I’ve always been fascinated with social behavior. Why do people react differently when confronted with a certain situation, a new idea, or information that challenges existing beliefs? Why are some resistant to change, while others are inspired by future possibility? And why do some people just not care about tomorrow because they are focused on what needs to get done today? With all this difference between us, how do we come together and collectively act to solve the world’s biggest problems while still living a happy, fulfilling life?
The answer lies with how we communicate, share, learn, empathize and relate to one another. As our interpersonal relationships intersect and connect, we form social systems, in which any group of people can influence one another’s perception and behavior by sharing ideas, information and knowledge via interconnected communication channels. This could be a group of friends, an organization, an industry, a community, a country or social network. Every individual that interacts with another person has his or her own social system, which in turn connects to other peoples’ social systems. Therefore, social systems are essentially adaptive states of collective perception.
The nature by which we communicate, share and learn from one another is known as collaborative learning. Over time, the process of collaborative learning leads to the formation of a social system’s shared values and a set of communal needs, purposes and aspirations. This leads to collective behaviors, which manifest as culture. While there are always degrees of entropy that arise from the integration of social systems, allowing time and collaborative learning to propagate typically results in unification once values are aligned and needs are met.
We’ve all experienced this first hand, even on a small scale: Say you go to a party with your friends (your social system) at which you don’t know the person who is throwing a party, but your friend does — you and the host of the party are part of her social system. You may be nervous about not knowing anyone in this unfamiliar social system, but once you are introduced to some people and you get to know one another, your levels of comfort increase, you have more fun, and you have now integrated into a new social system.
Those in sustainability like to keep attention focused on the triple bottom line, since to achieve true sustainability we must satisfy social, economic and environmental needs. I believe we should primarily concentrate on the ‘social’ variable. If we can amplify collaborative learning to create a unified values system that delivers positive social change and drives collective action, we will satisfy the economic and environmental needs in the process. And let’s face it: Economic and environmental issues are becoming more and more socially oriented.
Assuming there is consensus on this position, then social capital value should be our primary measure to quantify return on investment — arguably, any investment. Social systems are fractal in nature and our world is comprised of the integration of all types of social systems. Regardless of whether you aim to quantify impact ROI from business activities, government funding, or even your child’s elementary school festival, social capital value is the one constant measure that can be used across all social systems.
I like how Wikipedia defines Social Capital:
Social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.
‘Expected benefits derived from the preferential treatment…’ Think about that for a second: This comes right back to the basic dynamics of social systems: collective perspective, shared values, needs, purpose and aspirations. ‘…and cooperation between individuals and groups.’ That results from collaborative learning. ‘…collective or economic benefits…’ covers our social and economic needs. And if we can get that right, anything we can affect environmentally should fall into place.
Social capital value can be used to measure the sustainability of culture — any culture of any social system — regardless of size or location. While quantifying social capital value is challenging, it can be done and it is an area that requires more focus. As social systems continue to integrate and cultures bridge, social capital value will allow us to quantify a return on investment in developing sustainable cultural systems.
Your brand is a social system. A brand’s social system consists of all stakeholders that can directly impact a brand’s image, positioning, reputation, revenue and equity. This could be customers, employees, partners, vendors, competitors, media, government and any other group that touches your brand. Stakeholder brand perceptions, interactions and how they communicate their brand experiences and opinions will all influence the behavioral output of the social system to define the brand’s culture.
In our socially connected digital world, it is becoming increasingly more important to connect with people based on their innate needs, values, purpose and aspirations. The more effectively you can engage people in this way, the greater opportunity there is to influence, predict and support the output of a social system’s collective behavior. Your brand can be a facilitator of collaborative learning. Social capital value can quantify your return on impact investment. Viewing your business through this lens can empower you with the ability to evolve culture in a systemic way through intentional design. To me, that’s what makes a truly sustainable brand.