Traditional Strategy Is Dead. Welcome to the #SocialEra

When I say, “Social is and can be more than media,” people resist. It’s as if the two words (social and media) are now permanently fused together. But they shouldn’t be. The fact that they are joined at the hip in so many people’s minds means that marketing agencies are thriving — but that the rest of our organizations are not.


Social can be — and already is — more than Media.

The companies thriving today are operating by a new set of rules — Social Era rules. Companies like REI, Kickstarter, Kiva, Twitter, Starbucks — they get it. They live it. And to them, notions like distributing power to everyone, working in extended community to get things done, or allowing innovation to happen anywhere and everywhere are, well, ridiculously obvious. But too many major companies — Bank of America, Sports Authority, United Airlines, Best Buy, and Walmart to name just a few — that need to get it, don’t.

The failing organizations around us — many of which I explore in my new book, which publishes today — continue to follow the operating rules and ethos of Traditional Strategy. They haven’t seen the obituary:


It’s helpful to call this new context the Social Era to emphasize a point: while in the industrial era, organizations became more powerful by being bigger, in the Social Era, companies can also be powerful by working with others. While the industrial era was about making a lot of stuff and convincing enough buyers to consume it, the Social Era is about the power of communities, of collaboration and co-creation. In the industrial era, power was from holding what we valued closed and separate; in the Social Era, there is another framework for how we engage one another — an open one.

Here’s the simplest way to define the Social Era: the industrial era primarily honored the institution as a construct of creating value. And the information age (inclusive of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 phases) primarily honored the value that data could provide to institutional value creation. It allowed for greater efficiency to do the same things that were done in the industrial era. The Social Era honors the value creation starting with the single unit of a connected human. In this framework, powerful organizations look less like an 800-pound gorilla and more like fast, fluid, flexible networks of connected individuals — like, say, a herd of 800 nimble gazelles.

Companies cannot survive (let alone prosper) without recognizing that Social as a phenomenon can allow us to redefine our organizations to be inherently more fast fluid and flexible by its very design. Not by doing a little bit more, or slimming down a bit here or there, or by doing a few things a little bit faster. No. We will not tweak our way into the future.

Today, too many organizations that think their status as an “800-pound gorilla” gives them an edge are struggling to survive, let alone thrive. They underestimate social to their great detriment. They see it as the purview of two functions: marketing and service. It’s either “Like us on Facebook!” or “We’re so sorry you’re having a problem.” While a few have figured out that they can use social to listen to the market — sort of like putting a stethoscope to the market heartbeat — they have yet to figure out there is more to this Social thing.

So before we can explore the Social Era, we need to disaggregate two words — social is not always attached to the word media. Social can be and is more than marketing or communications-related work.

When we look at all the parts together, we can see how Social affects all parts of the business model: the way an organization creates, delivers, and captures value. They also shift the ethos by which we lead and work.

The #SocialEra ebook releases today, and discusses this shift in focus, which has profound implications for business and for how all of us work and lead. Regular readers of HBR will recognize parts of the thesis in this post; the idea has developed with your input, as these ideas were first shared in a five-part series. Rather than waiting 15 months to publish a physical book that would be dated as soon as I wrote it, my publishers at Harvard Press and I instead chose to evolve the idea to an ebook to continue the conversation in a timelier fashion.

I hope you’ll join me both in reading the ideas, and exchanging ideas. It’s available for sale, now, here.

And this post was first shared over at HBR, here, or in long form: As is always true for my HBR related work, please add comments there so the conversation can happen in one place.

16 Replies

  1. So excited to see the book come out Nilofer. I am also curious about JP Rangaswami’s use of “Social Enterprise” which is the same title used by social entrepreneurs to talk about enterprise level business (he begins a series here: Social is getting attached to more words than just media… and when you look at all of them – we have what you have dubbed “Th Social Era” arising. Thank you for noticing it and sharing these rules! Can’t wait to share.

    1. Jean –

      Yes, I know of JP as I’ve plugged his ideas on this blog before. Big fan of his.
      One thing I find disconcerting about the term “Social Enterprise” or even “social business” is the fundamental assumption is that there is an enterprise. I wonder and clearly the book is me wondering aloud a bit — what is the organizational structure that is right for the social era. No longer do we *need* an organization to create value. And clearly there is value in the ability of singularly unique individuals connected to create value but the framework or construct of the organization is less clear to me. Perhaps JP and those in the Socbiz space are wondering the same thing but I wanted to wander away from the language of “enterprise” specifically to explore the terrain with a bit more open aperture.

      1. Hi Nilofer,
        I was at the recent IMI event in Dublin. I am in the customer service “space” and the velvet revolotion of co-creation is, as you know at a very early stage there. Dr Catriona Wallace in Australia is a good observer and like yourself she is leading change in how we approach customer service and customer experience.

        A team of like-minded folk here have created a Customer Service Excellence programme and the aim is to disrupt traditional strategies and seek to open awareness, measurement, upskilling and empowerment of teams in a global way.

        I will keep in touch with your thinking and will keep in touch,


        1. Thanks for stopping by Charlie! I hope you feel welcome to join the yes and know blog community. And of course if life brings you to paris, just writ back to any of those blog posts, and we can arrange a walkntalk!

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    1. the ooda loop can play in both. Because of the Socialera, I’m advocating putting power into every person as far removed from the “mothership” as possible — and closest to the situation or market or customer… and using the OODA loop would work there as well as close to the centralized institution. I can only imagine you’d use it MORE if more federated away from the organization.

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