Experience Management Blog

The Architecture of a Social Business

Although I’m a technologist by trade, I’ve long been disabused of the notion that social business is first and foremost a technical discipline. While almost certainly a bit more art than science at the moment, it’s the human aspects of how social media changes the way we think and work that are ultimately the most important. These aspects are also the most challenging in terms of how to drive the effective cultural and organizational changes that lead to a successful outcome.

In fact, without addressing the human dimension head on, the power intrinsic to these new fundamentally open and participative methods of getting work done just won’t be properly harnessed. To try to help us get there, last year I explored the “soft” yet critically important adoption issues of social business for both internal and external purposes that got into the details of how to address the people issues.

However, despite all of this, I still find that technology tends to grab mindshare almost right away in many social business discussions. Acquiring a social tool is often a means in and of itself, as if it represents the largest and most important part of the effort.

I should be very clear here: An extended exploration of social tech at some point is almost always necessary; while you can still be a social business without using any of the technology trappings, in the end it’s pretty hard going without the tools that naturally support the new social structure and processes within the organization. Most such attempts will end up largely reverting to the old way of working, which is inherently supported by the traditional technology infrastructure already in place, whether it’s e-mail, content/document management systems, CRM platforms, campaign management tools, etc. Instead, reconciliation of the existing IT portfolio with social media is required as a major organizational activity.

Becoming Proactive with Social Business Design

There’s also the issue that social media now seems to be touching everything within our organizations. Everything is going social. Whether it’s merely the addition of sharing buttons on content within an existing app, or if it’s a fundamental reworking of a customer support system to be powered by mass community participation instead of trouble tickets, social is infusing our work environment in ways too numerous to count. I now hear from our clients on a regular basis that they are starting to feel “surrounded by social.” Many of them want to regain intellectual control of the changes taking place. They want to know what all the moving parts are and how they are connected. This done, they can then reason and plan about their future social landscape and better support the changes required.

The High-Level Architecture of a Social Business

A bird’s-eye view of social business today then, from an architectural perspective, can give us a detailed sense of what we’re dealing with. Hard questions can be answered: What platforms and systems are involved in the transformation to social business? How are they connected? Are the systems of record connected to the systems of engagement? In what way? Where is social data stored, how is it structured, and how can best can we analyze and derive insight from it? And so on. These sorts of questions can be addressed by creating an architectural view for your organization that makes sense of the social technology onslaught, for there’s really no better word for what’s happening today.

To help organizations get started, I’ve provided above a notional and non-industry specific view of the high-level architecture of a social business. This view contains most of the key elements for the typical organization and how they are connected. It’s not a process view; architecture is primarily concerned about structural concepts and how they are related. For a dynamic perspective over time, I’ve explored the virtuous social business cycle before, though individual social business processes will all have their own unique and socially co-created workflow.

Instead, this is about the nouns, something I’ve explored at an even higher level with a enumeration of what is contained in the social business stack, a useful way of cross-checking the total palette that a social business effort can pull from.

Update: As I posted this, Haydn Shaughnessy of Forbes added to the conversation, rightly observing that the social business stack mentioned above is not about process. He however, has proposed a process-based stack worth taking a look at.

The architectural view presented here is by definition incomplete and only goes down to a certain level of detail, yet I believe it’s one of the most updated views of social business architecture available. Some of the elements that have been incorporated, such as unified communication, will be slightly controversial, yet if they are included here, the element is important and frequently encountered. In fact, the real point is that virtually all aspects of the enterprise will eventually have to reconcile with social in some way. Sometimes this will be almost automatic and sometimes it will be a major technical, political, or cultural battle. Technology adherence has aspects of religion to it in most organizations. So while the picture presented here looks attractive and compelling, it’s also one that will be far more complex and messier in reality.

This said, creating the picture of the architecture of your social business will help you be more proactive, innovative, and focused, all while also helping you communicate the changes that need to happen in your organization.

Elements of a Social Business Architecture

In terms of the specific elements of the notional architecture above, they are worth some detailed explanation, which you can find below, going roughly from left to right in the visual. Note: You can expand the visual above to full size by clicking on it.

  • Social Media Platforms. For social business activities that must connect with the world at large, these represent all the many social networks and communities that exist, from Facebook and Twitter down to the most obscure vertical or industry-specific community site.
  • External Social Business Services. These are the services that the company has deliberately crafted to engage the world. This can be community-powered solutions made from scratch or services such as social media marketing or crowdsourcing that taps into existing communities. These can include social product development, social marketing, Social CRM, B2B communities, and an endless variety of other social business services over time.
  • Service Delivery. While mobile-first is something that I’m now starting to see as a strategy from large company CIOs, the Web is still the biggest market though that will change in the next year. A large percentage of social business solutions will require a native mobile app going forward as well as distribution through a consumer or enterprise app store. There are now even social app stores from major vendors. Cloud delivery is increasingly the preference for most new vendor-provided (non-internally developed) social business solutions. Consumerization is having a profound impact on how applications of all kinds are developed, acquired, and used today and this is transforming service delivery of social business as well.
  • Social Foundation. An effective social business has a set of consistent identities for its workers across all social apps as well as powerful and effective discovery and search mechanisms that are fully federated and take a look at the entire link ecosystem of the organization. That social apps produce linked data that can be accessed by search engines, other apps (social or otherwise) has been validated as one of the most important aspects of social architecture. This is so vital I will be devoting an upcoming research effort on this. However, I find that there is often very poor emphasis on creating a healthy social data ecosystem so it’s emphasized on this view. The bottom line: Much of the longer-term ROI comes from keeping social data open, analyzable, and discoverable over time. Finally, a potent listening, analytics, and social business intelligence capability (within and outside the business) has become an essential capability to create, typically located inside the social business unit or center of excellence (CoE.)
  • Systems of Engagement. These are the primary social environments within the organization, as well as departmental social apps. These typical include a social intranet, an enterprise social network or ESN (Jive, Connections, SharePoint + Newsgator are the most common), unified communications platform (with support for social media), and even e-mail, which is very common and convenient on-ramp, off-ramp for social notifications and related activities, though it must be integrated with care. Social apps are often connected with the ESN’s activity stream and is a primary integration point with systems of record. The OpenSocial standard continues to show promise along with feeds and open APIs to bridge the engagement world with the transaction world as part of a well-organized yet lightweight integration effort.
  • Systems of Record. Long the bastion and core competency of IT departments, systems of record are now being reconciled with the engagement world. Connecting vital supply chain, ERP, human resources, and customer relationship management systems with the unstructured work in the organization is essential and has been a major realization in the Enterprise 2.0 community over the last year. Social business must be connected to the lifeblood of data and transactions in the company to improve collaboration, reduce data duplication and inaccuracy, and to use social as the connective tissue for real, on-the-ground work.

To wrap up, I’d like to reiterate that this is a high-level view that must be adapted to the realities of your organization. A real social business architecture has several additional layers of details including security platforms that understand social media, run-time management and governance components, and much more. The purpose of this is to put a line in the sand, create a starting point for those trying to create an up-to-date view of social business architecture, and to spur discussion so that the subject can be better understood and articulated to the industry as a whole as they move their businesses into the digital/social era.

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  • http://www.sudhirdesai.com Sudhir Desai

    Hi Dion,

    This is very insightful and helpful.
    Did your comment about this not being about process (in response to Haydn Shaughnessy), imply that this picture was primarily technology/systems oriented?

    Was that intentional? Do you have a version in mind that would include other aspects of a Social Business Architecture, that might for example also touch upon other non-technical foundations of a Social Business?


    • Dion Hinchcliffe

      Thanks Sudhir. Yes, this is very clearly a structural view and not process. I’ll be going into the process view of organization-wide social business as soon as I’m able.

      So the exploration here was all about the technology architecture. I also believe there needs to be a business architecture view. But these are both static perspectives, and no description of a system is complete with a static view. There must be a dynamic view and that’s where a process view must come into play.

      • http://www.sudhirdesai.com Sudhir Desai

        Thanks Dion,

        I agree that particularly in the case of Social Business, a dynamic view would add significant insight. I believe most of the value comes from effective operational governance.

        I look forward to your next iteration.

        best regards

  • Peter Gruben

    Thank you Dion, It is a great and transparent view of how we can link up from a technological perspective and what technology we need to look at so that we can measure. I would call it a basis or an enabler that will allow us to use and improve our Social Business capabilities.
    Now we need to look at how to do it! (especially from a human perspective).

  • Ad Gerrits

    I like the way you try to apply architectural principles to social business. To me as an information architect fascinated by social aspects of business it’s a welcome complement to traditional business architecture models that are not suitable to describe social aspects. Although that’s where most action is today. Please keep drawing this kind of ‘lines in the sand’ !

    • http://dachisgroup.com Dion Hinchcliffe

      Hi Ad,

      Thanks and I agree, there’s generally been a lack of accurate, rigorous and up-to-date descriptions of how to structure a social business from a foundations perspective. I’m hoping this will help spur the discussion with a more state-of-the-art view!

  • http://www.mckenzieworldwide.com Brian Edwards

    This is a good overview of how all the pieces could fit together in the social business. Maybe it doesn’t work in this context, but it seems to me that social-enabled BPM can provide a glue of sorts to tie together the systems of record with the systems of engagement and the social foundation. In particular, dynamic case management could provide some necessary structure while allowing flexibility as the organization evolves.

    • http://dachisgroup.com Dion Hinchcliffe

      Hi Brian,

      I certainly agree. Social BPM can be very valuable in the right situation and set of requirements. Fortunately, I think it easily first — and it’s designed to in this model — right into this architecture in the “Other Line of Business Systems”, where BPM is then exposed through the integration layer to the social side. In this way, social BPM will generally happen right in the activity streams of the systems in the engagement layer. Alternatively, it (and other social workflow) can be simply be added to this view in the Social Foundation layer. Either way, I agree that social BPM should be added to a more detailed view of social business architecture when organizations require it.

  • http://www.onedesk.com Luke W

    This foundations view is excellent Dion, thanks very much for sharing. The path to building out the structural pragmatics of what it means to make a buisiness ‘social’ are made easier by enabling, information posts like this.

  • http://thepolylogue.com Seth Resler


    Thanks for your insight. Implementing social technology at an organization in a way that actually works is often the hardest part of adopting a social strategy. This article provides some guidance in thinking about it.

    Seth Resler
    The Polylogue

  • Shubham

    Hi Dion,

    How can be a traditional IT services company can be transformed into social business?
    And what are the benefits to transform to social business generally and in specific case of a service based IT Company.

    • Dion Hinchcliffe

      Hi Shubham,

      Thanks for the question and it’s indeed a tough one for many IT organizations as they realize they must align themselves with social media far more effectively than they are today. Fortunately, I’ve put together a strategic set of tasks that the CIO of any organization (or IT services company in this case) can use to get there (link below). I hope this helps in your thinking!




  • http://seobrien.com Paul O’Brien

    Just had my mind blown… just a few months ago I wrote an extensive piece that was bouncing around in my head about how a business architects growth: http://seobrien.com/growth-architect

    The correlations with this, the social business content, are awesome to reed!

  • Pingback: How we can create open standards for social business : Enterprise Irregulars

  • Anthony Smith2

    Hello Dion, 
    I am came across your website yesterday and I just wanted to say  ”Thank You”. I am the founder of Cloud Service Brokerage start up that is currently in stealth mode. I have been in the IT & Telecom industry for 10 years  and without even knowing I basically built the business just like the visual that you have above. Our entire infrastructure is cloud based allowing us to focus on retention and attrition. It comes with some issues but over your visual is doable.