The Social Era Is More Than Social Media

The 11 definitive social-era rules that allow both people and institutions to thrive.

Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click here.

Things we once considered opposing forces—doing right by people and delivering results, collaborating and keeping focus, having a social purpose and making money—are really not in opposition. They never have been. But we need a more sophisticated approach to understand business models where making a profit doesn't mean losing purpose, community, and connection. Finding the right balance among them is key. We will find that balance as we shape new constructs for business models, strategies, and leadership. What we can create will be rich in many senses of the word.

Here are the social-era rules that allow both people and institutions to thrive:

1. Connections create value.

The social era will reward those organizations that realize they don't create value all by themselves. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people, and ideas. Networks of connected people with shared interests and goals create ways that can produce returns for any company that serves their needs.

2. Power in community.

Power used to come largely through and from big institutions. Today power can and does come from connected individuals in community. Power can come from the way you work with others, such as one party offering a platform to the multitude of creators. When community invests in an idea, it also co-owns its success. Instead of trying to achieve scale all by yourself, we have a new way to have scale: scale can be in, with, and through community.

3. Collaboration > control.

Organizations that "let go at the top"—forsaking proprietary claims and avoiding hierarchy—are agile, flexible, and poised to leap from opportunity to opportunity, sacrificing short-term payoffs for long-term prosperity. No longer can management espouse the notion that good ideas can come from everywhere, while actually pursuing a practice in which direction is owned by a few. Instead of centralized decisions, there is distributed input, decision making, and distributed ownership.

4. Celebrate onlyness.

The foundational element starts with celebrating each human and, more specifically, something I've termed onlyness. Onlyness is that thing that only one particular person can bring to a situation. It includes the skills, passions, and purpose of each human. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Without this tenet of celebrating onlyness, we allow ourselves to be simply cogs in a machine—dispensable and undervalued.

5. Allow all talent.

"Doing work" no longer requires a badge and a title within a centralized organization. Anyone—without preapproval or vetting or criteria—will create and contribute. And this fundamental shift changes how any organization creates value, and how many individuals gather together. This talent inclusion—across ages, genders, cultures, sexual orientation—is essential for solving new problems as well as for finding new solutions to old problems. Be the one to enable that connected individual in your enterprise, through systems and leadership, and you win.

6. Consumers become co-creators.

More and more companies embrace consumers as "co-creation" partners in their innovation efforts, instead of as buyers at the end of a value chain. Consumers, traditionally considered as value exchangers or extractors, are now seen as a source of value creation and competitive advantage. This collaboration shares power between the participants as we start to recognize value creation as an act of exchange, not simply a one-way transaction. As an exchange, all parties need to do it sustainably as each must have equilibrium to stay viable.

7. Mistakes can build trust.

Reach and connection in the social era start to be understood as a relationship similar to falling in love, following an arc of romance, struggle, commitment, and co-creation. These are not easily controlled by one party over the other but are a process of coming together. And the relationship gains strength from trying new things and the resulting failures, for it is in the process of making mistakes—and the ensuing forgiveness—that resilience develops.

8. Learn. Unlearn. (Repeat.)

Adaptability is central to how organizations and people thrive in the social era. In psychological language, the key to adaptability and personal growth is resilience. In biology, the equivalent term for adaptive skills is plasticity. In the social era, the term to use is flexibility. Instead of viewing strategy as a set end point, it becomes a horizon to aim for. Instead of asking employees to each simply man their own oar, we must encourage their capacity to navigate as conditions shift. Instead of perfection and getting it right the first time, innovation can be continuous.

9. Bank on openness.

Protecting intellectual property allows a company to keep its edge, to erect barriers to entry from competitors, to establish entirely new markets. At least, it used to. Then along came the social era, with its networks through which open, connected ideas became powerful, even catalytic. It's the difference between holding our ideas in a tight, closed fist or holding out our hand, open to what happens next.

10. Social purpose unleashes ownership.

The social object that unites people isn't a company or a product; the social object that most unites people is a shared value or purpose. Money motivates neither the best people nor the best in people. Purpose does. When people know the purpose of an organization, they don't need to check in or get permission to take the next step; they can just do it. Nonprofits have leveraged the power of people and purpose for years. But business hasn't been able to see the upside of purpose. With social purpose, alignment happens without coordination costs.

11. (There are no answers.)

Don't assume any set of rules is fully baked. Accept that your job is to stay alert to what happens next to figure out what assumptions need to be tuned. Listen, learn, adapt.

Let's dive in.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era by Nilofer Merchant. Copyright 2012 Nilofer Merchant. All rights reserved.

Nilofer Merchant is a corporate director at a NASDAQ-traded firm and a lecturer at Stanford, and formerly the founder and CEO of Rubicon. Among other Fortune 500 firms, she’s worked at Apple and Autodesk. She is the author of The New How and 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era. Follow her on Twitter @nilofer.

To further aid you in social era navigation, Fast Company has compiled for you—and from you—the Rules of Social Media.

[Image: Flickr user Ajari]

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  • Lawrence Michael

    I was just thinking along those lines some time ago and ended up with a page full of pictures in my website!  Now about finding enough people who share the values that allow for such age-old recognitions? Perhaps it becomes more an old age issue about saving one self from those that occupy the other-side of this value-system - includes to a large extent those are seen as benefiting from it as well as those who think they know how to go about it and others don't - the middle-men/women pack of hyenas (reduced hopefully to a large extent in a networked globalized world)!

  • Kingston University

    Good article but let's not forget that good business sense is important and that people must be working in order to pursue the other parts of life.  The Schaeffler Company takes this into account by making sure that their employees have jobs world wide.

  • marianne doczi

    Thank you Nilofer for expressing so genuinely the shift that is happening as people seek real value from values. We're so stuck in industrial language where the 'norm' is profit, individualism and money.  Looking forward to our creation and adoption of new terms for organisations that create value, whether it's social or financial, rather than the current binary of profit/not-for-profit. Thanks to the democratising forces of digital technology we're seeing the rise of the dr@m@teurs (digitally revved up amateurs) who no longer have to be constrained from expressing their creativity and ideas. Your #11 rules create a great agenda for someone wanting to transition from the zero sum game model. 

  • Jonathan Raymond

    This is really a great piece overall, my only disagreement is with point #3.   We have a crisis of leadership, and while doing away with hierarchy and "letting go" may sound good, it's not addressing the root problem.  The problem is the wrong kind of hierarchy, not hierarchy itself.   There's a way to lead that inspires and creates a culture of ownership among employees, and connects the company with its audience, without the leader pretending that they are not in charge.     

  • Guest

    Nilofer, your article is so RIGHT, it's LEFT me in awe. 
    Effective Connections, Constructive Communication, and Collaborative Creation is the real Currency in Commerce.
    Too much in last era spent on misguided competition (should start with self first, rather than others), Control (should be of self, not others), and Club (should include others, not exclude for egotistical reasons) mentality.

  • Guest

    Agree with Sandy as well. Effective Connection, Collaboration, and Creation is the real currency in Commerce. Too much in the last era spent on Competition (against others rather than self), Control (on others rather than self), and Club (membership exclusion rather than inclusion of all). Nilofer, this blog is so beautifully RIGHT, it's LEFT me in awe.

  • Sandy Adam

    Thanks for the blog article Nilofer. I picked up you book a few weeks ago after seeing it on the Harvard Business Review site, and just this weekend got to hear you speak on a podcast. Those of us who have been the early adopters of Social have known for some time now that this for sometime, that social is about people, not the technology or independent platforms. Hopefully, books and articles like this will serve as further evidence of the revolution in communication that is taking place.