Social business: an old-fashioned idea

Social business might be a phrase that’s been coined in recent times but, to my mind, it’s an old-fashioned idea.

Back before telecommunications, technology and pervasive transportation (for both goods and people) every business was a local business. It’s customers, employees and suppliers all came from the local community. By its very nature, therefore, it was also a social business. The business owner would know all his customers by name, he’d know their friends and families and, by default, they’d also know his. Employees, customers and suppliers would meet in the local pub and around the dinner table. The business couldn’t helo but operate in an open and transparent way.

As the ability to service consumers remotely grew nationally and internationally and as businesses became more remote from their customers, organisations became less social (and in some cases positively anti-social). Suppliers were working with factories thousands of miles from the retailers, with the corporate HQ hidden away somewhere else.

But social technologies allow customers to talk to each other wherever they may be and whatever their views; they allow employees to air their grievances with the company or their passion for their jobs; they allow unethical or environmentally-damaging production to be highlighted and socially-beneficial activities to be seen around the globe. Every business is a local business, it just happens that ‘local’ now means the entire planet.

2 thoughts on “Social business: an old-fashioned idea

  1. Hi Mark, I noticed your comment on Confused of Calcutta and noted our common ground. I started the Linkedin group on Social Business and For Benefit Corporation in 2008 just after Bill Gates spoke up about Creative Capitalism.

    Terms like social enterprise and social business have been obfuscated by the many interpretatons that have been made over the years.

    My colleague who has since died, made this observation at the same time in 2008 illustrating that social enterprise goes beyond the social media engagement: :

    “The corporations involved in this almost fantastical deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure that we now rely on profited for themselves and their shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic benefit around the world. Those efforts were and are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization itself. That is the Information Revolution, and it is nothing short of astonishing.

    So it is safe to say that all these players in the Information Revolution — the enterprises that created it — have engendered almost immeasurable social benefit by way of connecting people of the world together and giving us opportunity to communicate with each other, begin to understand each other, and if we want, try to help each other.

    It is that last phrase — “try to help each other” — which is what the phrase “social enterprise” is getting at. As Bill Gates said in 2000, “poor people don’t need computers.” and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That statement served to mark the clear distinction between what traditional capitalism did and did not do. Gates’ aim at that time was to profit from people who could afford his company’s products, while those who couldn’t were largely or completely ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless, those excluded are just left out.

    The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.”

  2. Pingback: Social business DNA | Once more, with meaning

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