Social Business Design

Larry Irons · September 28, 2009 · Short URL:

The Fallacy of Open/Closed Culture

Think about a closed business culture. Try to visualize what it looks like. What do you see? Does it look something like a pyramid?

Now, think about an open business culture. Try to visualize it. What image comes to mind? Does it look something like a spider web turned on its side?

These two imaginings pose similar relationships between their parts. A three dimensional pyramid flattened out is about the same shape as a spider web. It is a matter of perspective as to whether one is more open or closed than the other. When connections are made across, rather than only between, the existing nodes in a network we can start to visualize informal relationships in a way that adds value to discussions of culture. It sounds simple, at least initially.

So, how do these observations relate to culture and social business design?

Listening and Acting in Relation to Business Culture

The importance of culture to business organization is a topic touched on by numerous disciplines, and design professionals, from varying points of view in recent years and, truthfully, for many decades. The topic was recently discussed by David Armano of the Dachis Group.  David, basically, indicates that it takes a certain kind of organization, one with an open culture, to engage in purposive innovations, or transformation, of its products through social business practices like listening to customers. 

Even though I agree with David's point, it is worth noting that any corporation, however open its business culture, most of the time is also "a coalition of partially conflicting interests" (as Christoph Loch noted in Brenda Laurel's "Design Research"). Indeed, as I noted in an earlier post.

A key challenge is figuring out how to shape the connections within the enterprise, and with consumers/customers, to support the relationships needed to influence the flow of learning in directions that create strategic value.

David lists a series of questions that any organization needs to answer before embarking on efforts to develop social business strategy. Specifically, he says,

Employees approach work with a social mindset; customers expect dialogue and engagement; suppliers anticipate collaboration towards common goals. This "hivemindedness" (think of bees to a hive) is linked to a strong cultural identity which is shared by all. Whether your social initiatives are internal or external, it's worth asking the following questions to determine if your organization is in the correct mindset when it comes to dealing with the changes in work, society and technology.

If we are listening, what are we listening for?
What do we do when we hear something we don't like?
Do we want real connections established between employees, customers, partners?
How can we reward those in our ecosystem who actively contribute?
Do we actually want to engage those who want to engage us? Can we?

The first two questions are really tactical in nature.  Deciding to listen, and what to listen for, as well as responding to negative voices, are rather straightforward but purposive decisions on whether, and when, to respond defensively or to initiate change in products and services. The organizational challenges facing social business design, especially when considering business culture, are defined more by the last three strategic questions David poses.

Any social business design project needs to first look at how to support strategists in their attempt to answer the questions David poses. There are good reasons for thinking that most organizational leaders are unable to answer these key questions, or answer them incorrectly.

The whole approach emerging as social business design needs to move past thinking in terms of  the false dichotomy between open/closed when it comes to business culture. Vertical relationships along levels of hierarchy, and horizontal relationships between functional areas, or even between external stakeholders and colleagues, are all important to the culture of social business. All these types of relationships are needed to develop the shared experience underlying effective collaboration around the offerings of a business. How those relationships are used remains the important strategic question. You won't know how to change their shape if you don't know what shape they are already in.

Touchpoints and Culture in Social Business Design

Think about the issue this way. Products, whether tangible or intangible, are increasingly viewed as services by experience designers and customers themselves. Don Norman recently made the point in Interactions Magazine, noting that a product is more than a product. As he observes,

In reality a product is all about the experience. It is about discovery, purchase, anticipation, opening the package, the very first usage. It is also about continued usage, learning, the need for assistance, updating, maintenance, supplies, and eventual renewal in the form of disposal or exchange.

However, when experience designers try to design large multi-channel services involving all the touchpoints customers and other stakeholders experience in the process described by Norman, they run up against the fact that service innovation typically occurs organically, i.e. socially, within each touchpoint, or functional area, of a business rather than by design. In other words, we need to stop thinking that social business design occurs independently of the social relationships already existing in an organization.  Nick Marsh summarizes the dilemma well.

Many agencies that have tried to deliver on big multi-channel mega service design projects...have realised that the challenge is not so much creating the unified vision of a service, but is in figuring out how to help everyone in the organisation to think of themselves as the designer of the organisation's service working towards that vision.

Even though I think Nick is on target in his assessment of the dilemma, assuming that everyone in the organization must be involved in co-design is, in my opinion, an exaggeration based in the open/closed culture fallacy mentioned above. As obvious as the point sounds, I'd suggest that open business cultures can fail in implementing social business design projects just like closed business cultures. Both can fail for very different reasons. The discussion needs to get past the dichotomy.

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