Business discovers the ‘social movement’ language. I hope we don’t corporatize it.

We are grateful to Dr. Leandro Herrero for allowing us to republish this article.

A social movement is not a bunch of people, even hundreds, or thousands, moving socially. A social movement needs a purpose, people joining it, and doing things together, usually until the goal is reached, or everybody gets tired, or whatever comes first. Social movements have their own life cycle. Some of them make it, some don’t.

Businesses and organizational life have discovered the language and is ready to incorporate it. But there are some misconceptions that could kill the concept in corporate life.

I have been an armchair scholar of social movements for a long time. With my behavioural sciences and consulting hats on, my interest is in people mobilization at a scale. And the world has plenty of examples, so no shortage of insights. There is, however, one area of human collective behaviour and mobilization where the social movement frame has been historically absent: the company. The size of the company may be huge, but nobody has ever been interested in seeing its functioning and its people mobilization as a social movement. Until now.

Yes, this is changing now, slowly. In my consulting activity, we certainly see it like this, and see our client’s challenges through these glasses. If you want accountability, customer-centrism or, say, agility, it does not get better than creating an internal social movement that can deliver accountability, customer-centrism or agility. Not a ‘change management programme’. When we use these glasses, all the logic of the social movement, the things that work and the bits that don’t, are there, in front of us. And we orchestrate this.

But, some warnings. We need to distinguish the real social movement from lots of people, making lots of noise socially. A social movement needs a platform, a mobilizing platform. One that creates long term capacity for the movement, not one that simply facilitates the interaction of people during one-off large events. Large events that create high motivation, high commitment and high energy, are not social movements, no matter how large these events are, unless there is an ongoing continuity and activity with check points and recalibrations days, weeks or months after ‘the event’.

I have written before that there is a crucial word missing in Margaret Mead’s famous quote: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has’. The word missing is the word ‘organized’, as in organized, committed citizens.

There is a lot of writing these days about using the ‘people movement’ model of actions to solve lots of organizational and business problems. And it usually comes with the warning that it will be, will have to be, messy, emergent, chaotic, un-managed. Apparently, some good will then come of it.

I could not disagree more. The movement needs a mobilizing platform. It will not be messy, it will be organised, and will have to be managed. There is fear in some quarters that these three characteristics are against the idea of the social movement in itself. But the only thing that these three characteristics are against are irrelevance and premature death.

The chaotic element of the social movement is usually ‘explained’ by historical examples such as the human rights movement. But Luther King did not have a twitter account. Not that I am suggesting the difference today is only social media. The point is that today we have mechanisms for the social movement to work faster, better and in more innovative ways, whilst leaving behind a legacy of how people can organise themselves and join in for a cause. It’s the platform that makes the difference. And it works exactly the same outside organizations in the macro-social world, and inside organizations, as we do with our clients via Viral Change™.

Nothing is a movement until it proves that it moves. Until then, it may be a festival, a social media frenzy, thousands in the streets, a protest group, an issues media campaign, a series of one-off large events that are good at creating awareness, corporate flash-mobs in a Sheraton or Holiday Inn. All of the above. But not a movement. In social movements, we move, we don’t only sing and powerpoint each other.

Dr Leandro Herrero, as well as CEO of The Chalfont Project, is also an Executive Fellow at the Centre for the Future of Organization, Drucker School of Management and Professor of Organizational Architecture and Culture Change at the University Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid. An international speaker, he can be reached at: [email protected]. You can subscribe to his newsletter here.