"I object to this social... stuff"


I talk with people quite a lot about using social software in organisations. This post is about the objections I hear and how I respond. If you come to this fresh, what follows may lack context. Take a look at my earlier post ‘Creating cultures that cope with complexity’, which explains why we need to work differently and how social software can help us do it.

“Storing private data online is too risky”

We are quite happy to store our money online: why not our data? The banking system we have today originated in Renaissance Italy; and I often think of the man on top of the Florentine omnibus and what he might have thought of the idea ...

“Eh, Signore Medici! You think I putta my money in your bank? You mad.”

But actually, banking sort of caught on.  And it’s here to stay.  Even after the recent financial to-do, there are very few of us keeping our cash in our trousers.

The same thing is happening with our information. New ‘banks’ are emerging and the benefits of their low cost, convenient and ubiquitously accessible products are compelling. We are starting to use the products and we are beginning to trust the bankers. Handing over private information, personal or corporate, feels risky; but these are risks to be understood and managed - not avoided.

Going further: if information 'current accounts' are starting to become popular, then perhaps there are ways of getting a better return on investment?  And there are. A (quite enormous) range of higher-interest products is emerging, which can help us share our information with others and make it work for us. A deposit on LinkedIn may bring us a job; a flutter with Twitter may lead us to someone who can really help us; an investment in a blog at work may help colleagues understand us better and get them on our side; and so on.

Of course, as with money, we must take care with our information and share it wisely. But putting it in a shoe box under the bed is quite, quite daft.

“You are saying we should use Facebook at work?”

We may want to use services such as Facebook to interact with customers and others outside our organisations, but this is not what I am talking about here. We should be using the features of such tools within our organisations - blogs, wikis, instant messaging, blogging, micro-blogging - to enable much richer interaction between large numbers of people.

Some tools, we will want to use directly: some will need integration with the software we already have. Some we will use online: some we will manage in our own data centres. Like our use of them, the market for enterprise versions of these tools is emerging. But we should not wait. The problems that are pressing us now - for instance, I hear much of the challenges of corporate knowledge management and of intranet hardship - will look different and less intractable when we have understood what it means to work in a connected way.  We must imaginatively use whatever tools we have now to begin learning how to work in these new ways.

“Whaddya mean ‘Working out loud’?”

Working out loud is sharing what we are doing as we do it. It is central to working in a connected way. Example: when we write, say, a project document, typically the process goes...

Scribble an outline, start a Word document, research info we are missing, update the document, talk to a few folks to get feedback, fiddle to get it how we want it, show it to a few more folks, tweak it, get the boss to say it’s OK, put it out for review, get feedback, have a couple of arguments, tweak it again, get it signed off by key stakeholders (who want a few more minor changes), publish it, have another argument with someone important who didn’t see the review copy and has a genuine beef, make more changes, publish. Never look at document again. Start to finish: 7 weeks.

If we were working in a more connected way we might write the document using a public wiki (within the organisation). The process might go...

Scribble an outline, start a wiki page, some helpful folks make contributions without being prompted, people who have genuine issues phone up straightaway to talk stuff over, some clangers get spotted, a meeting is held to fix the problem, wiki is updated, someone who couldn’t go to the meeting chips in a comment, wiki is updated, it goes quiet (all happy). Leave document as it is because it’s good enough. Move on. Start to finish: 7 days.

Giving people access to our stuff as we go along is invaluable: they understand our thought process better, they are aware of what we are doing so much earlier, they feel included, they can contribute and (in this case) project comms come for free.

“This stuff is for extroverts”

My friends say, ‘Of course you think this stuff is a good idea. You are a screaming extrovert.’ Both statements are true. But I don’t agree that one follows from t’other.

Take a look at what the Myers Briggs Foundations says about how Introverts feel about themselves...

I am seen as “reflective” or “reserved.” I feel comfortable being alone and like things I can do on my own. I prefer to know just a few people well. I sometimes spend too much time reflecting and don’t move into action quickly enough. I sometimes forget to check with the outside world to see if my ideas really fit the experience.

The way I look at it, interaction using social media was made for Introverts.

Take a look at this or this written by introverts about social media.

In face-to-face meetings where extroverts are usually louder, faster to their feet and fond of the sound..., the reflections of introverts very often don’t get the air time they deserve.  Social software is much more egalitarian: everyone who wants to ‘speak’ - can.

Although exchanges using social tools are thought of as very fast moving, they really aren't. A typical conversation on a blog post can run for several days: Twitter conversations often last a few hours. Actually there is quite a lot of time to reflect; much more than in face to face situations.

Reflect away. Please.

"It's not for everyone"

Introvert or otherwise, I agree it’s not something everyone will want to jump feet-first into. But it is unnecessary for everyone to be super-active. Critical mass can be reached with only a few energetic participants, some occasional contributors and a larger number of people who mainly consume. Take a look at Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality by Clay Shirky.

"The change cost will be high"

If an organisation is to work this way successfully, then the change will happen through natural propagation.  I don't imagine that many of Facebook's 800m users learned how to use it by attending a training programme. If you are an ambitious manager who has seen the light and are tempted to set up a corporate training programme to get everyone doing this, you haven't really seen the light.

"I don't 'do' technology"

A while ago it was quite popular to profess a faux-technophobia and I remember more than a few folks expressing pride in not understanding technology.  I am sure that some do find it genuinely hard to cope with new technology and I am certain there are more who could cope but, for whatever reason, don't want to. If you are in the latter category - particularly if you are a manager or otherwise have aspirations to influence those around you - you may be interested in the view of the son of a friend of mine who advises, " Just get the **** on with it. Right now".  But I am not one for strong language and, in any case, am more inclined to side with W Edwards Deming who said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory." So, if you don’t do technology, that’s fine.

“I don’t have time”

This is a bit like saying, “I can’t be bothered with cars. They take too much time.”  We have time to spend all day in meetings; we have time to fight fires; we have time to read emails; we have time for coffee. Nuff said. OK, it takes effort to learn how to use the tools, and figuring out how to apply them takes experimentation and time; but, if you believe in the benefits (which - humble opinion - will be chuffing enormous) it's going to be worth it.

"We don't have the technology to get started"

Good: you stand a better chance of things working. Don't buy big technology to start doing this stuff. Most successful social collaboration efforts start with a few folks getting together and agreeing to use (as-near-as-dammit free) tools that are available on the Internet: Yammer perhaps or Wordpress. Since success depends on quite substantial behaviour change it is better to work incrementally: grow rather than build.

"I am not interested in what someone had for their breakfast"

Nor me.