Social Business and Generations

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I’m writing and speaking more and more about social business these days, as are many others, of course. Some of the others are really writing about scaling social media inside larger organizations. That’s certainly important, and a challenge, but it’s not quite what I mean by social business. I’m talking about taking social software and technology and (more importantly) the ideas behind them, and applying them to the way we lead, manage, and run organizations. That’s what social businesses are starting to do. And the way I read this Deloitte study, now is the time to start building your capacity to be a social business. Our book, Humanize, is essentially a guidebook for creating a social business, helping you to figure out how you need to change your culture, processes, structures, and behaviors so you can take advantage of the power we’ve been letting lie dormant for decades as we relied on a traditional, machine-based approach to management.

Of course, a few years ago (when social media was still being discounted as a possible fad), there was a more pressing challenge for organizations: generational diversity. The Boomers were all getting ready to retire, yet our newest crop of employees–the Millennials–were disappointing the powers that be with their sense of entitlement, informality, and “aggressive” career goals. So have generational issues been superseded by social media and social business? I don’t think so. I think generations are still a big challenge for organizations. So the question is, how do generational issues connect to social business? Here are some points to think about:

1. Every generation is social.

Yes, younger people are more actively using social technology, though it’s also true that all generations are using social technology to some extent. All generations are social. All generations care about connection, meaning, relationships, collaboration, and solving problems. Technology adoption will vary by age cohort, but every generation will embrace the ideas behind social because they connect with what makes us human.

2. Millennials have an easier time with social principles, but that doesn’t mean they’ll use them at work.

I wrote a year ago on my own blog about the connection between what’s shaping the millennials and the ideas we present in Humanize. I concluded that because the social internet was a major force shaping Millennials, they’ll have an easier time with issues like transparency, decentralization, and experimentation. But there’s another point–organizational cultures don’t change as fast as generations. These Millennials will come into organizations that are still firmly rooted in the mechanical worldview, and they very may well adopt that mechanical view as emerging leaders (since they haven’t yet seen another model). So I don’t think social business will simply emerge automatically as more and more Millennials enter the workforce.

Generation X will serve as a bridge (and no one will notice).

One of the people who read Humanize early on told me it was a “Generation X” manifesto on leadership. I don’t know if that’s true, though I think Maddie and I would probably be fine with that idea. But if it is, it’s not necessarily because it is stereotypically Gen X (independent, a little cynical, less emphasis on title, etc.)–it’s because it seeks to synthesize the traditional with the new. I think Gen X has become adept at that. Part of this was out of necessity. There are very few of us in comparison BOTH to the generational before us (Boomers) and after us (Millennials). In the shadow of these twin towers, one learns to be a connector. And one gets used to not getting the attention. But this ability to connect I think is critical in moving towards social business. To access the real power of social business, we’re going to have to do things in ways that feel strange to just about everyone. Connecting what’s happening to the traditions of the past and the potential of the future is an important task. That’s not ONLY Gen X’s job, but I think it’s one that a lot of Gen X managers will step into.

Every generation needs to up their game.

Social business is going to be hard work. It will be worth it, of course. I think the organizations that embrace social business will see increases in both speed and agility. I think their employees will be more engaged and productive. But every generation is going to have to raise it up a notch to make it work. In Humanize, in the chapter on Courageous organizations, we talk about the importance of personal development. For human organizations to work, we need developed people. People who can learn to act in ways that is contrary to their personal styles or preferences. We need people with that level of strength and maturity. People who can be comfortable with paradox. So Millennials may need to multi-task less, and Xers may have to tone down their cynicism, and Boomers may need to work alone on some things. Together we will learn what a social business demands of us, and we should all expect to be pushed in the process.

One of the conclusions I drew when I wrote an ebook about generations (seven years ago!!) was that knowledge about generational diversity rarely gives you the answer. It simply illuminates the conversations you are having so you can solve problems (together) more effectively. That remains true as we enter the era of social business with a multi-generational workforce.

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