Lessons In Social Business (via Vietnam)


6am December 29th , Con Son, Con Dao Islands

I’m woken by the crackle of a public address system. It’s the Communist Party giving their twice daily update of the official state news.

Welcome to Vietnam.

I walk outside. The early rising vietnamese are up and about. Getting ready for school. Heading to work on scooters. Checking their smartphones. Nobody seems to be listening to the broadcast.

I’m wide awake – so I check the news on Twitter.

Except Twitter doesn’t work.

Although the Facebook ban was lifted a couple of years ago, Twitter still suffers from many blocks. The Communist Party are undecided about the value of social media. It has become a potent means of challenging the state’s official narrative and authority. Indeed – Internet access and smartphone ownership has spread exponentially in recent years.

It’s a fairly unsophisticated Twitter block though. A quick google of “How to get around Vietnam firewalls” plus a few iPhone settings changes has me tweeting again in minutes. 

This DIY mass communication is a source of frustration to the Party. Through blogs and social media, the people are bypassing official broadcasters and getting their information from sources they trust. People just like themselves. 

Change is happening at a faster pace than the state would like. They are forever dealing with a wave of online protests that are becoming increasingly difficult to contain.

A connected generation. The rise of the individual as social influencer. New and unlikely collaborations threatening hierarchy and removing silo mentality.

The Vietnam story is just 2014 organisational change writ large.

If we’re honest, many western organisations are just as uncomfortable with the change brought about by new social networks. They don’t jail bloggers for sure – but they do have a number of ways to limit personal autonomy:

  • The blocked access to social media sites (which just like in Vietnam takes seconds to circumvent from any smartphone)
  • The approval proforma submitted to a Comms team to get a social media account (I was told only last week of an organisation where employees have to “earn the right to tweet”)
  • The long policies with lists of things you can and can’t say. (So it’s safer not to say anything)
  • The ubiquitous – and completely meaningless – profile use of “These are my views and not my employers”.

It’s time to decide which side of the fence you’re on.

On one side – the organisations who think individuals are the important voices. These are businesses comfortable existing in a state of flux as they adapt to the digital landscape. It’s fast paced and flawed. Structures and policies are discarded in favour of (sometimes reckless) innovation. Hierarchy gets weakened every day. They happily admit they don’t have all the answers and seek out collaborators. 

On the other – the organisations who prefer structure , order and process. Data drives decision making by the few. The collective voice is the official channel. The organisation projects authority. Everyone knows the part they play and they rarely depart from their position, pay grade or job description. Their digital presence is more monologue than dialogue.

These are both valid options for any business, although the latter seems to be less viable with each passing day.

We are still at the very early stages of the adoption of social business models. Indeed many leaders, probably a majority, still think of social as a set of tools rather than it being a much broader cultural philosophy.

Those in the know are clear: Social business is less about social media and more about technology as an enabler of wider cultural transformation. It’s using tech to make organisations more human.

In Vietnam – the growth of collaborative technologies is rapid. They are fuelling new social movements and calls for radical change. The “official”  line is being subverted and increasingly ignored in favour of myriad social networks.

But this isn’t just Vietnam. It’s your organisation – right now.

Our challenge is whether we choose to work with it or against it.

State advertising (or propoganda) - Ho Chi Minh City
State advertising (or propaganda) – Ho Chi Minh City

3 thoughts on “Lessons In Social Business (via Vietnam)

  1. Paul, brilliant post. Thanks for writing it. Isn’t it ironic that a holiday gave you the opportunity to have a sightline on this.

    It seems to me many business execs know this choice is at their doorstep, they know it has to be acknowledged, and many do it, but they don’t know what that means they have to do, which in itself is quite stressful.

    We’ve all grown up in the age of the factory, with factory thinking. Taken to its conclusion, a lot of existing assumptions come up for question. What does it mean for people as leaders, for example? How do we measure the contribution people make?

    And as you say there’s the ‘structures and policies that are discarded in favour of (sometimes reckless) innovation’. How can digital transition be handled intelligently?

    This is altering entire business models and it isn’t going away, because the real shift (dare I say it) is technology is now bigger than all of us and it wants it. Technology is the unstoppable force and our ‘organisational states’ need to learn to harness it.

    Democratisation is part of the picture, the other I think is how effective the networked organisation they connect to is. There are fascinating times ahead for those that embrace the change.

  2. Thanks Anne – a beautifully worded comment that I wish I could include in the main post!

    You are right. I’ve rather bluntly articulated it as a choice between two models when in fact most leaders – certainly at exec level – know that times have changed but don’t necessarily know where to go next.

    There’s no shame in this – as quite frankly there isn’t a roadmap. It’s all about how people learn from each other, from new voices in their organisations, from people like you and @VisceralBiz.

    It’s OK for executives to say they don’t know how to harness technology. We don’t. We are all learners here (Communist Party of Vietnam included!)

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