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Can Social Business Reverse Our Growing Crisis of Innovation?

March 21, 2015

barnraising men

Recently I was talking with a friend who works for a Fortune 500 company. When I asked about social media and collaboration, there was a slight chuckle. “Even if we had time to collaborate” my friend said, “the bosses have no interest in new ideas. All they care about is this insane push for us to hit our numbers.”

I must admit I was not completely shocked. Even with the enthusiastic press and daily chat feeds calling this the ‘new era of social collaboration‘, I knew that a majority of workers remained more like my friend than not. And given the recent data it makes a lot of sense.


America’s Crisis of Innovation

As Steve Denning recently reported, America remains mired in a generations-long innovation crisis. Despite the nation’s rebounding economy and renewed optimism, most American firms simply can’t compete in the global marketplace.

While we might be quick to point the finger at broader economic and political factors, two recent polls suggest that the causes may be much closer to home. In fact, they may be within the workplace itself.


An Epidemic of Disengagement

Data now suggests that a large majority of American workers spend their days in environments that discourage collaboration and creative thinking. While this is especially the case with millennials, a majority of workers of all ages feel discouraged from thinking outside the box and contributing new ideas.

Reporting on a study recently published by the firm MindMatters, Denning notes that

Only 5% of respondents report that workers in innovation programs feel highly motivated to innovate. [And] while more than half the respondents (55%) say that their organizations treat intellectual property as a valuable resource, only one in seven (16%) believed their employers regarded its development as a mission-critical function. (in Forbes)

Add to this a recent Gallup poll finding that more than two-thirds of American workers feel disengaged from their jobs. Here again, we see millennials hit especially hard.

According to Gallup,  over 71% of millennials currently feel disengaged from their work. Gallup reported that

This finding suggests that millennials may not be working in jobs that allow them to use their talents and strengths, thus creating disengagement.


The Gap Between Aspirations vs. Execution

For businesses, these numbers reveal a significant disconnect between organizations’ professed ambitions and their daily execution. While business and political leaders might say they long for the kind of fresh thinking needed to reestablish dominance of global markets, those on the front lines hear quite a different message.

Indeed, many managers seem to be taking page right out of Frederick Taylor’s playbook for Scientific Management by, essentially telling their workers You’re not here to think. You’re here to do!

This leaves us with a question: If social business is ushering us into the next wave in innovation, how can a social mindset help to reverse this epidemic of disengagement?

Pushing Social Even Further

There is little doubt that social technology is a key player in the  future of work.  The current dialogue focusing on social tools and strategies for workplace engagement is an important one. It’s a wellspring of transformation for what business currently is and will become.

Yet if American business is serious about reviving innovation, the conversation needs to go even further. As future-leaning thinkers, we will have to expand our current dialogue and consider an even bolder vision for the potential of a social mindset.

For instance, can we push the idea of “social” further to envision management practices more open to uncertainty and the risk-laden terrain of creative thinking? If so, we may open a doorway to collaborative cultures more welcoming to risk, uncertainty and new thinking.


The Risk of Looking Deeper

But there is an important caveat: any meaningful conversation about opportunities must also consider the forces impeding them. In some cases this means coming face to face with issues perhaps considered too delicate to discuss. For example, for managers this will likely mean examining the deeper reasons why they treat innovation and change more like threats than as opportunities.

I’ll explore some of these deeper reasons myself in the next piece. But for now I hope to hear some of your thoughts on pushing the social mindset, expanding creative thinking, and exploring the barriers to innovation.


15 Comments leave one →
  1. IPS permalink
    March 22, 2015 10:19 am

    Reblogged this on Innovative policy.

  2. March 22, 2015 7:12 pm

    There is so much truth in your post David! Thanks for writing it.

    In my mind, your friend who works for the Fortune 500 Company, nailed THE speed bump preventing leaders to think, do and work differently – hitting quarterly numbers. Sadly, this short-termism practice is embedded in organisations’ DNA. Until shareholders are willing to forego immediate gratification any form of change is going to be unsustainable and will continue to produce ineffective and limited results.

    We need leaders with immense courage. Those who will stand up and say to shareholders – if you want a sustainable return on your investment in the future, then things need to be done differently. That means we will not hit our quarterly numbers for a few quarters. Can you live with that?

    Next and in my humble opinion, leaders need to do less broadcasting and more probing, sensing (as mentioned in your previous post) and listening to all employees, vendors and customers/clients in ‘real time’. This act of enlisting key stakeholders creates ‘engagement capital’ (coined by @BMACDFW) that can be unleashed and harnessed to generate new ideas, insights that lead to innovation.

    Looking forward to your next post David.

    • March 25, 2015 11:35 pm

      Thanks so much for your comments. Clearly we’re thinking along the same lines. I particularly like your point about leaders needing the courage to shift the dialogue with shareholders. Like you, I think that gets to the heart of the matter. While it’s important we continue to think about new models and paradigms for organizations, most of that will have little meaning until the money follows the new thinking.

      I keep thinking about that when I hear things about the impact of the millennial generation. I do agree this is unique generation with the capacity to shift things in a substantial way. My question is, will millennials hold to those same ideals when they’re in the c-suites with the mortgages and kids in college? Obviously it’s still too soon to tell.

      Again, thanks for the comments, support and heads up on @BMACDFW (checking him out now!) Kindest, ~d

  3. March 23, 2015 7:33 am

    We cover some of this in our new book, When Millennials Take Over: Preparing for the Ridiculously Optimistic Future of Business. Social business, while it put pressure on traditional management, was not enough by itself to force real change. But as the Millennials become the largest segment of the workforce (and hit management at the same time), I think the pace of change is going to ramp up.

    • March 25, 2015 11:45 pm

      Jamie, Thanks so much for your comment. While I’m far from an expert on the Millennials, as I remarked to Susan above, I’m curious to see what happens when they move into the c-suite. I wonder if they will be able to hold that same committed, service-oriented space when their own personal risks and rewards are so much greater. Any thoughts on this?


      PS: Checking out the 1st chapter of your book now. Looks fascinating!

  4. March 23, 2015 9:41 am

    Maybe we’re looking for innovation in the wrong areas. Large existing companies have never been the real source for innovation. Regardless of whatever innovation edicts they declare, their hierarchical structure is not conducive to it. One insecure manger somewhere in the chain of command can “through a wrench” in any well-meaning efforts.

    Innovation is function of entrepreneurialism. And social media can assist in this by providing an access for disparate parties to connect that probably otherwise wouldn’t. This is good for innovation. But these connections are just that … and most time nothing more. They’re ‘weak ties.’ Converting these ‘weak ties’ to the next level of collaboration is step that social media has a hard time with. By effectively refining this ‘transition’ – we will greatly improve the odds for innovation. That should be where efforts lie. And these efforts probably need to look past social media.

  5. kfortowsky permalink
    March 24, 2015 12:31 pm

    Hi David: Another great post!

    A search of your site shows no mention of “Nilofer Merchant” so perhaps you have not yet come across her. “11 RULES FOR CREATING VALUE IN THE #SOCIALERA” is a great read and pretty much exactly about the context that you are describing. The “insane push for us to hit our numbers” is very much a pathology of management (and market commentators) trying to use “industrial era” models. These models were often a poor fit even for companies in that era, but did reflect an underlying reality that most investments created a physical reality that could be reliably expected to produce a future stream of output and thus revenue. Contrast that to how ephemeral a key revenue-producing asset like a “google page rank” is in the Social Era.

    Nilofer describes the beginnings of how we will understand (and measure) organization’s ability to create value in the Social Era. Two quick quotes (with my Kindle edition locations):

    “Where the industrial era is oriented around the institution and its ability to create scale, the Social Era is oriented around how to formulate value with and by connected humans. This new orientation is changing how we value the individual and how we lead.” (location 797)

    “Unlocking talent is not the frosting on the cupcake as it was in the industrial era. In the Social Era, it’s the key ingredient in how we make the cupcake itself, and whether the cake is viable.” (location 911)

    • March 24, 2015 1:19 pm


      Thanks so much for these comments. First I want you to know that your comments on the previous piece had a lot to do with shifting my thinking in the direction of this post and the next one (where I’ll talk about Dennings point about the detrimental impact of executive compensation being tied to shareholder value.

      Thanks for the reminder about Nilofer. For me she’s something of a compass pointing towards ‘true north’. I have read her work and have actually spoken with her on couple of occasions. But you reminded me I need to revisit her writings, because they just drive it down and help me remember what this is all about.

      Also, thanks for your previous comments and emails as well. While I’ve not had the opportunity to engage with them as much as I’d like, please know they are appreciated and have influence on my thinking. (So keep it coming!)


  6. kfortowsky permalink
    March 24, 2015 1:24 pm

    You’re welcome, David, and thanks for the “feedback on the feedback” .

  7. kfortowsky permalink
    March 25, 2015 5:09 pm

    Also, we share an admiration for Denning’s writing in Forbes. My favorite piece by him is re the collapse of Michael Porter’s consultancy (Monitor Group).

    While looking up the reference, I was reminded that mindsets like Porter’s constitute a dual threat to innovation:
    1) the notion that business success flows from finding a ‘structural advantage’, which may have no connection to innovation at all or, if it does initially, certainly does not require continuous innovation …
    2) the notion that “the numbers” can drive *all* aspects of a business (ie including what was previously considered the unknowable – strategic context) thus justifying lack of attention to any input that cannot conform to “the numbers” (ie almost any significant innovation, in its nascent phases).

    And do not forget what a hugely powerful influence Porter was, and continues to be. I doubt that there is a single “Strategy” course to be found in any major MBA program which does not take Porter’s “5 Forces” as almost gospel. (Ironically, in my opinion he did write some great stuff about other aspects of strategy, but they have been completely drowned out by his “5 Forces”.)


    << … sustainable above-average profits that can be deduced from the structure of the sector? Here we are in the realm of unicorns and phlogiston. Ironically, like the search for the Holy Grail, the fact that the goal is so mysterious and elusive ironically drove executives onward to continue the quest.


  8. kfortowsky permalink
    March 25, 2015 5:20 pm

    Somehow the second paragraph got chopped from my quote of Denning re Porter in the comment above. Full quote was:


    … sustainable above-average profits that can be deduced from the structure of the sector? Here we are in the realm of unicorns and phlogiston. Ironically, like the search for the Holy Grail, the fact that the goal is so mysterious and elusive ironically drove executives onward to continue the quest.

    Hype, spin, impenetrable prose and abstruse mathematics, along with talk of “rigorous analysis”, “tough-minded decisions” and “hard choices” all combined to hide the fact that there was no evidence that sustainable competitive advantage could be created in advance by studying the structure of an industry.


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