When Google launched a short lifetime ago, it realised very quickly that it couldn't possibly scale its customer service to meet the demands of its users. So a stroke of genius was called for. What about this: why not get internet users to answer the service queries of other internet users? It is simple and it's brilliant, and it's probably what you would now call a piece of social-business design.
Today, there are companies that appear to navigate the web with the uncomplicated elan of a teenage digital native. They attract and amuse and reward their 'friends'; they enlist their advice, listen and learn; they respond, where necessary, in real time. They make it all look easy.
Digital master class
There are no shortcuts to digital enlightenment, though some routes are better than others. Last September, we took a group of global brands to the much-vaunted Swedish digital school Hyper Island for a master class in transformational business change. We discovered, among many other things, that even smart brands aren't always lean enough to jump all the online hurdles, and everyone can benefit from some social redesigning.
The truth is that organisations have to work hard to act naturally online. If Coca-Cola, Dell or Sony make effective and innovative use of social media, it is because they have laboured and strategised to design the necessary business structures, processes and internal relationships.
Yet, all over the web, social-media offers the impression of ease and organic creativity. When Macmillan Cancer Support connects a knitting machine to the internet, or Local Motors crowd-sources a car using customer-assisted manufacturing, the testament to their hard work and ingenuity is in just how simple they make a complex process look.
Those who spend much of their lives in the digital space struggle to recall the days before it saturated our existence. So let's not forget that, for some businesses - not necessarily loping, small-brained dinosaurs - those days are still here. Marketing remains traditional: sales forces are on the road, social channels are silent, digital skills are either lacking or unexploited.
However, even the most traditional organisations recognise there are opportunities, even obligations, awaiting them in the social web. Equally, those that have taken only the first few steps quickly realise that, in between the spot where they stand and the broad horizons of social, there are often vast and seemingly impassable mountain ranges of internal conflict: siloed departments, hierarchies fixed since the dawn of time, approval loops that take days to come back around.
These are remarkably standard challenges, but their apparent scale is capable of neutralising even the best intentions and paralysing the most successful companies.
Most organisations initially approach social with the impression that the magic begins and ends with a Facebook page or Twitter feed. This is, however, a relatively small part of the ideal solution.
A host of other things are more pressing. Assuming a business puts the appropriate social tools in place, does it have the skills, the staff and the processes to support them? If the world starts to expect a brand to communicate in a certain way, can it do it, and quickly enough to make a difference?
Development and management of content are at the heart of the business of social. As the pace of content creation and the required quality and quantity increases, most organisations need fresh structures to keep pace.
Many are internal, others external, and some a combination of the two. Assuming a brand needs to work with its agency to respond rapidly to a media event, it needs to be equipped to do so.
If the process is split among multiple departments, with digital or ecommerce owning one part of the solution, procurement another, and media and marketing another, the process of pulling together might be without precedent.
Likewise, if a brand commits to fast-paced content creation for a digital space in which no marketer can entirely control what's going on, a top-down structure with myriad layers of approval may result in missed opportunities.
There is a behavioural, cultural change required to execute social in its raw sense; a shift from command-and-control-style management to a style that empowers people to act on their own initiative.
For companies that operate in a top-down style, where every action is a response to a specific brief, that is a shift of enormous proportions. There is no single, easy solution, but effective social-business design should span three steps. The first is education and audit. Where is your business at? What's the current state of your processes? What are the opportunities? Where do you want to be?
The second phase involves developing an overall design for the business, taking account not only of the structures and processes required, but also the skills. Making these changes happen is the third stage.
One of the most important considerations is the involvement of user communities. Under traditional marketing models, where you are either pulling information in through focus groups, or pushing it out. In digital, there is the added paradigm of communities that interact with each other about your brand.
You can engage those communities and manage them closely, or interact with them via social-media campaigns through apps. A well-designed social business knows where these structures sit, and which part of its organisation is best equipped to handle them.
Then there's innovation. Far beyond straightforward marketing is the move into co-creation. If you tap the insight, enthusiasm and experience of your customers, there is enormous value to be found. Charge in and get it wrong, and you can do boundless damage to your reputation and the goodwill of even your staunchest advocates.
Social-business design involves fundamental changes to the way most companies operate. This is tough for brands and agencies. Some might fear that altering structures in response to the rise of Facebook and Twitter is a short-term play, but that is to underestimate the cultural shift beyond those properties.
Particular platforms are tools, and may vary over time, but the major changes signified by social media are here to stay.
Lately, we have found ourselves talking about the changing business landscape, the failures of recent years and the need for fresh models of wealth creation. It seems there are old and new models for success. At Hyper Island, we called them Track One and Track Two.
Track One companies focus on making, selling and distributing. Heavily industrialised and technology-dependent, they usually achieve what they set out to do.
However, Track Two companies, such as Apple, which focus on adding value, rather than just selling, are most successful. They embrace personalisation, are not driven solely by profit, and integrate technology in ways that offer a benefit to the customer activity cycle. This approach will build a more successful business in the long term.
Bright and engaged marketers came away from Hyper Island talking of opened minds and a sudden belief in their ability to change the world. Many other brands remain on the wrong road, ill-equipped for the challenges that lie ahead when the tracks merge.
These aren't minor considerations. Look around, and it's easy to picture great companies failing for the lack of an effective social plan. Some, you might argue, already have.
Even for those that are embracing social at an organisational level, the road is paved with difficulties. The only certainty in this rapidly changing ecosystem is that no one has all the answers.
What is important, however, is that brands and agencies start asking the right questions. Then, together, we can find the solutions.
John Monks is the head of social business design at LBi.