The plural of personal is social

There was a time in my life when everything I would consider “business” was also personal.

As many of you may know, I was born in Calcutta nigh on fifty-five years ago. I stayed there till 1980. There were no supermarkets in Calcutta in those days. For most things you walked down to your local provisions store, where you knew everyone and everyone knew you. By name. They didn’t just know you, they knew your family, where you lived, when you moved there, what you did. They knew when and if to offer help, advice, credit, whatever. Not everything was available at that friendly neighbourhood provisions store; so sometimes the Mountain came to Mahomet. Milk and newspapers were delivered home; new cooking vessels were bartered for old newspapers and saris, or at least that’s what I remember, in some variant of rag-and-bone-man. And occasionally we went to New Market to buy something more exotic, unavailable in the normal shops.

We always appeared to do business with people we knew well, and who knew us well. As a family we were probably satisficers rather than maximisers (to use Barry Schwartz’s parlance in The Paradox of Choice); we didn’t shop around, we looked for an exchange of value within a stable relationship. So my haircuts were at A.N. John on Park St, when we were well off, and 003b Short St, when we weren’t. Sports equipment was always bought at Castlewood, next to A.N.John. Books at Oxford Book Emporium on the other side of the street. Second-hand books and comics and magazines came via Mr Mallick of Free School Street, round the corner. When times were good, meals were at Firpo’s and Sky Room and tea at Flury’s. Indian food was at Amber. Shoes were bought round the corner from Amber, usually from the same shop. Clothes used to be tailored to fit at K.C.Jakkimull’s, next to Sky Room.

It wasn’t just that we went to the same shops. Or that the shops were so close to each other you could have covered them under a large blanket. Those things were important.

What was far more important was that they knew us by name, knew everything about us, knew what we wanted and knew what we needed. And we knew them, knew them by name, knew what they were good at and what they weren’t good at.

It was personal.

It was a relationship.

The relationship tended to be sustained over time and over generations. I can’t remember the number of times someone has told me that my father had sat in that very seat and been provided a shave/a meal/ a suit/whatever. Sometimes it went beyond that, and my grandfather was brought into the conversation.

Relationships. Where both sides invested. Where, after a while, you couldn’t see that there used to be two sides. No haggling over price or bargaining, that was reserved for the forays into the exotica of Hogg’s New Market.

And then, in 1980, after my father died, I came to the UK.

It took me years before I went into a supermarket, they scared me. I wanted personal. So I went for personal: the corner shop, the local newsagent, the local pub, places I could walk to, people who knew my name and whose names I knew. People I saw regularly. During those days you went to your bank branch to get many things done, and the staff there knew you. Your bank manager knew you. When you got a letter from someone you did business with, often enclosing a bill, you recognised the signature.

You knew the person who sent that letter. And they knew you.

You had a relationship. It was something in your DNA. A part of what proclaimed you to belong to the human race.

Then, as the Eighties progressed, we began to lose something of our humanity in how we did business with each other. Bigger became bigger and better than Better.

And during the 17-year sleigh-ride bull market that followed, a part of our humanity was lost in how we did business. The foundation for that loss was set in the broadcast age, in how firms communicated with people, how people couldn’t communicate back, aided and abetted by the one-directional technology that was television, occasionally exacerbated by those in the advertising business.

That’s what Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, Rick Levine and David Weinberger rebelled against in the Cluetrain Manifesto. How business had become not-personal. How companies had built walls between them and their customers, how much damage was being done by those walls, why that situation could not be sustained and how the internet and the Web was going to change all that. That’s what evoked Chris’s memorable words:

We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings—and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.

Those very emotions were what drove Doc to work on Vendor Relationship Management and then to write The Intention Economy. Those very emotions were what drove Chris to write Gonzo Marketing; you can see them at work when you read David’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Everything is Miscellaneous and Too Big To Know, as he looks through the lens of Cluetrain on how information is organised, accessed, labelled, enriched, made into useful knowledge and imparted as wisdom.

Those very emotions were probably responsible for making Rick into a great chocolatier.

[Disclosure: I have the privilege of being able to call the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto my friends. To have broken bread with them in different continents over the years, to have broken sweat with them in different escapades. We know each other by name. We know a bit of what makes each of us tick, the little bit we can know. I had the honour of writing a chapter in the tenth anniversary edition of that book, something that thrilled me and humbled me.]

Business is personal. It’s about relationships. It has always been so. Until we tried to forget it and concentrated on making money, not shoes. [As Peter Drucker said, people make shoes, not money]. Then, for a short while, business became not-personal.

As the Cluetrain guys signalled way back in 1999, the web was changing all that. Business was becoming personal again.

It comes as no surprise to me that was born during those heady times, as business started becoming personal again. It comes as no surprise to me that Marc Benioff understood that the plural of personal is social, and that it’s in the DNA of the company that he and Parker Harris founded. That’s why I went to work for them.

“Social” is not a layer. “Social” is not a feature. “Social” isn’t a product.

Social is about bringing being human back into business. About how we conduct business. About why we conduct business.

Social is something in people’s hearts, in people’s beings, in their DNA.

Man is born social.

Many companies were not.

And the companies that weren’t, they can’t just become social by buying layers or features or even products. Porcine unguents, nothing more.

You need to be reborn social.

You need to start thinking of the customer as someone to have a relationship with, to get to know, to invest in, to trust, to respect.

And you need to get everyone in the company to think that way, to act that way, in everything they do.

And you need to do this everywhere, not just with your customers. Not just with your supply web or your trading partners. Not just with your staff and your consultants.

Everyone. Everywhere.

The plural of personal is social.

Comments? [I hope to follow this up with a second post looking at how companies are doing this today, to be written sometime tomorrow].




47 thoughts on “The plural of personal is social”

  1. JP great post, love it. Everything happens in cycles, usually history repeating itself, except this time we’ve figured out connecting people at a local and global level is taking us back to our social roots. Look forward to the second installment :)

  2. Quick late-night comment to thank you for this great post, JP. It comes spot-on for me as a reminder of what drew me into social media — what makes me tick. Bringing business back to humans. Sometimes, when I’m caught up in my day-to-day work, I lose sight of the reason I do what I do. It’s good to be reminded. Always a pleasure to read you.

  3. Nicely done. I hear echoes of my childhood in your description of your younger days in Calcutta. We knew many details about the lives of the merchants we dealt with day to day, and they sometimes knew an equally uncomfortable amount about us. It’s interesting to me that the businesses and markets we grew up with didn’t scale the way we expect today’s businesses to scale. While I know there were logistical and market differences keeping businesses smaller then, I’m also wondering if there was a difference in expectation, and if people had some unspoken sense of how the community and market dictated a “right” size for an enterprise.

    Or, I might just be reaching for something imagined lost. :-)

    However, I think there are conversations to be had about scale, and how we might create small businesses to support, satisfy and delight, to foster rich day-to-day conversation and to just possibly bring us closer to the social and personal we remember from our youth.

    (And you get serious props for finding a way to use “porcine unguents” with a straight face. :-)

  4. Your prose is addictive, JP, and, as usual, visually inhaled in a flash and dancing around in the Gyri and Sulci of my head . And as I am reading, my thoughts are questioning if hierarchy or to be a bit crude “rule”, which has been a strong influencer of social, has either become too strong, too weak, out of balance or not in synch with humans. With the 80’s came a new era of hierarchy with less substance and flashier veneer (quarterly reporting. Material values created new hierarchies which were no longer tied to personal or human values, the human value became a commodity, tradeable, expendable, expireable.

    A few years ago, I was working for a service provider, we were trying to figure out how to optimize and control latency in the network to increase competitive advantage for an investment banks algo trading ecosystem, knowing that every millisecond of reduced latency could result in millions of dollars in profits. We were all in a frenzy, trying to figure out how to beat TCP/IP into submission to give us that extra micro or nanosecond until our CTO simply stated: “I do not understand what real value that will generate”. It took me a few years to understand and accept that his statement, much in line with what you just wrote about, was not about money, it hit right at what we perceive today to be of value and in the process have lost touch with the real values.

    JP, Thank You again for waking our sometimes lethargic brainfolds and causing them to riot.

  5. Beautiful prose, as usual, JP. As you look deeper into companies, I think the tension between the individual and the collective will play an important role.

  6. Hi JP. I have a question. What is your advice to someone who left their community exactly because they knew and were known by every shopkeeper, landlord, and policeman in the village. Someone who journeyed to the big city to be able to walk and transact anonymously, when they chose. When every online retailer, software provider, quango and health outlet thinks they know you, where do you go then?

  7. Indeed JP,

    A human or people-centric approach to business is a shift from production centered and profit maximisation toward people-centered economies, where as the name suggests, people are the central focus of business and economics.

    Drucker was one of the influences:

    “By going with the normal flow of free-market enterprise and the emerging replacement of monetary capital with intellectual capital as the dominant form of basic enterprise capitalization, it becomes easier to set up new companies primarily on the basis of invested intellectual capital. (See Post-Capitalist Society, by Peter Drucker). In plain English, socially responsible and forward-thinking companies can be set up quickly and cheaply–and these companies have indefinite potential for earnings and localized, targeted economic development. The initial objective is to develop model enterprises and communities, then implement successful strategies from those models into surrounding communities regionwide or nationwide, as needed.”

    It is above all, a matter of seeing the needs of others as equal to our own, a shift from “me first” toward we.

  8. As someone who has been following Cluetrain Manifesto since it was published ( and later archived ) I cannot agree with you more. My own International BPO was founded and runs on this premise…we may not have grown very large, but we have employees since the time we started operations and one of the best EBITA in the industry.

    And clients who are extremely happy that we do not even advertise / market for customer acquisition.

    But large businesses will ask you that question? Is that scaleable?

  9. Rick, agree. There are a few other comments also about scale, and I hope to address it in the next post or two.

  10. Thomas, there have been many debates about the relative payouts to different factors of production, in terms of human capital (both intellectual as well as relational), financial capital, land, infrastructure provided by the private sector and infrastructure provided by the state. What seems clear is that the payouts to the “financial capital” factor have gone way out of whack in comparison to the others. I have faith that these things will rebalance in time. The alternatives tend to be ugly and violent.

  11. Agreed, Joachim. And as these conversations develop I hope we will learn more about how to deal with those tensions.

  12. Rustlem, in the end it’s about choice. As long as those who seek anonymity and privacy can get it then everything works. But that selection will come at a price, since openness and transparency will become the norm and anonymity will be scarce and command a premium.

  13. Joachim, Rustlem, I’m not sure I agree with that John Vernon sentiment. True individuality comes from a sense of feeling safe, secure in the ability to express yourself. There is an implied trust relationship with the environment you’re in. The solution is to help create environments of trust, not environments of anonymity. The security that comes from anonymity is transient, unsustainable.

  14. Venkat (I assume from your email that it’s how you get called) I will try and address the issue of scale in my next post or two

  15. JP:

    Your observation that companies are not born social is very much in the spirit of what I believe. By reframing corporations away from portfolio of products and businesses towars portfolio of capabilities through relationships, we shift our view of corporations (and strategy) away from firm-centric towards network-centric. The relationships include what happens inside organizational hierarchy (framed through employment contracts and work relationships) as well as professional relationships that go beyond traditional organizational boundaries. External relationships in business networks are contractual but deepened through social connections that evolve over time. Looking at corporations through the social lens allows us to go beyond static, atomistic views that have permeated management thinking for the last few decades (e.g., single company’s core competencies) towards a more dynamic view in networks of different kinds, where core competencies and core connections define the capacity to succeed in the short-term and position for the long-term. Look forward to your next installment.

  16. Venkat, two of the things you said to me in 1999 have been extremely valuable. One, the importance of “equity currency” in creative industries … my views on companies like Microsoft have been formed and informed by that. But the second thing you said is something I quote regularly: Businesses used to be hierarchies of product and customer, now they are becoming networks of relationship and capability.

    I try and credit you each time, but sometimes it doesn’t happen and sometimes the crediting does not get carried through. It also happens when I quote Clay Shirky or Peter Drucker…

    I think a lot about what you said and say, and try and marry that with what’s coming from John Hagel and John Seely Brown re stocks and flows.

  17. Amen! Love your logic and the way you stated things. Social is about bringing being human back into business. About how we conduct business. About why we conduct business. As a small business owner (boutique PR and marketing firm owner) serving other small business owners (independent financial advisors) and the larger institutions that serve those financial advisors (custodians, broker/dealers, software and investment companies), I have always tried to build a business friendship and high level of trust with my clients. It’s people knowing and trusting people that makes business good. The money exchange becomes invisible after awhile – instead, the focus becomes doing what’s right based on a shared vision. Being business social, via online platforms and in personal meetings, can provide a strategic advantage … but only if you are willing to be transparent and authentic to an appropriate degree. I do think that some on Facebook have gone too far during election season blasting anyone who does not share their political opinions (calling other people names, being condescending, attacking others personally for third-party articles they share, etc.) We are known by the company we keep – and I’ll be unfriending those people, not just on Facebook but beyond. My mom always told me to watch how the boys I dated (1) treated their mothers and sisters (2) treated animals. When we can’t see business colleagues and clients/partners in person, social media can help us see the true colors of the people with whom we do business.

  18. JP: re anonymity etc.: in a personal business world, businesses will need to learn when folks need to be left alone. Cf. the little girl crying because she’s tired of election.

  19. Chris, agreed. Someone who knows you well will also know when to leave you alone. The delight is in the detail of how this is achieved/

  20. Marie,

    I agree with what you say and can put it into a practical context. It begins in 1996 with a paper arguing the case for human centric business, which opens:

    “At first glance, it might seem redundant to emphasize people as the central focus of economics. After all, isn’t the purpose of economics, as well as business, people? Aren’t people automatically the central focus of business and economic activities? Yes and no.”

    In 2006, we were confronted with a problem involving organised crime and a culture of being co-opted into silence through fear. To speak out and be seen as credibile required indenfication and radical transparency. We started to map out a strategy in full public view. Our article on institutional childcare in Ukraine described as ‘Death Camps for Children’ provoked considerable hostility.

    In the end however, it would leverage changes in governmnent policy and persuade many others that family homes for all children was a feasibile strategy:

  21. I’m with Thomas when he says “Your prose is addictive”.
    And also highly important in a time when some examples of how companies are using social media makes one wonder if they really care or if they’re just looking for the next creative stunt:
    Please keep your musings going, they always make me pause, think… and in the end have some faith on the work I’m striving to do myself in humanizing business.

  22. The notion of satisficing (versus maximizing) is directly attributable to Herbert Simon (not Barry Schwartz) and his many observations and contributions to behavioral decision making.

  23. Profound thinking. We all yearn for that personal service, yet too many people, even in front line jobs, don’t even think about personal. Why then do they expect my repeat business?

  24. @richard thank you. I have age-old memories of having read Simon at university, but the satisficer term obviously did not stick in my head. I stand corrected.

  25. @dave perhaps because they knew that most customers had limited choice and tended not to switch until really worked over

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