Defining social business

What is social business and what does it mean? Is it literally using social media to conduct business, adopting a sharing mentality in an organisation, being a friendly/sociable company or more than that?

social business Rachel Miller @AllthingsICYou’ve probably come across the term because it’s everywhere I look at the moment and am sure you’re experiencing the same. So what is it, how does it work and what does it mean for you?

This is the first of a two-part article to collate definitions and thoughts and guide you through current thinking. There are many definitions around and I’m going to highlight a range of them.

Regular readers will know that I attended #thefuturestory hosted by theblueballoom at the end of April. During the event Andrew Grill, @andrewgrill, CEO of Kred fired a question at me to ask how I define social business.

At the time I answered ‘connected conversations,’ but I wasn’t happy with what I said off the top of my head as I knew it was only half an answer. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic and am going to share my thought process with you and my updated answer in the second article. Do check out Andrew’s blog for his take on social business including his theatre analogy I wrote about in my recent article. 

Attenzi – A Social Business Story
The second of this two-part article will focus on a novel approach by one of my fellow Social Media Panel members Philip Sheldrake @sheldrake. He has written a book called Attenzi – A Social Business Story, which is being released next week.

It is free and available in all popular digital formats. I’ve been lucky enough to read a preview copy and can’t rate it highly enough. I’m going to share my highlights with you and the things that struck me in my second post.

AttenziI like it because it takes you on a journey into what a social business is, in a tangible way, using a fictitious company. Not being an organisation you recognise means you only draw conclusions based on what you’re reading, rather than bringing preconceived ideas and perceptions to the table. This enables the reader to understand and ascertain the nuances to help form your own thinking and see it in action. It’s in an easy-to-read format, and I encourage you to check it out when it’s released on Wednesday 14 May.

It includes a foreword by Microsoft Yammer co-founder Adam Pisoni (@yammeradam). There is a website accompanying the publication, which will be live from Wednesday: (it points to Philip’s website for now) and you can follow news about it on Twitter @attenzi.

What does it say about social business?
I’ll cover this in more detail in my next article, but as a definition it states:

“Social business is about adapting the way in which an organisation delivers its mission and pursues its vision by designing the organisation around influence flows, connecting: its people, partners, customers and other stakeholders; data, information and knowledge in and all around it…more openly, productively and profitably with the application of social web, big data and related information technologies.”

Mission is defined in the book as ‘why an organisation exists’ and vision as ‘what it wants to be.’  I love the approach of using a fictional company to guide readers through the ideas and recommend checking it out.

I’ve been giving this whole topic some thought for a while and have enjoyed reading about it through various sources and speaking with people in my network. I’m going to share some of my findings with you. I think it’s an evolving process and will be interested to read this back in say a year or two and see if or how my approach has changed. Ready? Let’s go…

The history of social business

The term has been around for a while, years even. In early 2009, Peter Kim of Dachis Group, published a Big Idea definition (hat-tip to Neville Hobson @jangles) for pointing me in this direction. Dachis Group measures and manages the Social Business performance for the world’s leading brands and does so “through a combination of proprietary big data social analytics, SaaS based social intelligence data services, and the world’s leading Social Business group.”

There’s a more recent post from June 2012 and Kim states:

Social business draws on trends in technology (e.g. powerful mobile devices, widespread availability of high-speed internet access, low cost of data storage), work (e.g. always-on-culture, globalisation) and society (e.g. propensity to share). Companies should care about social business because they can improve business outcomes (i.e. increase revenue or decrease costs). The core principles touch on all areas of a business, whether for business-to-customer engagement, employee-to-employee collaboration, or supply chain optimisation. Making social business work requires focus on a company’s culture, connections, content exchanges and measurement and analytics.

The direct correlation between business outcomes and social business underpins many of the conversations I have within my network, particularly along the lines of ‘how do I sell using social technologies into my Board’ – these conversations seem constant for IC pros and I always advise linking any social plans into the business, both in terms of language use, outcomes, actions and goals. 

In 2011, writing for Forbes, Alistair Rennie, (@alistair_rennie), IBM’s general manager for social business stated:

“Social media is just one dimension of today’s social business…gone are the days of businesses limiting or even entirely restricting employees’ access to the Internet and social media platforms. Today, by combining social networking tools – internally and externally – with sophisticated analytic capabilities, companies are transforming their business processes, building stronger relationships among their employees, customers and business partners and making better decisions faster. This is what makes a social business – embracing networks of people to create new business value and opportunities.”

The internal and external combination is a powerful one, and coupled with analytics, is a definition that sits well with me.

In March 2013, Charlene Li (@charleneli) and Brian Solis (@briansolis) of Altimeter Group published their latest research and thinking into social business, called The Evolution of Social Business. It detailed six stages of social business transformation as: planning, presence  engagement, formalised, strategic and converged. It’s an insightful read and I’ve embedded it below so you can read it for yourself.

Altimeter Group defines social business as:

The deep integration of social media and social methodologies into the organisation to drive business impact.”

I like this definition for its apparent simplicity. In length if not in content, because being able to explain social business succinctly seems key, then to examine what terms like ‘deep integration, social methodologies and business impact’ mean for organisations. It’s the link to culture that particularly interests me because I think deep integration has to include an intrinsic link to culture, to use the Deal and Kennedy (1982) definition, “the way things are done around here” in order to be truly effective.

Here is Altimeter Group’s The Evolution of Social Business: Six Stages of Social Media Transformation:

Yesterday, 8 May, Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) of Altimeter Group published research looking at How social business spreads across the enterprise.
Of particular note, I believe, are the structures detailed at the top of the page of that link. It highlights how companies organise themselves as ‘hub and spoke’  and how this is moving to ‘multiple hub and spoke’ (also known as the dandelion), because of the impact of social business on communication and the way things happen.
I encourage you to check out the link to read it in full context because I believe there is information in there that IC pros will find useful to help equip them in their conversations inside their organisations.

Want to know more? Jeremiah is hosting a webinar next week (14 May) called Benchmarking For Social Business.

What IBM thinks
I shared this video from IBM last week, but am going to do so again as I think it gives a great introduction to social business. The IBM website is absolutely packed with ideas, resources and tools to help you.


IBM recently produced a 12 page report called Social Business: Patterns in achieving social business success by leading and pioneering organisations. I like the fact it’s identifying patterns (repeatable behaviour), and their definition of social business in it is:

A social business is an organisation whose culture and systems encourage networks of people to create business value. Social businesses connect individuals, so they can rapidly share information, knowledge and ideas by having conversations and publishing informal content. They analyse social content from multiple channels and sources, in addition to structured data, to gain insights from both external and internal stakeholders.

When those things happen, innovation and business execution rates increase, better decisions are made, and customers and employees are more engaged and satisfied. Social businesses enjoy lower operating costs, faster speed-to-market, improved customer and employee engagement, and increased profitability

This definition works for me on many levels. Coupling the culture, encouraging networks of people (notice it doesn’t specify internal or external) and connecting individuals in order to share information, knowledge and ideas to drive business success. Ticks lots of boxes for me. What would the reaction from your senior leaders be if you described social business in these terms? I’m sure their boxes would include increased profitability, faster speed-to-market and the other benefits listed above.

You can also see a SlideShare of the report below:

What other definitions are there?
Writing on NixonMcInnes’ blog about the role of leadership in creating a social culture, Max St John (@maxwellstjohn) states:

“Social business is an organisation that’s more responsive, more open and honest, more collaborative and inclusive, one that creates the conditions for innovation and taking more risks, strives to be less hierarchical – even has more conversations about what really matters and what we’re actually here for.”

HootSuite defines social business as:

At the simplest level, social business is when any organisation engages with an audience either internal or external, maybe both, using one or many social platforms.

You can find out more about HootSuite’s thinking in their free whitepaper: 8 Tips For Social Business.

Further reading and recommended resources
Last week The Holmes Report published a feature looking at 10 Ways To Design the PR Agency Of The Future. I think this will resonate with many IC pros and it’s worth a read.

I regularly refer to this report from McKinsey & Company (July, 2012), and it’s worth familiarising yourself with: The Social Economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies.

Digital Shoreditch @digishoreditch is taking place at the end of May and on Wednesday 22 May, Jed Hallam (@jedhallam) is going to be looking at ‘When social media grew up’ and it looks like a great session. More info here.

Phew, there’s a lot of info there – and that’s only a taster of what I’ve been reading! What do you think of what you’ve read? You’re welcome to comment below or tweet me @AllthingsIC. I will be publishing the second part next week.

Update: You can read the second part of this article here.

Thank you for stopping by, Rachel.

First published: 9 May 2013.


  1. […] Last week I published part one of my thoughts on social business and looked at some of the definitions that exist and resources that are available. If you missed it, you can read it here. […]

  2. […] Social Business –  […]

  3. […] Lancée il y a près de 4 ans, la notion de social business s’impose petit à petit après une période flottement. Tout le problème vient du fait que le terme social business est noyé dans les publications relatives à l’entrepreunariat social. J’essaye d’apporter des pierres à l’édifice en publiant régulièrement sur le sujet (en 2010, 2011, 2012), mais il reste encore beaucoup de travail à faire. Heureusement, je ne suis pas le seul à faire du prosélytisme : Defining social business. […]

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