Today, more than 1.5 billion people worldwide have an account on a social networking site, and almost one in five online hours is spent on social networks. These figures are highlighted in a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) exploring the economic impact of social technologies. The technologies in question are ‘IT products and services that enable the formation and operation of online communities, where participants have distributed access to content and distributed rights to create, add, and/or modify content.’ They include technologies that also have been labelled as ‘social media’ and ‘Web 2.0’. These technologies are dramatically altering the character of communication, relationship building, information access and data usage, social choices, and service models, as well as offering new opportunities for social innovation.
The rapid growth of social technologies demonstrates the extent of their appeal. They tap into fundamental human behaviours: sharing information with others, comparing experiences, forming groups, and defining relationships. But they have given these behaviours the speed and scale of the Internet. Social technologies allow people to interact with large numbers of people across time zones at low cost. And they provide platforms for content creation, distribution, and consumption. Businesses are responding by embracing social technologies as a tool to generate new forms of consumer insights, solicit unfiltered feedback, and ‘crowdsource’ new ideas for products and services. ‘Open innovation’ has been made possible by tapping into the distributed knowledge and expertise of citizens. Social technologies also have the potential to raise productivity by streamlining communication and collaboration, reducing barriers between silos, and identifying where specialised information resides within an organisation. MGI estimate that between $900 billion and $1.3 trillion in value can be unlocked annually through the use of social technologies in the consumer packaged goods, consumer financial services, professional services, and advanced manufacturing. Their findings are focussed on the economic impact of social technologies in terms of performance but how can the field of social innovation benefit from these technologies?
Online networks are a core component in many social innovations and have acted as an enabler of many new products, services, models, markets, and processes. They have provided a whole new infrastructure for collaboration which can empower citizens to contribute to solving societal challenges in a variety of ways. There are now platforms for aggregating knowledge, for sharing and bartering, for peer-to-peer learning, and for collective action and protest. Scearce, Kasper and McLeod Grant have written about the creation of a networked mindset through social media tools – a way of working wikily. This is characterised by principles of openness, transparency, decentralised decision-making, and distributed action. They point to examples of this mindset in action such as Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Proctor and Gamble’s ‘Connect and Develop‘ initiative, the Save Darfur Coalition, and Habitat for Humanity Egypt.
Chui and colleagues outline a wide array of uses for social technologies in the social sector including gathering information, crowdsourcing labour and ideas, raising funds, enlisting volunteers, building support, and educating the public. One major benefit of social technologies is their ability to increase the number and quality of social interactions that organisations have with their supporters, volunteers and beneficiaries. Based on the demographic and behavioural information that people provide on social networking sites, organisations can more effectively target people and tailor their messages. Social media is well suited to the social nature of volunteering because it increases the visibility of contributions. Fundraising on social platforms costs significantly less than direct mail, telephone, and other traditional channels, but can also lead to better returns.
Social technologies can also be used to help organisations to carry out their missions. For example, advocacy groups can now reach a far larger audience by posting petitions on highly trafficked social media sites. Likewise in the field of crisis response, platforms like Ushahidi allow several organisations to gather information, communicate, and coordinate simultaneously. And in the case of public education campaigns, such as helping people avoid heart disease through diet and exercise, social technologies can enlist influential social connections (friends or family) to encourage the desired behaviour change. In addition, Chui and colleagues highlight the instant infrastructure that social technologies can provide for new organisations or social movements. This creates the potential for disruptive new innovations to emerge.
These are just a few illustrations of the role that online networks can play in social innovation. However, as with earlier waves of technological innovation, it will take time for the benefits to be fully realised – significant adaptation of organisational structures, processes, practices and cultures is required. Moreover, the potential threats and challenges associated with social technologies must be navigated; these include issues related to privacy and security, data and content misuse, and the development of digital divides. Many questions remain about the relationship between online networks and social innovation: what online networks work best for social innovation and why? What online media facilitate which efforts? What stakeholder, interaction, collaboration and community characteristics predicate successful online practices for social innovation? These are some of the questions we will be addressing as part of the TEPSIE project.
M Chui, J Manyika, J Bughin, R Dobbs, C Roxburgh, H Sarrazin, G Sands & M Westergren, The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, McKinsey Global Institute, 2012
D Scearce, G Kasper & H McLeod Grant, Working Wikily 2.0: Social Change with a Network Mindset, San Francisco, Monitor Institute, 2009