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Are Too Many Social Enterprises Adding To Our Problems?

   /   May 2nd, 2012Interviews

Reich suggests that people target specific needs with unique projects, rather than creating issue-focused organizations.

If you want to change the world—whether locally or globally, big or small—you’ve probably thought about starting up your own social enterprise or nonprofit. Think again. Author and Columbia University instructor Brian Reich says that too many organizations impede progress toward solving the world’s most pressing problems. He argues that people need to use existing models to target specific needs or issues, through flexible structures rather than permanent ones.

Reich founded his marketing company, “little m media” in 2009 to help organizations focus on “information experience,” which Reich says “is the stuff we consume that shapes our behavior and defines how we function as human beings.” Reich teaches consumer behavior and marketing strategies in a Master’s of Communications program at Columbia University.

Dowser: Your recent book, Shift and Reset, recommends certain approaches to new media that allow organizations to take advantage of what it offers, without being too wrapped up in it. Would you say you’re arguing for the use of new media in moderation? Are we placing too much emphasis on its value?
Reich: We live in this amazing time where for the first time in human history we are connected. Technology has such a significant influence over all aspects of design. This creates a massive and exciting opportunity. We used to only understand problems as they related to whatever community or geography we had a direct connection to, and now we have the ability to know what’s happening on the other side of the world. We can access expertise and knowledge beyond the immediate network that we are involved with.

But as we are more connected and info moves faster, the challenges in the world are getting worse. And there’s an acceleration of things getting worse, because we’re all connected. So, if we don’t shift our thinking and address these problems now, then they’re going to get worse at a rate that’s faster than we’re able to solve them. And we don’t want to lose the belief that individuals can address these problems. What’s lacking is an understanding, a capacity to do anything. We’re using old models, old lines of thinking. And that, I would argue, is potentially making things worse.

Are we relying too much on technology and social media?
The issue is less about social media, and more about recognizing what it means to be a social human being. I’m platform-agnostic. I don’t think you need to be in-person to influence behavior or educate someone. But I do think you have to recognize the way the human brain works, and the way we act as individuals and in groups.If we’re going to use digital tools to connect, we have to take into account some of the analog, off-line ways of doing things. Social media isn’t bad, but we have adopted a set of behaviors through social media that aren’t sophisticated enough—we don’t listen well enough, we don’t stay engaged on issues for extended periods of time. Human beings can adjust to things on the fly. But we’re focusing on the efficiency and the scale—how many followers we have, how many clicks, how many ‘likes’—instead of measuring the substantial shifts in behavior. It’s not the tool–it’s how you use it.

Sounds like we have a problem of focusing on quantity over quality?
Right. And it’s not surprising because we want efficiency but it’s only great for certain things. When you’re looking at a real substantive societal problem, more is not always better. In many cases we need to eliminate things and focus on one, small tweak to effectuate change.  It doesn’t matter how many people are looking if they’re looking for the wrong things.

Can you give an example?
For two decades, scientists have been trying to solve a genomic challenge related to the AIDS virus and they hadn’t been able to figure it out. So they asked a bunchy of gamers—people who play and develop games professionally –and in less than two weeks, the gamers cracked the challenge. So the bad way–the social media-age way of thinking about this would be that gamers are the solution to everything. We hear about one interesting solution resulting from gamers being involved and everybody wants to have gamers solve everything.

So the better way would be to say, we’ve been looking at this problem one way for twenty years and now we looked at it in a completely way, which we never would have considered if we weren’t living in a connected society where we’re aware of these different ideas. At its core, the argument is to think and do things differently. But it’s a problem when we start focusing on outcomes instead of activity, and then we build massive institutions and lists—those things change the game inherently.

At Dowser we might look at what the gamers actually did. It may not be about gamers necessarily, but we’d want to know what they did that cracked the code. And then we’d ask about replication and scalability.
Here’s where I disagree with you. That AIDS challenge was unique. And thinking about replication makes people say, let’s bring in gamers for every problem, no matter what it is. And then two or three problems down the line, when gamers can’t solve it, people say, screw it, gamers can’t do it; they aren’t the solution. It’s not about scale or replication, it’s about adaptation, and accelerating our ability to learn from everything and apply the lessons learned in appropriate ways.

Reich's book argues that people need to think differently, focusing on the substantive nature of their work, rather than looking at numbers.

Right, it’s not about looking for the one solution.
When you have a complex problem, there’s no way there’s only one solution. There’s certainly more than one cause, so there can’t be one solution. In something like marketing, the simpler you make it, the better—but I’m not talking about fundraising or branding, I’m talking about solving the problems. But we’re operating under organizational approaches that we used in the past. Even the flattest organizations are still largely hierarchical and they establish a structure, get comfortable with it, and stick with it. But in a world where things are constantly changing, we need to operate in a much more fluid way.

This reminds me of something you said on a panel at the recent Green Festival, about the need for fewer new organizations. At Dowser, we highlight new organizations on a regular basis. Tell us more about your thoughts on social enterprise creation.
People shouldn’t start an organization. They should pick a problem, and try to solve it. You’ve got to do whatever it takes, structurally, to solve a problem. That may mean replacing your team—or not forming an organization at all. Once you start an organization you’ve got to keep it alive—you have to have staff, volunteers, an office space–and that takes time and is a distraction from the real work of solving a problem. And if you have a new organization, it’s probably in competition with a similar organization that’s doing the same thing. The most successful projects on Kickstarter do something specific: we are going to create a book about ‘x’, and it identifies a need in the market, or something people want, and it goes and does it. Ideally it’s socially-focused, rather than just money-making. But what does an organization solve, besides a global desire to be a part of something? Your goal as an organization should be to one day not exist—to solve your problem and then have no more work to do.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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