“Social” more important than flawed IBM sales pitch

IBM: Four Major Trends Shaping Social Business in 2013 and Beyond” challenges me. Either I’m too witless to “get social”, or the recent IBM Connect 2013 conference was selling snake oil–or possibly both.

While I know IBM is filled with savvy, successful people, I have to conclude that its social business side is empty. Not just empty, but hazardously so. Hold on to your wallet if someone tries to talk with you this way.

eWeek published “Four Major Trends …” in its standard format of a ten-part slide show. The first slide begins:

Beyond Marketing.
The true social enterprise is so far beyond marketing, it isn’t even funny.
Social + Analytics + Cloud + Mobile = Success.
The four-way between social, analytics, cloud and mobile is where it’s at in 2013.

I’m all in favor of vivid, earthy, memorable, and compelling language. From what I can tell, though, these words don’t have any particular meaning–there’s no follow-up or even implicit clarity that particular “social” actions will result in specific sales or other organizational goals. These slogans inspire the listener to … nothing I understand beyond being social.

Slideshow author Darryl K. Taft quotes presenter Sandy Carter, vice president of social business sales and evangelism for IBM, as illustrating the slide with “the example of an Asian retailer that has Facebook-like ‘like’ tags on the hangers for their clothing to let potential buyers know how many people like the product.” I know Taft is an experienced and knowledgeable reporter; I believe Carter said this. I even believe the unnamed Asian (or perhaps Brazilian) clothier has special hangers. What’s missing is any sense of how this relates to measurable customer retention, sales expansion, inventory turnover, or any of the other parts of a business that “pay the bills”.

The one follow-up slide that claims quantitative results overdoes it: “Social business increases marketing effectiveness 17 percent and reduces product development time 20 percent, according to a McKinsey study cited by IBM. In addition, sales increase 15 percent, and customer satisfaction grows 20 percent.” This strikes me as an Onion-caliber parody on the foibles of so-called management studies: two decimal places of accuracy in results, with a binary input applied to a population unspecified geographically, temporally, or by industry!

I’ve been reluctant to track down Carter or the Conference organizers, from concern that the effort would lead only to more disappointment and annoyance. It’s not hard, though, to imagine that the study in question is McKinsey & Company’s July 2012 publication, “The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies“. The puzzle is why IBM chose to degrade the value of McKinsey’s analysis: “The social economy …” is full of meaningful descriptions, apt cases, and careful propositions like “… social technologies can also reduce product development time significantly …” Contrast that with the slide’s claim above that “Social business … reduces product development times 20 percent …” The only way I can generate 20 percent from the figures which actually appear in “The social economy …” is through arithmetic error.

Perhaps it’s prejudicial to label what IBM does to “The social economy …” as a puzzling degradation. Maybe the only purpose of McKinsey, in the IBM perspective, is to arrive at the fifth slide, where “IBM officials argued that their platform is the best for social business.” This clinches the deal for me. When a salesperson tells me his product is best–not best for specific circumstances, or in a particular context–I recognize I’ve left engineering for cheerleading, and it’s time for me to leave.

It upsets me to write “I” and “me” as often as I have in these remarks; real business problems and solutions are far more interesting than my idiosyncrasies. IBM’s presentation of its social business is so vacuous as to leave me no choice: with so little real content in the IBM “social” vision, I’m left with the embarrassment of reporting my own response. In the meantime, when figuring out the role social should have in your own affairs, go to the source: McKinsey, another reputable analyst, or perhaps a trustworthy trade group. I’ll also return within the next month to demonstrable successes of “social”. For now, the vendors seem too stuck on slogan-slinging to be of any help.

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