Build a 'Social Enterprise' to Win in the 21st Century

Sep 12, 2012

CIOUpdate Contributor

by Ben Pring and Paul Roehrig, co-directors, Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant

Though western economies have become increasingly post-industrial, many organizations retain business and operating models that would look familiar to factory workers from the Industrial Revolution. Workers may now manipulate paper and code rather than iron and steel, but oftentimes the way in which modern work is done can seem surprisingly old-fashioned: People still travel to work; still work in shifts; still work in physical spaces that are typically unused for long stretches of the day; and still use tools that reflect norms of eras long gone (“carbon copy” anybody?).


In spite of increasing economic pressures, old habits die hard, and these conventions are often at the root of some of the major challenges currently facing many enterprise decision-makers.

As the free flow of data pervades organizations (at exponential growth rates, mind you) a clear distinction is apparent between those that are thriving in our new digital enterprise era and those that are stalled or sinking. With the emergence and maturation of the commercial Internet, interaction costs for knowledge work have plummeted to near zero, rendering old-world industrial operating models obsolete.

Digits not widgets

As digits, work can travel to people, can be done anytime and anywhere, and can be done with tools that reflect the norms, styles, and values of our modern world. And not just work; anything digitizable. Barnes & Noble, Blockbuster, Newsweek, American Airlines, and Kodak are among the well-known brands that have misread the early warning signs as value migrates to the digital world.

These cautionary tales are being noticed by savvy decision-makers who recognize that to maximize the benefits new technologies offer and minimize the associated downsides new workflows, process structures, business models, and organizational structures are required.


Organizations that understand this are embracing these new trends such as Amazon, Facebook, Ford Motor Co., the U.S. Intelligence Community, etc. are achieving and reinforcing success by embracing new ways to leverage social technologies and digital value chains. Key to the next chapter of competition is an understanding that the new world of “digital value webs” is quite different to the old world of “physical value chains” and that the new world requires work to be re-imagined in profound new ways; profoundly better ways. 

Redefining work

At the heart of this process of re-imagination is the objective of building what we call the “social enterprise," an organization built to succeed in the 21st century; not plod along from the 20th (or 19th) century and which reflects the digital age we live in. Outperforming 21st century businesses will rethink, reinvent, and rewire work with new organizational principles facilitated by application of  social media, mobility, advanced analytics, and cloud computing. We refer to this as the SMAC stack:


  • Use of the cloud will allow the social enterprise to be asset-light and agile, and to sense and respond to change in environmental factors;
  • Mobile technologies are enabling the collapse of time and space, and the unplugging of the historically tethered;
  • Social media adds a new layer of richness to all interpersonal interactions, and dissipates the arbitrary and artificial barriers between people in their work guise, time, and place; and
  • Advanced analytics provides new insights and outcomes buried in the exabyte of data in which we now all swim.

Each of these technologies in isolation may be transformative, but in combination, their impact on work can be profound. Winning 21st century businesses will look and feel different because social collaboration and mobility are built into how critical work is done.

By leveraging SMAC stack technologies and associated next-generation business models, organizations can re-invent themselves to become social enterprises, an organizational type that is quite different from companies that have come before because social collaboration will be the norm amidst digital natives rather than the exception amidst digital immigrants.

The social enterprise blueprint

Any journey needs a guidebook (nowadays an e-book or an App, as well) and the journey to the social enterprise is no exception. In working with organizations wrestling with questions about the future of their work, the following guidance provides a good place to start out on the social enterprise road:

Target work for modernization. For many organizations, the journey to the future of work should start with identifying work processes (and their enabling systems) that are ripe for reformation. Look for processes that meet these criteria:

ž Emphasize your digital value chain. Begin with work that is already digitized but that can be injected with innovative social and mobile technologies;

ž Empower globally distributed work teams. Target workflows between distributed team members to allow the enterprise to fully benefit from talent residing anywhere in the world;

ž Let your customers guide you –- really. If you are really listening to your customers, they are telling you where to start. Focus on interactions with employees and customers who have a millennial mindset and are willing to explore and utilize the emerging social sell/relate interaction models;

ž Find needles in your haystack. Target Big Data tools at a specific work process to uncover new opportunities and risks previously unrecognized and unrealizable; and

ž Look for “plateauing” processes and sun-setting systems. Seek out processes and systems where productivity improvements or brand differentiation has hit a wall. These are your urgent candidates for decommissioning or reconfiguring.

Drop your asset anchors. The virtualized, dis-aggregated, asset-light, social enterprise will exist in a cloud-first world where information services from cloud services vendors will be more secure than any organization can achieve themselves. Where work teams participate in 24/7 follow the sun process flows; where asset acquisition is the last resort; and where leadership stems from exploiting new uncertainties rather than milking conventional wisdom.

By understanding, accepting, and embracing the new to re-imagine how work is done, companies can re-invent themselves and re-establish their relevance for the new world ahead. Social enterprises will exemplify leading edge thinking about business and technology models and will thrive in an era of acceleration and dynamic volatility.

The successful 21st century business will leverage new service models, implement new commercial models for externalized business solutions, and deploy the SMAC stack to be asset light and agile, to collapse time and space, to add new layers of richness to interactions, and to gain clairvoyance buried amidst the zettabytes (soon to be yottabytes) of data in which we now all swim.

The social enterprise is far beyond “Facebook at work.” It will be born (or re-born) digital, global, and virtual. It will be designed for impermanence, built to fail fast and learn, and will value speed over perfection. As we have seen already, achieving this new business reality will not be simple, but enough firms are succeeding for all of us to realize the art of the possible.

Ben Pring and Paul Roehrig are co-directors, Center for the Future of Work at Cognizant.


Tags: social enterprise,

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