for the Study of Social Insects, and founder/head of Würzburg Bee Research Association, he’s a master of understanding our little fuzzy, buzzy friend.

In his acclaimed book “The Buzz about Bees”, Tautz describes how an individual bee has a million cerebral nerve cells. When combined, an entire colony has over 100 billion. Impressive. Especially considering a human has approximately 200 million cells, therefore making a bee colony about half as smart as one of us!

Although together, a hive of bees can produce a golden stack of honey, not one bee would have a clue how to do it alone. No bee understands the whole process. Businesses aren’t that different from bees. In its most basic form, a company is a group of individuals working towards a common goal. We each have a job to play and only together can we achieve success. No one individual can accomplish everything. The intelligence of the organisation doesn’t lie with one person, or even an average between a group of people; it’s based on who is connected to who. If your executive team isn’t connected to your shop floor, then the whole thing breaks.

Today’s leading organisations understand that harnessing the power of a collective community (be it employees, fans or customers) allows them to create a significant competitive advantage – the advantage of becoming a “Social Business”.

Much as Social Media has allowed smart-minded firms to engage with their target audience, for me it’s only part of the mix in becoming a “Social Business”. Being Social isn’t just about Social Media Marketing, it’s about a true culture shift. Being a Social Business means letting social be part of everything you do.

Take Innocentive – the open innovation and crowdsourcing pioneer. These guys are all about connecting organisations with research problems, to researchers wanting to solve challenging problems. They refer to themselves as “the world’s largest problem solving marketplace”. Companies looking for help are called “Seekers” and research scientists are called “Solvers”. They understand the power of many, is much greater than the power of one.

Threadless is another example of how becoming Social can help you change the game. This innovative t-shirt producer set out to make Social their core practice. They understood that customers wanted to “feel” part of the brand, so instead of making t-shirts that just they liked, they invited their customer to actively participate in the creation process, therefore harnessing the power of the community. Every month customers are invited to submit designs via the Threadless website, and then the entire community votes on their favourite. The top ten designs are made into actual t-shirts, and Threadless awards each of the 10 designers a cash prize of $2,500. Threadless wins not only because it already knows in advance the winning t-shirts will sell, but it builds a strong social engagement around their entire process.

And it’s not just the lean start-ups that know the difference becoming a “Social Business” can make. SAP, one of the world’s largest software giants built a whole community around its software, actively inviting customers to spot problems, suggest improvements and serve as a helpdesk for others.

Even more impressive, is corporate powerhouse GE; they understood the collective power of a community long before “Social” was even born. In the late 80’s, one of CEO Jack Welch’s most serious challenges was “unleashing the brains and energy of GE employees”. It stemmed from his desire to get the maximum productivity from his workforce. It took Welch some time before he realised that all the downsizing and restructuring that he had put GE through had taken a toll on the employees who remained. They were unsettled and in need of some nurturing from above.

Welch concluded that his employees needed to be empowered; he understood that he had to provide new motivation to employees to work harder. The secret was giving workers a feeling that they were “owners” of the business, not simply forgotten cogs in a faceless machine. He wanted them to feel part of the overall “community” – that their feelings, thoughts and ideas counted – Welch wanted a way to harness these for the greater good of the corporation.

The solution? A company-wide program called “Work Out.” It was an effort that aimed at capturing whatever good ideas employees had for improving the company’s operations and implementing those ideas – something that was a little more engaging than a suggestion box!

Over the next few years, every GE employee attended a Work Out session, where he or she was encouraged to propose ways to improve GE’s operations. The program worked wonders. It got GE employees involved in the company’s problems and challenges, harnessing the collective power of the organisation.

Whilst innovative for the late 80’s, and no-doubt something which played a key role in GE’s phenomenal success over the past decade, the program could certainly be enhanced using the huge variety software and Internet connectivity choices we have today.

One challenge is the reliance on bringing people together physically. Whilst this is great for building rapport, collective innovation and ideas can easily be harnessed today regardless of geographical boundaries.

Whilst e-mail allows instant electronic dialogue, most of us would agree its particularly bad at allowing a conversation to flow, not to mention serving as a central reference point for collective discussion. Information ends up dispersed in individual inboxes, making it hard for someone to join the discussion at a later stage. It’s just too personal.

Technology giant IBM has an answer. As one of the pioneers in helping companies move towards becoming a “Social Business”, and a true social business themselves (25,000 IBM employees on Twitter, 300,000 IBM employees on Linkedin and over 29,000 internal communities – read more here they have developed a set of impressive offerings to help forward-thinking companies harness the power of social.

One such tool, IBM Connections is being rapidly adopted by companies who want to encourage collective innovation. Coined as a “collaborative social networking platform for business”, Connections allows employees to share status updates, collaborate on wikis, blogs and activity, & share files. Impressively, IBM themselves certainly believe in what they are selling; at last count they had 400,000 employee profiles on their own in-house installation.

Not reliant on geographical boundaries, nor riddled with the inflexibility of corporate email, Connections allows you to find the right person, at the right time, to help with that pressing issue – a common problem for the corporation of today – i.e. unless I know who to turn to, I can’t turn to them. Connections is a platform to harness the collective power of the community.

But before you rush out and place your order, Connections only forms part of the puzzle. Becoming a social business isn’t just about the platform, Twitter or Facebook. Sure, these are important, but to become a true social business, you have to shift how you do business. Aligning your internal culture to mirror our friend the humble bee – i.e. breaking down organisational barriers and harnessing the power of many, whilst deeply collaborating with your customers – now that’s a social business.