What social business is. And isn’t.

A newsstand in Milan (next to the Duomo)Sometimes you have to make a choice. Mild or spicy. Grande or venti. Revolution or practical, commercial change.

When it comes to your applying social tools and practices to your firm, what’s it going to be?

Missing in Milan

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the Social Business Forum in Milan where over 1600 people signed up to “learn about Social Business opportunities, success stories, best practices and more.”

It’s the 5th year in a row they’ve had this conference. And I was struck as much by the notable people who spoke there as I was by what was missing.

There were several experts there. Authors John Hagel (“The Power of Pull”) and Frank Eliason (“@ Your Service”) gave keynote talks. Practitioners with deep experience - Luis Suarez, Peter Reiser, Megan Murray among others - were there presenting and contributing.

Several of them had come from a prior conference in London and several others would be heading to Boston later this month for Enterprise 2.0.

But while the experts keep getting better and better, the audiences don’t seem to be.

The haves & have nots

The conference is in its 5th year, and the term “Enterprise 2.0” was coined in 2006, but there are still too few stories about people generating commercial value by using social tools and practices. After 5 years, I’m disappointed that audiences come to hear that “traditional management isn’t working,” applaud the revolutionary speaker, and leave without a clue about what to do next.

(In a panel on community management, for example, Luis pointed out that companies like IBM have had community forums for 50 years. But when the moderator asked an audience of 100 how many actually had communities at their firm, only about 10 hands went up.)

As Megan Murray tweeted after one of the presentations:

2 fundamental questions

"We've got work to do." What is the work Megan refers to? I think it starts with answering 2 basic questions:

“What’s it worth?” and “What’s in it for me?”

It’s much easier - and, initially, more exciting - to talk about overthrowing management than about eliminating waste in your company. It’s easier to talk about the success of Amazon and Apple than to figure out how to incentivize thousands of individuals at your own firm to change their behavior.

If you can’t or won’t answer these questions, you shouldn’t pitch social business to your senior management. And you shouldn’t buy a platform.

You should start someplace else.

If you care, contribute.

Social business isn't a baby any more. It's time for some successes.Conferences like the Social Business Forum are great. Not for fomenting revolution, but for making connections with people who’ve done something. For learning from them how you can make constructive contributions at your own firm.

If you want to bootstrap a social business movement, find someone who’s done something at a firm like your’s, build a community, and start learning how to connect people to drive change.

Overhauling how big companies work won’t happen via Powerpoint and evangelism. We’ll need to get to work. And we’ll need the combination of commercial value and personal benefit to sustain such an ambitious effort.

The social movement is past its infancy. It’s time for more meaningful successes.