Social Business and Open Empathy Organization

Larry Irons · May 20, 2009 · Short URL:

Revisiting the Golden Rule

 I first took real notice of the term "social business" in a post early this year over at Peter Kim's blog. The concept of social business is not limited to those enterprises seeking to "generate social improvements and serve a broader human development purpose," though these are certainly admirable goals. Rather, social business is increasingly discussed as a frame of analysis for considering the business implications of large numbers of people using web 2.0 technologies, especially social media, within corporate enterprises as employees, or outside them as customers.

Channels, policies, processes, touch points and transactions are increasingly viewed as parts of the social experience organizations use to engage employees in collaboration, and customers in conversation. The common goal of the discussion involves transforming business practices to incorporate social relationships into the value proposition to customers and other stakeholders. My recent reading of Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik (with Peter Mortensen) provided some basic insights for me in thinking about the development of social business practices. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the intersection of experience design and organization. The book explores the concept of empathy in a manner that speaks to the social business discussion by pointing out that the result of a transformation is more than adoption of new technologies such as social media. Wired to Care offers an approach to organizing business as well as creating design insights on how to engage customers to improve products and services. One of my earliest posts on Skilful Minds, Break the Golden Rule with Customer Dialogue Support, offered the following observation,

Many “customer care” approaches call for treating customers the way you’d like to be treated—the so-called Golden Rule. Treating customers the way we, as service providers want to be treated implies that we inherently know what’s best for them. A customer dialogue approach alternatively assumes that customers know, or can quickly learn, what’s best for them as individual customers. We need to treat customers the way their actions indicate they want, not the way we would want to be treated as a customer.
Reading Wired to Care persuaded me that my previous point only moved the discussion a part of the way to an understanding of the nuances of the Golden Rule for business. Wired to Care offers an interesting point of view on the limitations inherent in the traditional understanding of the Golden Rule, while contending that a full appreciation of it reveals truths about us as individuals, and our relationship to organizations, whether as employees or customers. It outlines three levels of the Golden Rule:
  1. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- the most basic level with limited efficacy unless people share the same view of the world
  2. "Do unto others as they would have done to them" -- requires increased empathy to distinguish the wants and needs of individuals
  3. "Do unto each other as we would have done unto us" -- provides for empathy by focusing on "how we'd all like to be treated, inside the company and out," yet also recognizes that good business practice might additionally require treating people "better than they expect to be treated"

Dev contends that the third level of the Golden Rule provides a basis for integrating empathy into the everyday practices of organizations. Though he does not use the term social business, Dev's analysis offers a foundational strategy for implementing social business through the concept of an Open Empathy Organization.


The Human Bases for Empathy

Drawing from research in neuroscience, Wired to Care crafts its title from the developing insight that humans are, to use the title of the book, wired to care--literally. Dev weaves findings from several research studies in the neuroscience literature into a discussion of empathy as a defining trait of the human species. Neuroscientists contend that specific neurons, called mirror neurons, in the pre-motor cortex at the front of the brain provide the basis for us to identify with others who are like us as well as "replicate" what others do in our own heads. Additionally, Dev draws from neuroscience findings on the human limbic system to explain that humans possess a distinct ability to combine emotion with long-term memories, making them prone to develop vivid memories that bolster emotional bonds with others. It is easier for us to do this with people who are similar to us, or with whom we share common experiences. As Dev notes,

The simplest way to have empathy for other people is to be just like them. A sense of affinity can deliver clarity to often difficult and complex situations. It obliterates faulty assumptions and sharpens ambiguous data. With that kind of empathic connection, people inside an organization spend a lot less time arguing about what customers think or what the research is showing -- they just know what to do.

The tacit knowledge involved in just "knowing what to do" increases in difficulty as employees and customers become more culturally diverse and geographically distributed, leading to fragmented markets and siloed organizations. Globalization may flatten markets but it increases such differentiation.


Open Empathy Organization

It should not surprise us then that businesses increasingly recognize the importance of empathic research, usually thought of as ethnography. You don't have to buy into the neuroscience implicit in the title of Wired to Care to understand the importance of companies developing empathy for customers. However, Dev's contention that the Golden Rule is hardwired into each individual as a human being does increase the persuasiveness of his points about the innate value of empathy to business. Regardless, no specific kind of method is required to incorporate empathy into research strategies aimed at understanding customers. Any research method employed with empathy as part of the research design can prove useful. In fact, one of the unique contributions made by Wired to Care involves an insight into the value generated for companies that incorporate empathic strategy into the everyday practices of their business. As Dev observes,

The idea of creating an Open Empathy Organization is to build and propagate a system of human information. It's about every member of an organization having a firsthand sense of what people need, how their company solves those needs, and how what they do as individuals can add or subtract value...Creating an Open Empathy Organization isn't a market research activity. It's an issue of organizational change...Organizations that make empathy an easy, everyday, and experiential part of the way that their employees work are the ones that succeed in making empathy widespread.
Whether it is Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholtz asking, Is Your Company Designed for People?, or IDEO's Tim Brown noting that designers ”tend to take rules and regulations as part of the existing constraints,” a recognition is growing that organizational practices are a necessary topic to consider when doing experience design. Dev adds that,
Most of us are reasonably good at figuring out how to make each other happier, but those instincts can't kick in if we can't see the people we're trying to help. Widespread empathy restores that connection.

He highlights businesses that provide opportunities for employees to experience what their customers experience, whether it involves Target placing a store next to corporate headquarters for employees to shop in with other customers, or Smith & Hawken requiring employees to spend time gardening on a rotating basis. Social media strategists aim to not only listen to customers, but engage them and act on what is learned. In addition, social media strategists contend that such efforts at engaging customers requires authenticity on the part of businesses connecting with their own employees and customers using social media.

My take away from Wired to Care is that the authenticity of such efforts using social media depends on how well companies act to integrate empathic relationships into their organizational practices.


Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.

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