Beyond social: the rise of the emergent business

I recently wrote that we need to move past the limitations and confusion associated with the characterization of the new direction that businesses are taking as “social.”

Stowe Boyd, We’ve moved beyond social

“My real reason to move beyond social business is not just that people are confused and seem to not be learning much about social business, really, although that is obvious. Instead, we need to realize that there are a collection of forces — including social — that are impinging on the world of business and a suite of responses to those forces that businesses are adopting, formally and informally.

So, perhaps we should demote social to just one of an intertwined set of trends that have a certain dual nature: Like homeopathic medicine, they both cause and cure an itch.


In the final analysis, the emotive power and definitional utility of “social” is in decline: partly, as we saw above, because people use the term to mean whatever they want it to mean, but also because the impacts of other forces are becoming as powerful as the adoption of social tools across society, media, and business.”

Along with that effect — where “the emotive power and definitional utility of ‘social’ is in decline” — not only are other forces on the rise but those forces are changing the business environment, like wind and rain together eroding mountains.

The environment in which any business operates, and the behaviors that individuals adopt within those businesses, reflect each other in some obvious and non-obvious ways. The most obvious parallelism is when people attempt to consciously respond to something in the economic or competitive environment: to add features to a product to counter a competitor’s release, for example, or to raise prices as the cost of materials rises.

The increased speed, complexity, and uncertainty of the business environment today means that businesses are operating in a world that is fundamentally different from that of only ten years ago. One aspect of this complexity is that the interaction among component parts of the world, national, or regional business economy leads to new, emergent properties in the system.

Emergence is a concept that has been with us since Aristotle, who wrote, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” but was formalized by modern philosophy, mathematicians, and complexity theorists. The important thing to keep in mind when thinking about emergent behaviors or properties is that they are difficult or impossible to predict from the properties or behaviors of the constituent parts. Or, contrapositively, when observing complex systems, it may be impossible to ascertain from where a property or behavior comes.

My belief is that we have entered a time — and may have been in one for 10 years, but not longer — where the degree of complexity, and the nature and degree of the interdependencies of the actors in the environment is leading to a wide range of new emergent properties at the macroeconomic and microeconomic level, and with businesses we see a rapid adoption of new technologies and business practices, some of which are conscious attempts to respond to specific economic challenges or opportunities. However, and more importantly, the myriad decisions of hundreds of millions of businesspeople, and the responses to those decisions by others, is leading to a bottom-up shifting of the foundations of work. On one hand we see obvious and top-down activities like corporations moving away from on-premise server farms and the adoption of cloud computing, while on the other hand we see the initially unobtrusive use of personal smartphones and tablets by early-adopter employees cascading into a BYOD movement embraced by cost-conscious employers. These and dozens of other scenarios are being played out in the new business context of today’s postnormal era, the economic era that can be dated as starting in 2005.

That was the year when more than 50 percent of U.S. workers’ occupations involved non-routine cognitive work, that long-awaited milestone. However, not many had accurately surmised what would be the result of reaching that turning point, perhaps because the true effects are emergent, and therefore unpredictable. But here we are, and we can start to see the changes going on and can research them empirically, even if they are closed to analytic prediction.

Social. The rise of social tools, and the social revolution on the web, has conquered the world in the past ten years. They are ubiquitous, and they have corrosively altered the context and content of media, business, and society. The adoption of metaphors from open social networks — like follows, Likes, tags, and activity streams — have started to made deep inroads in enterprise computing, but they have not reached the levels of saturation or societal impacts that we’ve witnessed on the open web. And the adoption and application of those metaphors has been, to date, fairly conservative, and organized around the notions of collaborative tools from the 1990’s. In a sense, social tools for business are still being designed around the 1999 ideal business, not the business of 2009. And definitely not the business of 2019. The tools we need today and tomorrow will have to be more than worn-out ideas of collaboration with a dash of Twitter. We’ll need more than a social layer on top of last century’s enterprise software, albeit running in the cloud.

Ubiquitous computing. We’re moving to a post-desktop model of computer use, where communication, coordination, and computing have been integrated into everyday life. This is often (mistakenly) called mobile computing, which is simply based on the notion that stable computing has already been done and that handheld devices are principally about mobility, which is wrong. Those devices be called proximal, anyway: They are used 60 percent of the time in the home and the office, so it’s not the phone call in the car that is their primary purpose. It’s the fact that we always have them with us, and for a broad range of activities they are the preferred tool.

3D work. Work has become distributed, discontinuous, and decentralized, hence, 3D. Increasingly, people work wherever they find themselves: in the office, commuting on a train, coworking in another city, in a hotel lobby, at a café, or at home on the kitchen table. The distributed nature of work is a choice for some and a necessity for others, but even the most demanding companies that still require you in the office for 40 hours per week still expect you to answer a clients call during dinner or respond to a weekend email at home. This interacts with the discontinuous nature of work, where we jump from project to project many times per day, jump from work to personal activities many times per day, and for many, jump from work for company A to work for company B to work for company C, all in the course of one day. And finally, work is increasingly decentralized: As more people’s jobs require them to make decisions about how to deliver value — because more work is nonroutine now — decision making becomes decentralized.

Fast and loose. Business management and organizational culture are shifting with the specific pressures of the postnormal era: The new economic realities and practices are transforming business from within and without. These include, in no particular order: a permanent boom-bust cycle, a precarious/freelancer/contingent workforce, short tenure jobs, lean management, cooperation replacing cooperation, social networks displacing business processes, the democratization of work, and the new feudalism. (I have written about these issues over the past few months and will continue to do so, so a quick review of my offerings here might fill in an interested reader.) Dozens of forces and adaptations all collide with hundreds of millions of individuals making thousands of decisions, modifying their behaviors, and influencing others to do the same, and by that the behavior of the businesses that pay them to work also changes, and that impinges on other companies, and so on.

These factors are mutually interdependent, forming a worldwide complex system: the worldwide business community. A huge system made up of hundred of thousands of companies, operating in hundreds of countries in thousands of cities, sprawling across the earth, connected in innumerable ways through social networks, regulations, and an increasingly complex global economy. The emergent properties of that system — and even constituent subsystems — are going to prove to be unpredictable and as important as the first-order effects.

For all of these reasons, the next generation of business — business in the postnormal — may best be characterized as emergent. It will reflect the volatility, complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity of our economics and society, and in a “like cures like” fashion, business will be defined by properties that may have been impossible to expect based on just looking at the individual aspects of business organization, tools, or culture. This is the time of the emergent business, then, and social is just one of many forces that are being internalized and joined together.

And by definition, we can’t state unequivocally how emergent businesses will operate next year, the year after, or five years later. We can speculate, report on experiments, and do ethnological fieldwork, but we can’t analyze our way to a “how to” or an architectural diagram.

So then, I have also outlined my new job description: an ethnologist on the trail of the emergent business.