The media provides different perspectives coming from different vantage points as it relates to whether there are real opportunities for businesses to leverage the social web. These perspectives remind us of a fable that was told in India many years ago. It is a good warning about how not viewing the power of the social web systemically can lead to misinterpretations. The story goes as follows:
“A long time ago in the valley of the Brahmaputra River in India there lived six blind men. One day they fell to arguing. The object of their dispute was the elephant. So, to satisfy their minds and settle the dispute, they hired a guide and set out to find an elephant. It was not long before they came to a forest clearing where a huge bull elephant, quite tame, was standing.”
“As all six were blind, none of them could see the whole elephant and each approached the elephant from a different direction (see Figure). After encountering the elephant, the first man cried out, ‘the elephant is like a great mud wall baked hard in the sun. The second exclaimed ‘this elephant is exactly like a spear.’ Said the third, ‘this elephant is very much like a rope. The fourth declared, ‘this elephant much resembles a serpent.’ The fifth, ‘he’s mightily like a fan.’ The sixth proclaimed, ‘this sturdy pillar feels exactly like the trunk of a great areca palm tree.”
“The men began disputing loud and long. Each now had his own opinion, firmly based on his own experience, of what an elephant is really like. For after all, each had felt the elephant for himself and knew that he was right! And so indeed he was. For depending on how the elephant is seen, each blind man was partly right, though all were in the wrong.” [Source: http://www.wordinfo.info/words/index/info/view_unit/1/?letter=B&spage=3 )
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) based this poem on the story of the Six Blind Men: “So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
Like the six blind men, when business people describe the social web, they too, “see” only the parts. They see the social web as a “social tool for the youth” and worry about security. Truth is, the social web encompasses all of the elements of every process that drives any business. Unfortunately, like the elephant, business perspectives about the social web is not about its individual parts, it’s about the whole. Which brings us to the point of this article: Unless and until a holistic, systemic view of the social web is understood, the organization isn’t able to develop the capability of the social web and isn’t able to fully leverage all the resources for innovation and growth represented by its customers, employees, partners, suppliers, and the rest of its stakeholders.
The Social Web is an inclusive and reciprocal tool to getting things done through relationships. The social web enables businesses to accomplish something that cannot be accomplished alone through leveraging resources that are accessed virtually, by coordinating activities and communicating with greater reach and utility than ever before. Tom Friedman, author of The World is Flat says“The commercial playing field has opened up to more people in more places on more days in more ways than anything like it ever before in the history of the world. This is what I mean when I say the world has been flattened … creating this new global playing field for multiple forms of collaboration.” Is the social web making our world flat?
As was the case with the blind men and the elephant, businesses assume they understand what the social web is all about when all they see is a piece of the whole. Thus, businesses currently have different and incomplete mental models of what the social web is. As a result, we see the same words to describe different things and describe the same things using different words. Without a systemic understanding of the social web, it is quite difficult for business to understand the transformational implications of the social web. Peter Drucker, quoted in Business 2.0, August 22, 2000 said “The corporation as we know it, which is now 120 years old, is unlikely to survive the next 25 years. Legally and financially yes, but not structurally and economically.” What role will the social web play in transforming corporate structures and models?
Last but not least, it seems obvious that the social web will significantly change the dynamics of business relationship. Lars Nyberg, Chairman, NCR writes “Today, business people have to ask themselves: What business are we in? Are we in the banking, retail sales or digital equipment business? Or are we in the relationship business? If the answer is not the relationship business, it’s time to think again.” The social web is all about increased reach and richness with people and things. Systemically speaking, every business succeeds or fails based on the outcomes of relationships between people, processes and things.
The Emergence of The Relationship Economy is like a fast train coming down the track. The problem with most business owner is they don’t hear it or see it in the right perspective, they think it is just another fad that the youth have adopted. As was the case with the blind men and the elephant, maybe it is time to get a different perspective.
What say you?