This is part 13 of The Business Communication Revolution.

ecosystemIf the communication revolution has had relatively little impact so far on the way people inside a business work together, the impact on the way people from different companies interact has been even smaller. For the vast majority of business-to-business (B2B) communication, email remains the primary mechanism – a lowest common denominator solution that all companies use – whereas any improvements in internal communication one company has made are likely to be incompatible with the other companies they work with.

Yet business operations are not only performed by increasingly geographically distributed employees (as discussed in Connecting The Distributed Organization); they are often distributed across an increasingly complex ecosystem or supply chain. Few businesses deliver their services and products in isolation – instead, they rely on networks of suppliers and partners. The need for better inter-company communication tools is indisputable.

Enterprise social networks have huge potential in this area, but progress in establishing these has been limited so far. Most companies’ social projects started on consumer-facing networks like Facebook and Twitter, followed by their own customer communities and employee social networks; B2B networks have lagged some distance behind. This is perhaps not surprising, as most social networking products are designed around a business-to-consumer (B2C) or employee-to-employee model.

B2B relationships are fundamentally more complex, with potentially many people from each company needing to interact with each other. Sometimes it may be appropriate for this interaction to take place in public, but far more often it is not; for example discussion relating to account management issues would be entirely inappropriate for a public forum. Indeed, some companies may not want any public interaction to be visible, because one supplier may deal with several customers who are in direct competition to each other. This is the opposite of the B2C social networking world, where the assumption is that customers want to help each other.

This leads some people to conclude that B2B is simply not “social”. But that would be confusing “social” with “public” – just because a conversation takes place in private, visible to a specified group of people, it doesn’t mean it’s not social. In a pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace world, one of the most common uses of “social” in the UK was to describe working men’s clubs, which were private, membership-only institutions.

I would argue that while B2B is less public, it is actually more social than B2C. B2B is more relationship-driven – buyers and sellers are both are typically looking for longer-term relationships than in the consumer world because of the higher cost of both purchase and sale. So this means the sales cycle is typically much longer; there are usually many people from the buyer side involved, each with their own requirements, and this means there are usually many different people from the seller side involved, with all of these people exchanging information throughout the sales cycle. Anyone who has been involved in such a cycle knows how chaotic email discussions between such groups become. And of course, a B2B sale is just the beginning of the relationship, the communication continues way beyond the initial sale.

Ultimately, of course, there is little point in quibbling over terminology, what is “social” and what isn’t. It is more important to recognise that B2B communication suffers from the same email-related problems as employee-to-employee communication, and benefits from many of the same solutions. Architecting the relationships is more complex, but the efficiency improvements are potentially even greater, because B2B communication is starting from such a low point. So far we have barely scratched the surface of how enterprise social networks can improve collaboration between businesses.