The purpose of business is not just to “get work done”

For a while now people have been talking about how it’s not enough to just connect and share at work but we need to move on, be more productive and “get work done”. The idea is captured in this presentation by Dion Hinchcliffe and Alan Lepofsky, which goes on to outline some views on what’s next for social business, for example: one unified ecosystem, sophisticated analytics, “data scientists”, gamification, and so on. The concluding slide sums it up: “The future of social business is …Business!”

On a similar tip, my friend, social business expert (and occasional sparring partner!), Greg Lowe, has tagged his blog“This isn’t social business, it’s just business”

Focusing more keenly on business value seems like a logical progression and I fully support pushing business forward. However, something about this ‘it’s just business’ vision left me slightly deflated and so I’ve been trying to figure out why. Here’s my attempt to explain..

Let’s consider these three: customers, businesses and workers.

If you believe Peter Drucker, the purpose of business is not to make profit but to satisfy a customer. I’d agree, but go further and say that the purpose of business is to satisfy both customers and workers. After all, we expect to earn a decent living and in a competitive market, workers will look to get the best package they can from business. And of course, customers are workers and workers are customers. So put simply:

The purpose of business is to satisfy people

Customers demand quality goods and services at competitive prices. But increasing quality and lowering prices only benefits workers if more demand is created from customers.

On the other hand, workers demand quality working conditions and competitive wages. But again, improving working conditions and increasing wages only benefits customers if enough suitably skilled people are willing to work for them.

In this way, I see business a bit like the pivot on a see-saw, with customers on one side and employees on the other. Ultimately, you need both groups to make the thing work. And it works best when the interests of both are balanced. There is opposite tension between the demands, but it’s a healthy tension. A business with no customers or workers is useless. It only has a purpose by virtue of serving the needs of customers and workers. Business serves people, not the other way round.

Sometimes we refer to how the quality of services, pricing, working conditions and other costs impact “the business”. If business is just a vehicle created by people to serve people, why do we care how these things impact the business? Surely the more important question to ask is how these things impact people: customers and workers.

We spend half our waking hours “at work”. But our needs as people don’t end when we clock on. We still want to feel safe, take a break and eat occasionally, stay healthy, feel appreciated, connect socially and have fun. I don’t think we’ve reached a point where the business would cut lunch because it doesn’t add direct value to the business (I hope!). Conversely, when we go home, we don’t really stop “working” altogether. We make dinner, help the family and look after the home.  Of course nowadays it’s all mixed up anyway as technology and flexible working arrangements make the traditional 9-5 the exception rather than the rule. So the point is this: whether we’re “at work” or “at home”, whether we are playing the role of “workers” or “customers”, the truth is we’re always whole people with the same needs.

Of course we need to get the job done, but do we really need to “optimise” social to such a point that we run the risk of squeezing all the enjoyment out it, until it just becomes plain “business”? Do we need sophisticated analytics and data scientists to drive business value to the nth degree? Do we need gamification to manipulate people’s behaviour? Does it matter if some of our time at work is spent doing things that do not add direct, measurable value to the business, but instead add direct value to our own wellbeing? Are we at risk of turning the see-saw into a treadmill?

Sure hope not! Here’s to leaving some space for the things that don’t need to be analysed and controlled, to breathe.

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