Purpose is the Killer App: Why Organizations Need Social Business Tools

by cv harquail on July 12, 2011

What will it really take to get organizations to adopt social media tools inside the enterprise?

Mere numbers won’t compel us, so don’t count on ROI. The shiny object syndrome won’t hold our attention, so back off with the bells and whistles. And, please, don’t work on us with peer pressure. We’re above trying to keep up with the herd.

Want to drive social tool adoption? Give us a compelling use case. Even better,

Give us a Killer App.

Needs drive successful technology adoption.

No technology gets adopted unless we think we need it. The more obviously a tool helps us solve a pressing business/organizational issue, the more enthusiastically we’ll adopt the tool. Consider, for example, how enthusiastically social listening technologies have been adopted by organizations who are uptight about managing their public reputations.

But what’s even better than a specific, pressing business need for driving adoption is a “killer app”.  A killer app is an “irrevocable marriage between a technology and its application“. It’s that one, great, thing that we never really imagined we’d be able to do, and so we can’t resist it when the technology appears that helps us do it.

Show us how social media can help us achieve our collective purpose, and you’ll show us the Killer App.

Purpose as the Killer App

Every organization has a purpose. Every organization needs its purpose, to simply exist.

Even when an organization’s purpose is unclear, under-communicated, or misunderstood, an organization drives towards its purpose. Because our need for purpose is so great, we long for tools that might help us clarify, communicate and understand our collective purpose.

In addition to communicating our purpose, we also want to move towards it. Tangibly, deliberately, assuredly.

Thus, we long for tools that will propel us towards our collective purpose, that will make achieving our purpose easier and more likely.  As soon as someone can explain clearly and comprehensively how enterprise social media can support our collective purpose, we’ll be driven – impelled even — to adopt social media throughout our organizations.

Why Purpose is Important

An organization’s purpose is the inspirational, non-instrumental glue that binds us to an organization and to each other in that organization. As Simon Sinek describes it, shared purpose is what inspires us to to work with each other and to give of ourselves to the (organizational) collective.

201107121251.jpgYesterday morning, I had the chance to hear Simon describe the role of purpose for individuals and organizations.  Simon’s book “Start With Why” is a ‘must read’, because of  the way that Simon has taken the ancient and evergreen wisdom about the role of purpose and shaped it with a simple, relevant, and compelling framework.

His admonition, “Start With Why” makes it easy for folks to see again why purpose is so critical to an organization’s success.

Linking Purpose and Social Media

Simon’s talk was sponsored by Open Text, a social collaboration software vendor. [From what I can see from the outside,] Open Text is aiming to distinguish itself from other social collaboration software vendors by addressing the question of “Why” social collaboration tools matter.

Deb Lavoy and her team at Open Text are trying to excavate the link between purpose and internal social media. Of course, they’d like to sell more social collaboration systems (they are a software vendor after all). But Lavoy and her team have a more comprehensive goal– they want to influence the big picture of how we think about social media and why it’s useful.

201107121242.jpgWhat I like about Open Text’s approach is not (just) the marketing savvy that it suggests, but rather that they are elevating the conversation about adoption by focusing us on some profound and basic organizational wisdom.

[Note: Image is from Open Text]

Lavoy and her team are organizing a series of presentations across the US that will feature speakers who, from one direction or another, are working to link social media technology, collaboration, and organizational purpose.

(You can find the schedule for the Open Text Social Workplace series, and sign up to attend a (free) talk, at their website.)

Each of these presentations should help us understand, bit by bit, how social media can make a difference in organizations.

How exactly does Social Media support Purpose?

Why should your organization adopt social collaboration tools? Because these tools will help your group, team, and organization achieve your collective purpose.

How exactly will that happen? We’re starting to figure that out. And honestly, we haven’t gotten very far.

Building the case that purpose is amplified, strengthened and supported in unique ways by social media will take many small insights. Insights, for example, like recognizing that

(1) any time a user explains a task, goal or tool online,
(2) s/he creates new meaning
(3) that can be captured, aggregated and shared by social media, and
(4) thus added to the organization’s active store of self-interpretation.

Yeah, I know that’s kind of complicated, but it is also real.

This micro-creation of meaning is one of many ways that social media-mediated activity is helping us see and support purpose-oriented behavior.

If we know anything about successful technology adoption, it is that a compelling use case really matters.

If there is no direct promise that a tool will add value, people will resist learning how to use it.  They won’t figure out how to integrate the tools into their work flow, and they’ll fail to experience even the basic benefits of the tool. Instead, they’ll use social tools like your granddad uses AOL — with the dial-up modem, and with all the frustration, constraint and resistance that entails.

Why should we let social media tools die that death, when they could instead be used to help organizations flourish?

Building the Case for Social Media-Supported Purpose

Because every organization and organization member longs for collective meaning and purpose, I believe that organizational purpose could be the killer app for enterprise social media.

I want to see social media adopted as part of a larger strategy of engagement in purpose, and not just for reasons of task efficiency and collaboration effectiveness.

Along with Deb Lavoy, Anne Marie McEwan, and many others, we’ll chip away at it until we excavate the links between social technology and organizational purpose. Together, we’ll build the super-powered use case that is organizational purpose.

In the meantime, we’ll all continue the conversation about “being more social” inside the organization. While we continue to recognize and reinforce how social media tools support tasks, we’ll need to learn to recognize how social media tools support meaning.

The more we (re)learn about how social media helps us be more human and helps our organizations be more people-centric, the more we’ll learn about how social media can support collective purpose.  And, the more we embrace the idea that it’s purpose and not effectiveness that makes organizations sustainably successful, the more we’ll learn about how to clarify purpose and how to understand our local work tasks as part of a larger, meaningful, collective project.

Instead of being bass-ackwards, and adapting the organization to be “more social” in response to the new tools, let’s use the new tools to build the bigger picture for each other.

Let’s use the tools to amplify and accelerate our purpose-oriented interactions, so that our work together is more meaningful.

See also:
The Pursuit of (Organizational) Purpose by Deb Lavoy

How Social Media Create Organizational Meaning
How to Design Social Business Systems For Engaged, Social Organizations

Enterprise Collaboration Adoption Strategies – 10 Key Steps and Best Practices by Karthik Chakkarapan


deb lavoy July 12, 2011 at 8:31 pm

CV – purpose is indeed the killer app. without it all discussion of employee engagement and collaboration is essentially meaningless. With purpose companies are great, without it, the best they can hope for is OK. Simon’s ted talk and book do a great job of documenting this and creating a framework for explaining it. Daniel Pink also addresses this when he talks about the three elements of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. its the purpose that connects individually motivated people together to do great things.
My goal with the event was to begin an important discussion around this, and to help people explore the importance of purpose in their own organizations. Your writeup here is a great success metric for me. I can’t wait to hear more of your thoughts and to engage with your readers on theirs. thank you very much!

cv harquail July 13, 2011 at 8:14 am

Hi Deb-

I am excited to see that ideas like purpose & meaning are being connected to social system tools – while some people like to imagine that ‘purpose’ and ‘profit’ (in this case, software sales), I think that the real challenge is to sell, adopt and use whatever tools help us to the job, while asking ourselves if we are working towards goals and purposes that really matter.
Let’s keep on the lookout for other voices in the purpose/systems conversation, and see how we can knit together a group of allies all working on this project together.

Leo Coulson July 12, 2011 at 8:50 pm

this was a very informative article, thank you for taking the time to explain this.

when we tie in things like mapping a citizen to a digital ID – how do we ensure that non-traditional organizations can speak free from potential suppression by those with current infrastructure control? does this apply in the workplace?

who are the judges of the validity of reason, or more rightly an attempt at shaping its manifestation and testing out that template on a world?

who is the guardian of limited being being experimented on? not all practices seem ethical.

cv harquail July 13, 2011 at 8:25 am

Hi Leo-
Thanks for your comment.

There is a very real and constant concern about the boundaries between enthusiastic willing engagement and the tendency of organizations to want to extract and control. It’s tempting to forget the role of control and profit-taking when we talk about lofty concepts like ‘purpose’ — and in truth, there are too few organizations whose purposes are what we’d freely commit to.

One opportunity of social media is the way that it can be used to enlarge the span of participation, to get more people into the deliberative process – in ways that ultimately reshape the collective purpose.

A second opportunity is the way that social media can expose assumptions of which ideas are heard, and expose practices that work to silence dissent. When these are ‘seen’ they are easier for members throughout the system to confront and change.

Social media doesn’t make organizations more democratic, but it does provide a structure for more democratic deliberation and decision making. Because that structure is already there and ready to be used differently if we choose to do that, it’s easier for advocates to press forward. They/we don’t have to design systems since there is a framework there. We (just) have to use the tools differently.

not a small challenge, but more do-able now.

Elsewhere on the blog I’ve written about the important realities of capitalism, management control, and exploitation, etc. Please also see:

Are Your Social Business Systems Designed for Extraction or Contribution? http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2011/05/12/are-your-social-business-systems-designed-for-extraction-or-contribution/

3 Reasons Why Employee Engagement is a Scam http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2010/05/10/3-reasons-why-employee-engagement-is-a-scam/

Socialism, Capitalism, 5 Points of Ignorance, and Progressive Organizational Movements http://authenticorganizations.com/harquail/2009/04/14/socialism-capitalism-5-points-of-ignorance-and-progressive-organizational-movements/

Thanks for keeping it ‘real’. cvh

Brian Edwards July 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm

Great point — it’s not the tool itself that’s the the Killer App, it’s the way the tool is used that makes it effective. Flourishing organizations — and happier more connected people — is indeed a great purpose in and of itself.

Bret Simmons July 13, 2011 at 10:04 am

Love it, CV. You and I are so on the same page with the importance of purpose and social business. Gee, maybe we should write a book together… 🙂

cv harquail July 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Hi Bret-
Yes, it’s great to feel a cohering of link minds and active voices. Plus, I love that purpose works not only at both individual & organizational levels , but also words to link the two.

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