The social business renaissance will not come to you

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My high school sociology teacher described the Renaissance as the greatest explosion of creativity and innovation in human history. You could probably argue for other eras, (turn-of-the century industrial revolution? Late 1990s Internet era?), but roll with me for a moment. In the same lecture, she essentially attributed the Renaissance's boom in political, artistic and technological innovation to the simple fact that a bunch of people who'd never left home before, all met on the road (many in Italy).

Unfortunately, most of them were on their way to the Crusades— a massive tragedy that cost many lives and more suffering. But if there's a silver lining, it was the confluence of people who flowed through Florence— not only giving rise to powerfully wealthy benefactors (e.g. Medici family), but exposing large numbers of people to other's ideas, cultures, beliefs and technologies for the first time.

As I've said before, the winning organizations in a hyper-connected world will be those that create many opportunities for their workforce to interact with "the outside world" at scale (meaning frequently, meaningfully and in ways that are recognized and rewarded).

At large organizations there's a tendency to turn inward when managing sets of relationships. It's a common occurrence: Departmental connections become the strongest/most valuable ties for individuals to cultivate—especially at large organizations or those with very distinct but disconnected internal brands.

This may be because the most directly attributable reward can be associated with your closest network (e.g. demonstrating teamwork, being rewarded within the observable domain of your unit's chief). Or it may be a function of how organizations have instrumented their communications technologies and cultivated organizational culture.

This begs a few questions: What's the potential power of these networks when intersected with external networks? What's the opportunity cost of preventing your organization's internal networks from intersecting with external networks? What might organizations do to achieve interconnectivity pragmatically?

Organizations interested in driving innovation should strive to create policies, platforms and staff positions that promote employee interaction on internal and external networks. For us, this has meant not only creating a massive deployment of a social business platform at IBM, but also instrumenting web services allowing us to easily externalize our experts with programs that encourage and simplify how people take their work and share it with the outside world. 

In the age of digital connectively, there needs to be a systemic shift in how businesses drive innovation and share expertise, by making it part of their infrastructure, culture and expected norms. That's especially important for a B2B company such as IBM. We've done this through programs such as the Forward Thinker Program and IBM Select, which help our subject matter experts become more interconnected and share the great work they've created. 

Our Forward Thinker program literally creates a Web service where IBM communications and marketing teams can easily highlight IBM subject matter experts (SMEs) on our websites, mobile apps etc. (See ForwardThinker service).   IBM Select is a bespoke training and engagement program with hundreds of IBM's top SMEs enrolled, getting personalized training for improving their social footprint internally and externally.

But being a "social business" isn't just about the tools used or how to uncover actionable data; there's a real human element to it. For us, creating roles such as Social Business Managers or Community Managers allow us to take a people-centric approach to social business, dedicating specific resources to uncovering new ways to build intentional systems of engagement that give our employees better ways to convey and ultimately shape the IBM brand.

The organizations that will win in this era of greater data and business transparency will be those that can create a new value exchange between employees and firms. These same firms will give their workforce more opportunities to interact with "the outside world." 

If the renaissance happened because people left home, are your people packed and ready to go?

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