Social Strategies that Maximize Meaning

This is an excerpt of Umair Haque's article, originally posted on his blog at the Harvard Business Review.

Organizations don't need "social media" strategies. They need social strategies: strategies that turn antisocial behavior on its head to maximize meaning. The right end of social tools is to help organizations stop being antisocial. In fact, it's the key to advantage in the 2010s and beyond.

Here are seven social strategies that are turning yesterday's zombieconomy upside down. They're what I look for when evaluating investments, innovations, and ideas across the social mediascape.

Most organizations have no character, in the traditional sense of the word. They'll never stand up for what's right, noble, or true. If they were a hyper-Dickens character, they'd be Ebenezer Scrooge squared. The character strategy utilizes social tools to help an organizations develop a moral compass, often via ethical accelerators. One of my favorite examples is Gwilym Davies' disloyalty card, which rewards coffee-drinkers for trying out other local cafés. Now that's a coffeeshop with character.

Most organizations are run by bosses. By contrast, an organization with a social control strategy radically decentralizes decision-making, giving the control that was formerly vested in echelons upon echelons of managers directly to people, communities, and society. Think Threadless, whose corporate anarchy is upsetting the tired, increasingly profitless clothes market.

Most organizations are, from an economic perspective, brain-dead: they are unable to come up with newer, better ideas consistently and reliably. The result is that they defend old ones tooth and nail: a formidable source of antisocial behavior. The creativity strategy hinges on utilizing social tools to explode how imaginative organizations are. Lego's social approach to toy production and consumption — textbook awesomeness — has turned the table on its rivals, by giving Lego the capacity to be more imaginative than they can be.

Culture is how an organization makes sense of the world, a set of assumptions internalized by all its members. Most organizations are the cultural equivalent of stone age tribes: focused on "the hunt," "the kill," and what's for dinner today. Like stone age tribes, they're fractious, unproductive, and easily broken. In the culture strategy, social tools are used to help an organization make better sense of the world. Accountability, roles, tasks, processes, incentives — that's what shapes culture, and in the culture strategy, social tools are utilized to reconceive them. Wal-Mart's Sustainability Index is a radical example of a culture-changer, altering all of the above, helping Wal-Mart's entire ecosystem make sense of the world anew.

The clarity strategy is perhaps the simplest. Most organizations are flying blind: they have limited visibility about changes in the marketplace. Social tools are a powerful way to gain clarity: better, faster information about what's happening not just in the boardroom, but in the real world. My favorite example of clarity is Google's rapid, frequent, consistent experimentation. Because of it, Google always has more clarity about what really creates meaningful value — and what really doesn't — than rivals. Here's a tiny example of Google helping searchers gain clarity on hotel pricing using Google Maps.

Relationship inflation is the most visible sign of social media decay. The cohesion strategy says: in relationships, seek quality, not quantity. One of my favorite recent examples of cohesion is "Tummling" — the art of social engagement. It's a form of moderation pioneered by Heather Gold, Deb Schultz, and Kevin Marks. The Tummler's job, Kevin says, is "setting the tone and establishing the norm," deciding who speaks where and when, summarizing, and synthesizing. The goal of Tummling is to help dialogue happen — and make relationships not merely inflate, but cohere, thicken, blossom, and mature.

Most organizations seek "high performance." Today, performance is no longer enough: excelling in yesterday's terms is excelling at the wrong things. This is downright self-destructive (just ask Wall Street). Today's radical innovators aren't merely mute performers, precisely executing the empty steps of a meaningless dance: they're more like choreographers. Choreographers define the steps of a better dance — they lay down better rules for interactions between supply and demand to take place. Yelp's getting its choreography wrong, failing to build a better dialogue between buyers and sellers (instead of just isolated, drive-by "reviews"). Etsy's still on the brink of greatness, pioneering highly productive relationships between buyers and sellers. My favorite example is M-Pesa, which lays down a new choreography for finance: from person to person, instead of bank to bank.

Using the social to "build buzz" and "push product" is about as smart as using a warp drive to visit your local Wal-Mart. Social tools today are used mostly as a new "channel" to push the same old useless stuff of the industrial era at hapless "consumers." That's meaninglessness at it's finest. It's the least productive — and most soul-deadening — use of a formidably powerful tool.

Social media strategy fits inside a marketing (business, corporate) strategy, and is shaped by it. Social strategy fits outside business and corporate strategies, and shapes them. Social strategies are about rewriting the logic of the industrial era entirely, shifting gears in how we think, envisioning a broader, more powerful, more challenging use of social tools. They are about developing the capacity to understand an organization's role in society, and how to play a more constructive one, wielding sociality as a source of advantage — by acting radically more meaningfully than rivals.

Social strategies are about reinventing tomorrow. Their goal is nothing less than changing the DNA of an organization, ecosystem, or industry. Want to get radical? Stop applying 20th century principles ("product," "buzz," "loyalty") to 21st century media. The fundamental change of scale and pace that social tools introduce into human affairs — their great tectonic shift — is the promise of more meaningful work, stuff, and organization. Start with "the meaning is the message" instead.

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