Needs Must – Social Software & SMEs

In a 1943 paper entitled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs. It ascended from the basics – air and water – all the …

16th July 2007 at 12:53 pm

In a 1943 paper entitled ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs. It ascended from the basics – air and water – all the way up to self-actualisation. The theory has stood the test of time, despite the occasional snipe based on exceptions to the general principles.

It is interesting to see how computer software has attempted to satisfy these needs. Thanks to the ubiquity of broadband and powerful personal computers, we are seeing new ways of moving up Maslow’s hierarchy. The question for all company directors is whether this satisfaction of human needs is a benefit or disadvantage to the business.

In brief, Maslow’s levels are:

1. Physiological: water, oxygen, elimination of waste
2. Safety: stability, protection, boundaries
3. Belonging: friends, family, community
4. Esteem: reality-based self-respect, followed by the esteem of others (prestige, reputation etc)
5. Self actualisation: be all that you can be

Unless you’re an ascetic, it’s difficult to achieve a higher level without first satisfying those below.

The first four only motivate you when you haven’t got them. And we can easily slip back down the hierarchy under adverse circumstances – bankruptcy, being mugged or throttled, divorce etc.

Self-actualised people are generally authentic, open, straightforward and don’t get their kicks at others’ expense. Nor do they slavishly follow fads and fashions. But they probably have tendencies which are regarded by others as eccentric.

There’s much more to Maslow’s theory than this, obviously, but I hope you get the general idea.

I’d say that computer software, until recently, has mainly addressed level 2. (The level numbers are mine, not Maslow’s, by the way.) And the safety, stability, protection, boundaries are those that the organisation wished to impose on the staff while trying to convey an illusion to them of levels 3, 4 and maybe 5.

Now, with social software running rampant: blogs, wikis, instant messaging, Twitter and Jaiku messages, Facebook, Second Life and so on, everyone who is so inclined can make a name for themselves and engage with people of common interest from all over the world. Your challenge is to determine to what extent these mechanisms can serve your business, rather than just the hierarchy-climbing drives of your staff.


David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World.

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  1. Sam Cannon says:

    It seems likely that what will begin to happen is that the blogosphere will itself form a hierarchy, based on popularity, subject matter, etc. If one wants to extend Maslow, then the B-values might form
    foci for “gravity.” Swarms would naturally coalesce
    around each value nidus. Beauty –from– Experts –from– All Artists –from–…

    The form in the ether, as it were, would be some
    sort of vocabularistic nexus (Hempel’s “nomic nexus” with gravity points).

    It will be interesting to see where it all goes.
    The web is a fascinating new space, ever changing
    based on man’s thirst. Huxley said it best: “We
    are all individual elements of a great social gas.”


  2. I think you’re right. I also think it’s already happening. Once upon a time we had the A-listers based on being first in a novel environment.

    Now we have all manner of thinkers on all manner of subjects, attracting followers and networks of peers.

    The ‘hierarchy’ you suggest would, presumably, be some kind of subject-matter hierarchy, not a popularity hierarchy. Of course, many advertisers and sponsors have a different view. They like focused popularity and who can blame them?

    What I mean is that if I start a blog on electron spin resonance, I might attract a minuscule group of readers but, by heck, in that world they would be pretty influential.

    I like the ‘gas’ analogy too, by the way.

    Thanks for writing.

    Please write again if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

  3. Bill Dueease says:


    You have shown some remarkable insight to recognize how the development of software has paralleled Maslow’s 5 hierarchy of needs. Youtube has to be included into the mix. Following your theory, (and Maslow’s) Youtube would be the start of level 4. What’s next? Maybe developers of software will heed your theory and concentrate on developing for levels 4 and 5.

    We have been attracting people as our targeted clients who want to fulfill level 5 of Maslow’s hierarchy for years. We explain and provide personally matched life coaches who want to become all they can be. Using life coach process has proven to be the fastest, least error filled, most fun, and most complete method for anyone who truly wants to achieve level five-self actualization.

    I wonder how software can be developed to assist or supplement this level five achievement?

  4. Thanks for the compliments Bill.

    A lot of software supports self-actualisation because it’s what people use (often) to help them express themselves.

    Whether there’s any that helps push people to the higher levels, I’ve no idea. I guess things like mind-mapping (and my own software – 25 years old and going strong, but I’d better not plug it here) helps people surface stuff about themselves they never knew they knew. Maybe they could be part of the process.

    And the many ‘profile yourself’ bits of software might help identify areas that need development. I can’t think of one offhand, but I know they’re out there.

    If anyone reading this knows of helpful software in this regard, please let us know. Thanks.

  5. Tim Abbott says:


    While I agree that software, in terms of traditional client server or network software has addressed level 2, I think that the social software is far from addressing many of these. IMHO (not so humble :)), social software has so many abilities to do this. The key component of social software and online communities is widespread sharing of information that helps us make better decisions which really hasn’t happened enough in the WEB world. Sites like digg, where people can share information is a start but most of the information share is focused more on entertainment. The current trend is more about levels 3 and 4 in the hierarchy. The share of safety related information and getting that information from reliable sources is still not there. Imagine the effect that things like missing person reports, amber alerts, or any other extremely useful information would have if shared by the network of people that the social sites promote. At any rate, you have some great thoughts here. Strangely, I blogged about this and Maslow over a week ago but with slightly different takes.

  6. David Tebbutt says:

    Hi Tim. Thanks for the thoughts.

    I think social software has much promise – I’m immersed in it so it’s easy to forget that it’s still a minority sport. It’s also easy to forget that it’s utterly overwhelming to a newcomer, so any Digg-like mechanism that helps us connect with what’s important to us is very welcome.

    By the way – the post you commented on went up in July.

  7. […] Tebbutt, for example, mentioned that he had well and truly beaten me to the punch last July with this post. Judging by his comment on The Elements in the Social Software Stack, he’s fleshing out the […]

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