posted 10 Nov 2010 in Volume 14 Issue 2
Euan Semple explains why clamping down on the use of social media tools can harm businesses
While being shown around one of my younger daughter’s potential grammar schools last night I was struck by how anachronistic the sixth formers looked in their business suits. I found myself wondering how many of them would end up in jobs that required them to wear suits when they leave university in a few years time. I then began musing on some of our assumptions about what the term ‘businesslike’ means and how things are changing. We have disparaged the soft social skills of relationship building as being un-businesslike, in favour of dispassionate coldness. Maybe with the advent of social media, we should think again.
There are still those who see social as being the antithesis of businesslike. They claim that no executive board would entertain the use of the phrase social media in a work context. They will insist that allowing people to talk about anything other than the job at hand is a distraction and inappropriate in the workplace. Not having used the tools themselves in most cases, they will confidently pronounce on their pointlessness. They cling to their belief that attending meetings that rarely achieve anything, or writing 40-page reports that no one will read, is real work and that chatting on Twitter is a waste of time. We have even invented ‘enterprise 2.0’ as a more acceptable front for what we are actually talking about, which is the use of online tools to help people to establish relationships with one another – in other words, to be social.
And yet, like it or not, businesses are based on relationships. Even in a conventional command and control environment, getting people to do things is really tough if you have no credibility, or if you haven’t built a trusted relationship. Getting people to open and up and let you know when things aren’t going well relies on them trusting you to use the information appropriately. Working under pressure relies on trusting those around you to do their bit and not let you down. All of this is about relationships and relationships are social.
Contrast all this talk of sociability and relationships with the language of knowledge management. This means words such as capturing, extracting and – my own personal favourite harvesting – which conjures up an image of some sort of cerebral milking machine that sucks knowledge from people’s heads then leaves the discarded empty husks at the back door of the organisation. And then we wonder why no one comes to play in our knowledge repositories, which one large consulting firm calls ‘knowledge coffins’, as they are where knowledge goes to die.
It is easy to underestimate the fear that people feel when being expected to share what they know. Far from the perceived risk of people using social tools to claim expertise they don’t have most people are reticent about admitting the skills they do! Maybe it is a British thing but getting people to open up and talk about what they know in public can be very difficult. You need to get all sorts of things right in terms of the environment and the expectations before they will be comfortable entering into discussions. This is where social tools earn their money. If you can get people opening up and getting comfortable chatting on trivial subjects then they are more likely to be willing to answer the work questions when they come up.
Tone matters when writing for social tools. There is a natural and conversational tone that emerges when people are blogging and it is a long way from the traditional style of management communication. In fact, the rather pompous tone of many corporate memos is a disabler rather than enabler of sharing. It is a talk to the hand tone that supports the power of the writer rather than the needs of the reader. It is even possible to write statements in a way that invites ongoing discussion rather than closing the conversation down. The goal of writing for social tools is to get a conversation going that enables people to participate and learn together, rather than to establish the authority of one particular participant.
How often are people de-motivated by a manager treating them as a number or a statistic on their spreadsheets rather than relating to them as a person? How many costly misunderstandings occur because those burdened by responsibility are more comfortable with broadcast than respectful listening? How many projects fail because of the dominance of a powerful individual at the expense of the social bonds of a group? The problem with getting people to share their knowledge is that they have to do so willingly. As Peter Drucker once said: “In a knowledge economy there are no such things as conscripts, there are only volunteers.” In order to open up enough to ask questions in public or to share their hard-won experience they have to feel comfortable in, and trusting of, the tools they use. They have to understand the context in which they are sharing and believe that what they share will be put to good, and appropriate, use.
With the Facebook generation already in the workplace, ignoring what is happening is not an option. And what is happening is not so much abut technology. It is a repositioning of the line between the individual and the corporation and we all have in an interest in making that repositioning as painless, and useful, as possible.
Ten years ago, while working in a senior position at the BBC, Euan Semple was one of the first to introduce what have since become known as social media tools into a large, successful organisation. He has subsequently had four years of unparalleled experience working with organisations such as Nokia, The World Bank and NATO helping them learn how to make the most of this wired-up world of work.
He can be contacted at email@example.com or via his website at www.euansemple.com/theobvious/. Euan can also be followed on Twitter – @euan