If you follow the topic of social business, you’ve probably seen a five-step model that depicts the different stages that a large enterprise progresses through on their way to fulfilling the vision of social business.

Interestingly, these models don’t say a lot about how to get from one phase or stage to the next. Stage three, for example, may consist of three things – but what’s the important part?  

Where do companies get stuck? What do you really need to complete in order to get to the next level?  

The Dachis Group has a model that looks like this, encompassing five stages, beginning with “ad hoc” approaches and culminating in a “unified social business strategy”. IDC also has a five-stage model, which begins with “experimentation” and ends with “optimisation”.  

The strategy firm Ant’s Eye View defines progress as a five-stage journey, starting with “traditional” business practices and ending with a ”fully engaged enterprise”.

You’ve probably already noticed that these models are pretty similar:  they start with experimentation and end with transformation.  And they include a lot of stuff in the middle, mostly along the lines of: doing more, doing better, and doing differently. But they don't tell you how to get to the next stage. 

Let’s start with a model that’s not too different than the ones we identified above. Here’s the model we use at Lithium:

A couple of differences I’ll point out. We define the journey not in terms of what you’re doing inside your business, but rather in terms of what you are creating for your customer.  I think we’d all agree that, before there was a social business, there was a social customer.  

In some ways, it’s the customer who has driven the transformation so far. And of course the customer is in some way the ultimately judge of what we do – so let’s reflect that in our model.

Second, you can see that we’re cheating a little bit on stage five. What’s “world class” today may not be “world class” tomorrow.  How do we know what we’re aiming at?  

In fact, this is exactly the point. There isn’t an “end state” here, this transformation isn’t terminal. But that doesn’t mean that, at any point in time, we can’t identify what an advanced social business and social customer experience might look like.

Ok, let’s look at how companies move from stage to stage.  

Moving from stage one to stage two

In the US, Best Buy has been a leader in enterprise social efforts, and I’ve had the privilege of hearing the story of their journey several times, in conference presentations I’ve done with their social lead, Gina Debogovich. Gina’s been involved with Best Buy efforts since day one, so she’s the rare person who has been active in every stage of a company’s multi-year journey.  

As Gina notes, getting started in social media was in part a matter of gaining approval to progress from listening to engaging. First they got the OK to listen, then to respond, but only privately, and finally to respond publicly.  

As this example illustrates, there is a key milestone in getting from stage one to two: strong management sponsorship. Strong sponsorship means not just budget, but an understanding of why you’re undertaking this effort, and a willingness to defend it when others are skeptical or fearful of the results.  

Sponsorship is a species of leadership, and as such is hard to define. I often say that, while it’s hard to say what a leader is, it’s easy to say what they are not. A leader is not a person who comes to his/her subordinates a year after launch and says, “Quick, we have to prove why we did this!”

Moving from stage two to stage three

If strong sponsorship is the ticket for getting to stage two, what do you need to get from stage two to stage three? For most companies, getting to stage three requires the creation of a social hub.  

A social hub is a place, typically on the corporate domain, which serves as a home base for your social initiatives.  It often has a strong functional purpose. A typical purpose is peer-to-peer support.  

But as part of your social journey, it has a higher, more strategic purpose: to provide a place where your fans and advocates can gather.  Some common interaction styles in a social hub are ideation, discussion, and blogging.  

These kinds of interactions are happening in many places on the web, but when they are happening on your domain, you have the opportunity operationalise them: that is, to manage and measure them as part of your business. That’s why this phase is called “operationalise”.  

As the world’s largest maker of personal computer systems, HP’s consumer business has long been very active in social media, but their efforts really began to scale after they launched the HP Consumer Support Forum on hp.com in late 2008.  

Today, millions of customers come to HP’s social hub every month to learn and engage with customers like themselves – and the quality of that experience is guaranteed by one of the more sophisticated enterprise social operations on the planet.  

Moving from stage three to stage four

The next transition is a big one. For most companies, it involves taking a successful, well operationalized social business effort and extending it. The extension might be into new businesses or product lines. It might be into new languages or geographies. Or it might be into new business functions.  

Social business gains momentum within a single business, language or function, such as consumer support in North America, or in business-to-business marketing in the UK. 

How does a company take that success and extend it?  

You might guess that the answer to this is a formal governance structure, or a center of excellence, or executive leadership that drives change from the top. And all of these are important; in fact, any one of these will take you a long way toward that transition into stage four.  

But looking across the hundreds of companies that we work with, there’s another factor that’s common to most companies making the transition successfully. That factor is system integration. 

Why system integration?  

It’s because, at the end of the day, companies don’t run on governance, or culture, or desire:  they run on data and on process. And knitting your business systems together with your social systems gives any business or function within your organization a head start in getting launching a social initiative.  

There’s another benefit as well. By connecting social with customer relationship management (CRM) systems, you can draw a direct line from social activity to business value.  

Moving from stage four to stage five

How about the transition to stage five?  It’s a tougher question, since few companies have made that transition today. We do know what world class looks like, though.  

World-class today means that many jobs have changed inside the organisation.

  • In market research, someone’s role is different because of the ongoing dialogue you’re having with customers.
  • In product development, someone’s job is different because customers are now sharing their ideas and feedback live, every day.  
  • In support, where customers are now helping customers, someone in support is focusing on only the most difficult questions, since the easier ones no longer come to him.  
  • In marketing, those who create marketing plans now incorporate word-of-mouth programs because the word-of-mouth can now be measured and influenced.  

And because of all of this, the company is dynamically creating products and processes in partnership with customers.  

And no, so far there isn’t yet a single milestone that signals a transition from stage four to five, but we’ll know that answer soon enough. Stay tuned!

Joe Cothrel

Published 11 June, 2012 by Joe Cothrel

Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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Comments (11)

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Gareth Jones

Hi Joe. Nice post - so many 5 stage models!

BUT! There is always a but! Your process and journey make absolute sense however there is one thing missing from these models and the wider dialogue about how to create a social business:

The internal social context.

Perhaps its because you guys only provide external, customer based platforms but it amazes me that so many organisations are chomping at the bit to become a "social business" yet internally they are completely the opposite. you talk about companies running on data and process - not culture. But you will fail completely in your quest to become a social enterprise if you dont create a social culture internally.

You cant be social on the outside if you are not social on the inside.

So many organisations are engaging in valuable conversation and dialogue with customers yet internally they are banning access to social tools. Opening up the watercooler conversation and engaging your employees in the same way is a key parameter in the social business journey. Yet it is largely ignored.

You need another model, with the same steps, entitled "Creating the social employee experience" ;)

about 6 years ago


Caroline Robertson

Great post. Our experience would suggest that Gareth's response is valid too. I've opened access to these case study videos and presentations from Juniper Networks, Deloitte, BT and IBM on developing socially skilled marketers and employees. Simply view them (free access) before July 13 2012:

**Case study: Social skills for your business,Zoe Sands, Head of Digital EMEA, Juniper Networks
**Specialist briefing: Social Business - A Business Imperative, Ofer Guetta, IBM

**The making of a social business, Bian Salins, BT
**The social media approach at IBM, Delphine Remy-Boutang

I hope you'll find them helpful.

about 6 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

"Strong sponsorship means not just budget, but an understanding of why you’re undertaking this effort, and a willingness to defend it when others are skeptical or fearful of the results."

That willingness to defend your plan is crucial. Social media isn't known for quick turnaround, and a lot of people are going to get antsy while waiting for results. You have to keep them focused on the long term goals.

about 6 years ago


Robert Gilmour

My clients (hotels) are first and foremost interested in running a successful COMMERCIAL business as that's what feeds the various mouths, including the banks.

All this social stuff is pie in the sky and navel gazing unless it can be proved to change a business commercially, and the jury is still way way out on this one.

about 6 years ago


John Coulter

I agree this is a good post. But I also think the observations about being "social inside" are actually where the genuine insight in all this is. This is the sort of stuff us lot at the very earliest stages of all this need. Keep em coming.

about 6 years ago

Joe Cothrel

Joe Cothrel, Chief Community Officer at Lithium

Gareth, thanks for the comment, and love your blog. With internal collaboration, you've touched on a topic near and dear to my heart. I spent five years as a researcher and practitioner (i.e., community builder) focused on internal projects before I ever touched a customer community. I've also had the good fortune to work with partners in academia to do formal research into internal collaboration. Here are a few of pieces I've coauthored on the subject, which you might find interesting:

You are correct that internal communities aren't a primary focus at Lithium, but there are a lot of companies who use our platform internally, for just the reasons you mention -- internal and external collaboration really do enrich and complement each other.

Having said that, I can't agree with this:
"You can't be social on the outside if you are not social on the inside."

Think of our experience at Lithium alone: Hundreds of millions of customers have used our customer's communities over the past ten years. Today, tens of millions use them every month. Now, I love our customers, but I would not say that all of them -- or even most of them -- have mastered social interactions internally in their organizations. Heck, the same is true of companies at large: a recent article I read in Information Week noted that only about 10% of companies consider their efforts to be very successful. I don't know of this is accurate, but my experience tells me that it's not far off.

It feels to me that internal social is where external social was 10 years ago. Which is kind of astonishing, since you might say it's been around far longer.

So maybe you're right, we need another model.

Caroline, that's terrific -- thanks so much for sharing. BT and Juniper are long-time customers of Lithium, so very proud to see them there. Adding a bookmark for theidm.com.

Right on, Nick. There's a huge temptation to screw it up by changing tack too early and too often. For communities, I usually say, please don't change anything major for 90 days after launch.

Richard, I don't agree that that the jury's still out on value from social -- http://www.lithium.com/pdfs/books/lithium-success-book.pdf
what some of our customers (not us, but our customers) have to say about their return.

But I can agree that if your ability to meet the fundamental needs of your customers, employees, and investors is in question -- then social isn't the answer.

about 6 years ago


Gareth Jones

Hi Joe - thanks for coming back and glad you like the blog :) Thanks also for the links. Im on a mission to explore more 'evidence' and examples, especially on the internal side.

My point on the social inside vs outside thing is that I believe you cant be a sustainable social business long term externally if you are not that way inclined internally. Collaborating externally is all about open conversations, trust, honesty and building on those foundations. I have seen some of those business that get that right (several powered by lithium!).

WE are only at the beginning of the social maturity curve in my view, so we take a traditional marketing view of this new landscape which is wrong. so we still think in terms of silo's and functions, therefore it still feels comfortable for an organisation to take this approach externally, in isolation of its internal social culture. Over time, this will become difficult - social interaction provides the opportunity for everyone to become a marketer, a sales person, a recruiter, an HR person etc informally. If we dont open the organisation and embed these habits internally too, we are heading for a train crash.

Of course, as an organisation you might be able to carry on, and you might even make a profit - but as jim collins says, Good is the enemy of Great - its what keeps us from challenging the status quo.

You are right I think in that internal social is 10 years behind external but thats because we could make it that way. Organisations have had to address the customer voice - despite their unwillingness to do so in the early days back around the millenium. But as organisations we have been able to avoid the employee voice - but social (or rather open collaboration platforms) have changed/are changing all that.

Long term, if you try and be a social business externally with a handicapped internal social strategy you will fail or vastly underperform in the market. Its just my belief of course, but i reckon its where the real gold is.

In fact id say that the really smart organisations will be those that create one ecosystem of customer, employees, potential customers, potential employees etc. but thats just me ;)

@Caroline- thanks a bunch for the links - very kind of you!

about 6 years ago



You are right I think in that inner group is 10 decades behind exterior but thats because we could create it that way. Organizations have had to deal with the individual discussion - despite their disinclination to do so in the start returning around the millenium

about 6 years ago



Of course, as an organisation you might be able to carry on, and you might even make a profit - but as jim collins says, Good is the enemy of Great - its what keeps us from challenging the status quo.

about 6 years ago


zetaclear price

This is the sort of stuff us lot at the very earliest stages of all this need. Keep em coming.

about 6 years ago



That willingness to defend your plan is crucial. Social media isn't known for quick turnaround, and a lot of people are going to get antsy while waiting for results. You have to keep them focused on the long term goals.

about 6 years ago

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