From December 2010 to March 2011, a wave of civil uprisings washed over the Middle East and North Africa. Protesters expressed dissatisfaction with the corrupt political elite and unaccountable governments. The events were termed the “Arab Spring” because of their resemblance to the Prague Spring in the former Czechoslovakia 40 years prior. Many media accounts dubbed them the “Twitter Revolutions,” an uprising driven as much by technology as ideology. Social media was indeed an important tool for activists as it facilitated critical communication and generally reduced transaction costs for contentious political action.

Marc Benioff, CEO of cloud computing software company Salesforce, recently suggested that it’s time for an Arab Spring for businesses. Bernioff predicted that just as dictators were ousted during the Arab Spring, CEOs will face their own day of reckoning if they do not listen to their customers and employees. Rather than viewing social technologies as tools for consumers, companies themselves need to become “social enterprises” that encourage vertical communication and effectively incorporate consumer input.

Author Harvey Mackay identified many of the same lessons following a trip to Morocco in the uprising’s wake.

“Executives should analyze the dynamics of the Arab Spring,” he wrote in the St. Louis Business Journal. “It’s a case study of what can befall complacent bureaucracies—businesses included—in the lightning-speed world of Twitter and Facebook.

Both Bernioff and MacKay noted that the Arab Spring emerged because of a clear disconnect between leaders and citizens. The parallels to business management are all too obvious. When channels of communication are blocked and CEOs insulate themselves from critical and constructive feedback, they may start to resemble unresponsive dictators.

Bernioff suggests that rather than wait for social media-circulated criticism to show up on their doorstep like an angry mob, businesses should extend their social networks to create “an integrated web of conversations that offers insights into perspectives and behaviors about markets, customers, and products.”

Indeed, businesses would be well served to not only anticipate and react to communication challenges and changing consumer expectations but position themselves as leaders in that dialogue.

Challenging Embedded Regimes

Osama Mourad, Chairman and CEO of Arab Finance Brokerage, points out that the business community was an active part of the Arab Spring. Egyptian middle class entrepreneurs, he notes, were instrumental in the success of the Egyptian Revolution.

“When I first showed up in Tahrir Square, I saw many business people—friends, colleagues, people working in large corporations and small business owners alike,” Mourad explained in a blog post for the Center for International Private Enterprise. “[W]hat people should realize is that all the entrepreneurs—big and small alike—who filled Tahrir Square [had] a greater interest in a democratic transition than anyone else, since only democracy can ensure the rule of law and accountability needed for a business-friendly environment.”

NPR recently spotlighted former Google Marketer Wael Ghonim’s new book, Revolution 2.0, a first person account of the Egyptian Revolution that details the community building efforts on Facebook that preceded the protests. Ghonim formed his influential Facebook group, Kullena Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”), after graphic pictures of a young man killed by Egyptian security officials began to circulate on the Internet. Members of the group called for accountability for Khaled’s death and demanded action to end government corruption.

“We [wanted] to expose the bad practices of the Egyptian police,” Ghonim told Terry Gross. “Because the last thing a dictator wants is that you expose their bad practices to its people.”

The Facebook page engaged users and served as a forum for activists to brainstorm new ideas. The group eventually proposed the January 25 mass protest date that brought out Osama Mourad and broad swaths of Egyptian society.

Ryan J. Davis, social media director at Blue State Digital, identified some key lessons from the book that social media brand managers should learn. In particular, Davis noted the importance of constant engagement and feedback loops.

“Ghonim and his team spent hours on the page each day, replying to comments and contributing to conversations,” Davis noted. “This goes a long way in building a real community of users who recognize and respect each other.”

Some observers argued that the role of social media in the Arab Spring was overstated, and that it was simply one communication tool of many used by activists. These skeptics point out that the protests in Egypt didn’t reach critical mass until after the Mubarak regime blocked Internet access and limited mobile communication. Rather than stopping the protests’ momentum, the information blackout served to bring people out of their homes and into the street to find out what was going on.

Even Ghonim conceded that while social media tools can help connect people and disseminate information to the masses, they cannot create social changes on their own. But even if social media were simply a tool and not a causal factor in the uprisings, it was an important tool. Twitter and Facebook facilitated “thick” connections between activists and reached across social cleavages. And the speed at which unfiltered information could be disseminated through these platforms outpaced the regime’s ability to monitor and censor.

Proactive businesses will apply these same lessons to their own social media strategies and communication structures. Tradition-bound business will go the way of Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi.