The Plural of Personal is Social

Dna measurementThere was a time in my life when everything I would consider “business” was also personal.

As many of you may know, I was born in Calcutta nigh on fifty-five years ago. I stayed there till 1980. There were no supermarkets in Calcutta in those days. For most things you walked down to your local provisions store, where you knew everyone and everyone knew you. By name. They didn’t just know you, they knew your family, where you lived, when you moved there, what you did. They knew when and if to offer help, advice, credit, whatever. Not everything was available at that friendly neighbourhood provisions store; so sometimes the Mountain came to Mahomet. Milk and newspapers were delivered home; new cooking vessels were bartered for old newspapers and saris, or at least that’s what I remember, in some variant of rag-and-bone-man. And occasionally we went to New Market to buy something more exotic, unavailable in the normal shops.

We always appeared to do business with people we knew well, and who knew us well. As a family we were probably satisficers rather than maximisers (to use Barry Schwartz’s parlance in The Paradox of Choice); we didn’t shop around, we looked for an exchange of value within a stable relationship.

So my haircuts were at A.N. John on Park St, when we were well off, and 003b Short St, when we weren’t. Sports equipment was always bought at Castlewood, next to A.N.John. Books at Oxford Book Emporium on the other side of the street. Second-hand books and comics and magazines came via Mr Mallick of Free School Street, round the corner. When times were good, meals were at Firpo’s and Sky Room and tea at Flury’s. Indian food was at Amber. Shoes were bought round the corner from Amber, usually from the same shop. Clothes used to be tailored to fit at K.C.Jakkimull’s, next to Sky Room.

It wasn’t just that we went to the same shops. Or that the shops were so close to each other you could have covered them under a large blanket. Those things were important.

What was far more important was that they knew us by name, knew everything about us, knew what we wanted and knew what we needed. And we knew them, knew them by name, knew what they were good at and what they weren’t good at.

It was personal.

It was a relationship.

The relationship tended to be sustained over time and over generations. I can’t remember the number of times someone has told me that my father had sat in that very seat and been provided a shave/a meal/ a suit/whatever. Sometimes it went beyond that, and my grandfather was brought into the conversation.

Relationships. Where both sides invested. Where, after a while, you couldn’t see that there used to be two sides. No haggling over price or bargaining, that was reserved for the forays into the exotica of Hogg’s New Market.

And then, in 1980, after my father died, I came to the UK.

It took me years before I went into a supermarket, they scared me. I wanted personal. So I went for personal: the corner shop, the local newsagent, the local pub, places I could walk to, people who knew my name and whose names I knew. People I saw regularly. During those days you went to your bank branch to get many things done, and the staff there knew you. Your bank manager knew you. When you got a letter from someone you did business with, often enclosing a bill, you recognised the signature.

You knew the person who sent that letter. And they knew you.

You had a relationship. It was something in your DNA. A part of what proclaimed you to belong to the human race.

Then, as the Eighties progressed, we began to lose something of our humanity in how we did business with each other. Bigger became bigger and better than Better.

And during the 17-year sleigh-ride bull market that followed, a part of our humanity was lost in how we did business. The foundation for that loss was set in the broadcast age, in how firms communicated with people, how people couldn’t communicate back, aided and abetted by the one-directional technology that was television, occasionally exacerbated by those in the advertising business.

That’s what Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, Rick Levine and David Weinberger rebelled against in the Cluetrain Manifesto. How business had become not-personal. How companies had built walls between them and their customers, how much damage was being done by those walls, why that situation could not be sustained and how the internet and the Web was going to change all that. That’s what evoked Chris’s memorable words:

We are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. We are human beings—and our reach exceeds your grasp. Deal with it.

Those very emotions were what drove Doc to work on Vendor Relationship Management and then to write The Intention Economy. Those very emotions were what drove Chris to write Gonzo Marketing; you can see them at work when you read David’s Small Pieces Loosely JoinedEverything is Miscellaneous and Too Big To Know, as he looks through the lens of Cluetrain on how information is organised, accessed, labelled, enriched, made into useful knowledge and imparted as wisdom.

Those very emotions were probably responsible for making Rick into a great chocolatier.

[Disclosure: I have the privilege of being able to call the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto my friends. To have broken bread with them in different continents over the years, to have broken sweat with them in different escapades. We know each other by name. We know a bit of what makes each of us tick, the little bit we can know. I had the honour of writing a chapter in the tenth anniversary edition of that book, something that thrilled me and humbled me.]

Business is personal. It’s about relationships. It has always been so. Until we tried to forget it and concentrated on making money, not shoes. [As Peter Drucker said, people make shoes, not money]. Then, for a short while, business became not-personal.

As the Cluetrain guys signalled way back in 1999, the web was changing all that. Business was becoming personal again.

It comes as no surprise to me that was born during those heady times, as business started becoming personal again. It comes as no surprise to me that Marc Benioff understood that the plural of personal is social, and that it’s in the DNA of the company that he and Parker Harris founded. That’s why I went to work for them.

“Social” is not a layer. “Social” is not a feature. “Social” isn’t a product.

Social is about bringing being human back into business. About how we conduct business. About why we conduct business.

Social is something in people’s hearts, in people’s beings, in their DNA.

Man is born social.

Many companies were not.

And the companies that weren’t, they can’t just become social by buying layers or features or even products. Porcine unguents, nothing more.

You need to be reborn social.

You need to start thinking of the customer as someone to have a relationship with, to get to know, to invest in, to trust, to respect.

And you need to get everyone in the company to think that way, to act that way, in everything they do.

And you need to do this everywhere, not just with your customers. Not just with your supply web or your trading partners. Not just with your staff and your consultants.

Everyone. Everywhere.

The plural of personal is social.

(Ed. Note - this was cross-posted from JP's blog: confusedofcalcutta - @jtaschek)