Social media in our organisations: Three ways out of the timewarp

When it comes to our workplaces, the social media revolution has gotten off to a spluttering start. This post investigates the current use of social media in our organisations and what we can do to make sure social media adds value.

Just over two years ago at Social Media Camp London, I was involved in a heated discussion with a group of digital tech enthusiasts about whether or not twitter was a fad. We had just noticed that our motley band of ninety or so people had managed to get #smclondon to the top of twitter’s worldwide trending topics, and while most of us considered this to be pretty significant news, others took it as another sign that twitter was forever going to be a ‘small, small world’ populated by the same old people talking to, well, themselves.

This was the debate which in one form or another was going on all over the country – in offices, in newspapers, on chat shows and political broadcasts (“two twits make a t*&%”? Anyone?). All we seemed to be talking about was whether twitter was worth talking about, which makes it all the more heartening for those of us fighting twitter’s corner at #smclondon that now, just two years later, it’s almost impossible to imagine any collective activity that doesn’t utilise social media in some way. Whether you’re watching the Apprentice or planning to overthrow your government; twitter, facebook, blogs and forums are now standard issue. And while the likes of Malcolm Gladwell will continue to downplay the role that social media plays in our lives, no one would deny that it has no place at all.

Which is why, on face value, it seems strange that as soon as we walk through the doors of our office buildings and sit down at our desks we seem to be back in 1999. Email is king. Social media is for the ‘Gen Y’s. And in meeting rooms up and down the land corporate comms and IT teams are looking at one another somewhat quizzically and trying to determine how exactly this social media phenomenon applies to them.

Now, at this stage, you might be thinking that I’m exaggerating. Perhaps you’ve heard about IBM’s internal apps store or how DWP are crowd-sourcing money-saving organisational improvement ideas using Idea Street. Maybe your workplace has a dynamic community group on LinkedIn, or your CEO has well-read, oft-commented on blog. Perhaps you’ve even managed to get status updates built into the homepage of your intranet, with staff habitually sharing news and views on matters of critical organisational importance. If you are nodding at this point – congratulations – because I can assure you, you have achieved something magnificent. Most organisations haven’t gotten nearly that far.

Show me the money
In Towers Watson’s Communication ROI Study for 2009/10, which surveys employees from organisations of all shapes and sizes, 40% of participants stated they had increased their use of social media for employee communication. However, only 29% of all participants thought the use of social media for employee communication had been cost-effective. It’s not that we’re not exploring it. We’re just not sure if it’s worth it.

Speak to any internal comms professional and they’ll back up this conclusion. At last month’s Institute of Internal Communications conference I asked the audience of public and private sector professionals to raise their hand if they felt the case for social media in their organisations was won, lost or if ‘the jury was out’. Unsurprisingly, roughly 95% of the audience fell into the final category.

We have a CEO blog, but no one is commenting. Or they comment, but they aren’t saying anything useful. Or even worse, it’s becoming just a little bit offensive. What do we do with that?

We’ve launched an internal social network, but no one is using it. We expected it just to, well, you know, just ‘take off’. Like, everyone would just jump on it. That it would ‘go viral’. Like twitter and facebook did. But it, well, hasn’t. Or some people are using it, but it seems to be the same old people (who clearly can’t have anything better to do with their time).

We let our staff ‘blog’ now. It’s the future. Everyone’s going to do it. Ok, two people do it. Only one of them regularly. And it’s about the intricacies of expense payments which, unsurprisingly, achieved just 12 visits last week. From one unique visitor. Guess who that was.

While these comments are caricatures, they represent some of our worst fears about the questionable value that social media can bring to our organisations. The sad part is, in too many organisations, these fears are becoming a reality, souring the reputation of social tools and bolstering the neigh-seers. Risk-aversion, limited resources and skills gaps are all holding organisations back. Which is a shame, as if we can be sure of anything, we can be sure that the successful organisations of the future will be the ones which integrate their technology so seamlessly into the way we do business that we no longer even notice that we’re using ‘social media’.

So where do we go from here?
Let’s face it, it is still early days. But what’s clear we need some basic principles to help get us back on track, and having spent the past couple of years talking endlessly on this subject, going to conferences, researching case studies and running digital internal engagement projects, it would seem that there are three tenets that consistently work in making sure that social media adds value in our workplaces as opposed to becoming a laughing stock.

1. Go back to (strategic) basics

‘Doing some social media’ because everyone else is just is not a good enough reason. We need to think – really think – about what our organisational objectives are and then see if social media applications might play a role in achieving them. Need to reduce costs and improve processes? Ideas crowd-sourcing might help provide part of the solution. Want to break down team silos and get people joining up? Then blogs or forums might help add some dynamism to your knowledge-sharing activities. Need to increase the visibility of the senior leadership team? Then webinars, podcasts and yes, even blogs might play a role in creating a step-change. But whatever we’re doing, it has to start with an over-arching objective focused on the impact we want to have, not the tools we’ll use to do it.

Importantly, I say social media might ‘play a role’. Anyone trying to make an impact in an organisation knows that the product solution is only one small part of achieving a lasting change, and that what happens face to face is always going to be as important, if not more important than what happens online. Social media is not and will never be the silver bullet for reaching our organisational goals. What it does give us however is some new, exciting tools in our armoury that, when used effectively, can propel us in the right direction. Which is great. But it means we can’t forget about all the other things that make a good strategy – clear objectives, stakeholder buy-in, senior engagement, and yes, an internal engagement strategy, which leads us onto…

2. It’s the people, stupid.

Social tools can do some pretty cool things. DWP’s Idea Street is a case in point; using the spigit platform it uses a virtual currency to create a stock market for good ideas. If your idea succeeds – meaning it is signed off and implemented – all the staff involved get a return. If it doesn’t, the value of the idea crashes and everyone involved loses (virtual) money.

It’s an innovative concept. It’s a perfect example of the kind of engaging approaches that can be achieved with this kind of digital solution. But it’s also proof that without staff participation, nothing is achieved. If people aren’t logging in; creating, sharing, developing and implementing ideas and driving them through the ideas laboratory, then having a sexy online platform is basically worthless. It’s an empty forum registering zero visits.

This might sound really obvious, but just think about how many wikis, blogs and forums are set up with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy. As if somehow, sensing the existence of the social network on some subconscious level, staff will immediately flock to it in droves. In reality, the graveyard of empty forums out there tells us it just doesn’t work like that. Social media’s success rests on attracting people to use it, which means there are a few things we need to do.

Firstly, we need to be clear about ‘what’s in it for me’ – why should your employees spend time using your social media solution? What does it give them that they can’t get more easily elsewhere? What will happen on there which will make their work lives more productive/easy/interesting/fun? If the answer is nothing – then social media will fail.

Secondly, we need an internal comms plan. People can’t use your new platform if they don’t know it exists or what it’s for. In the ‘outside world’ of twitter, facebook and now G+, we’d usually just say ‘leave it to people to find out by word of mouth’ – this works because the audience is potentially huge and there are many people who thrive on sharing the news and being the early adopters. This doesn’t, however, usually work in an organisation, firstly because word of mouth usually just results in reaffirming silos (people tend to only tell other people in their team), and secondly, because those that don’t hear about it until later down the line can quite rightly feel a bit left out and annoyed that it wasn’t launched ‘properly’.

We need to tell people (and keep telling people) it exists. We need to tell them what it’s for. And we need to be clear with people about how they use it – some simple, plain English social media guidance can work wonders.

So we have a clear objective and strategy, and we have people using the platform, which leave just one thing left to do…

3. Integrate, Integrate, Integrate.

Social media might be the new kid on the block, but that doesn’t mean that it should be a stand alone activity. In fact, social media works at its best when used in co-ordination with other communications, whether it’s by extending the life of internal events by providing a place for staff to comment and feedback on what they’ve seen or heard, adding dynamism to e-newsletters with a monthly discussion topic or call for ideas, or bringing your very own intranet into the 21st century by integrating the people directory with some social networking functionality.

And yet, time and again, organisations are setting up stand alone social platforms without any integration with broader internal activities. The weekly newsletter doesn’t mention it. The frontpage of the intranet doesn’t mention it. Senior leaders don’t mention it. Forums and networks remain these underground, slightly subversive online places which bear little relation to organisational activities and are only visited by the few in the know.

So, if we want your social media solution to live and breathe in the day to day life of our businesses, it’s worth spending some time planning how we will integrate it with existing channels and activities. It could be as simple as adding a discussion forum topic to your monthly newsletter, or a yammer hashtag to a staff event. These small things will help raise awareness, demonstrate relevance, and start to embed social media activities into business as usual.

And finally…
Organisations don’t have to use social media – it won’t always be needed and it won’t always be a valuable use of time and money. But whatever the size, shape and purpose of your organisation, we are quickly reaching the point where just avoiding social media because ‘we don’t know how’ or ‘we think it’s too risky’ is no longer a viable option. Applied strategically, planned with the audience in mind and integrated effectively with other activities, social media has the potential to add real value, and while it may not always revoluationise our organisations, it will be increasingly be an inevitable part of their evolution. For those workplaces still in 1999, it’s time they got out of this timewarp and embraced that fact.


Internal Communications TeaCamp #2: Evaluate!

Last night we held the second internal comms teacamp at Apostrophe in Oxford Circus; where internal comms professionals from the public, private and third sector met up to discuss and share ideas on some of challenges we’re facing in the internal comms profession.

The theme for this month was evaluation, and the session kicked off with a short presentation from RBS’s Camilla West on how she is working to develop measurable KPIs for internal comms which link to wider business objectives.

This raised some key discussion areas for the group:

• How do we move from monitoring activity around our outputs – for instance tracking which articles on the intranet are most popular – to evaluating the extent to which that activity has helped achieve wider business outcomes?

• The importance of choosing the right set of KPIs against which to track performance, including being clear about which KPIs internal comms are responsible for, and which KPIs require involvement from everyone in the organisation.

• Getting the most from our staff surveys, and supplementing them with focus groups to get a better insight into staff attitudes and issues.

• The importance of encouraging senior leaders to invest in evaluating the internal activities that haven’t worked so well and not just the ‘success stories’ that have.

• Interesting ways to link internal comms to financial performance, e.g. time saving and financial impact of improving the performance of the intranet.

• The extent to which internal comms can be responsible for organisational objectives around staff engagement and morale, particularly when internal comms resources are being cut.

One thing that was clear was that evaluation is essential. While it might not always be possible to provide senior leaders with hard performance data linked to financials, there is an increasing appetite for quantitative measures which demonstrate improvement.

The next Internal Comms TeaCamp will be on 21st September from 4pm-6pm, where we’ll be discussing Internal Comms and Hard to Reach Audiences, as well as any other topics people want to bring along. For more information look up the #iceteacamp hashtag on twitter, or contact Sharon O’Dea to be added to the email list.

Female seeks new home

For most people, flatsharing at some point is a simple reality of living in London. Rents on studio or one bed apartments are sky high, and now more than ever house prices are well out of the reach of the average Londoner. What’s more, in a dynamic, transient city such as this, living with other people can be a crucial way of making new friends and even building something of an urban family (think Friends but with smaller apartments).

Which is all why when I found out I would need to move out of my current abode, the idea of getting back on the flat-sharing scene didn’t worry me too much. Past experience told me it wouldn’t take too long to find somewhere, and that this could be a great opportunity to try out a new area and meet a whole new bunch of people. What I hadn’t reckoned on however is just how much London’s flat-sharing scene has changed in the 5 years or so since I was last in the game.

It’s tough out there. For a start, the fact that no one is buying houses anymore means that there are many more people on the flat hunt, and much fewer properties to choose from. Not only does this make the whole process feel a great deal more competitive than it used to be, but it also means that canny landlords are hiking up rents, making a half decent place in zone 2 barely affordable for your average young(ish) professional like me.

Furthermore, it’s incredibly time-consuming. Searching for places. Checking the various listings sites for new properties everyday. Emailing people. Not hearing anything back. Emailing more people. Setting up viewings for places you know you don’t want out of sheer desperation. Trecking across London. Making small-talk with slightly odd folk while working out how on earth they have managed to squeeze a double bed into what is quite clearly a large storage cupboard.

Not to mention the agonising. Should I take that place with the strange smell? Maybe I won’t find anything better. Maybe this is the best there is. Maybe if I turn it down I’ll be out on the streets in a few weeks. Maybe if I say I do want it they won’t want me anyway, and take any one of the 20 other people who’ve viewed it.

And then…

Maybe I’m too old for all this. Because, in all seriousness, you think there would come a point (say on the eve of your 30th birthday) where selling yourself to potential new housemates starts to feel a little silly. Because yes, I go out and have fun, but really I just want to live with people who don’t mind sitting on the sofa watching The Apprentice on a Wednesday night. Yes, I have interesting passions and fascinating life goals. But they are no where near the most important things about me – like the fact I am a good friend and try hard to be a nice person. Even to weird potential flatmates.

And yet it is a quirk of London life that there is no other option. So, knowing this, I’m about to once again scour the latest flatshare websites. Somewhere out there there’s gotta be a room with my name on it.

My best blogs from the year that was

1. Brain Pickings (link)
Curating eclectic interestingness from culture’s collective brain.
Twitter: @brainpicker

Ok, so I only came across Brain Pickings like, well, yesterday, but it’s already my favourite place to spend some time online, full of interest and insight from the global mind of Maria Popova, who appears to know everything about everything I want to know about.

Yanko Tsvetkov‘s Mapping Stereotypes Project

Helpfully, I don’t even have to summarise my favourite articles as Maria has already curated the best of brain pickings 2010 and it pretty much sums up my own choices. My personal favourite is Yanko Tsvetkov’s Mapping of European Stereotypes.

2. iliketothinkabout (link)
A little collection of dwelltime stories
Twitter: @lillydelange

Pointed and elegant musings from Lilly Delange; the alter ego of a London City dweller subverting the daily grind by spotting the weird and wonderful while cutting through the pomp and pretence.

This blog invites you to explore the city through Lilly’s eyes, introducing you to everything from the beauty of London’s churches to making a difference at the School of Life, while occasionally kicking your ass about honesty in friendship and the new national obsession with being a foodie.

3. Zen Habits (link)
Smile, breathe and go slowly
Twitter: @zen_habits

Simple, precise and all too often forgotten words of day to day wisdom from Leo Babauta, who somehow manages to maintain zen-like calm amidst city living and six children. He’s words are not rocket science, but let’s face it, easier and happier living is easier than we’d like to think – do less, play more, be kind to yourself and others.

My favourite posts from this year include achieving without goals – an excellent reminder that we don’t need to drive ourselves hard to lead full and creative lives – and this month’s Lessons from Less – a guest post from Courtney Carver whose health challenges have helped her realise that more is not the same as better.

4. Free Range Humans (link)
Escape the corporate cage and live life on your terms
Twitter: @FreeRangeHumans

Marianne Cantwell is leading a one woman mission to liberate people from the confines of their cubicles (and, more importantly, their own fears) in order to find careers that help them become their best selves and therefore live happier lives. Even writing that makes me a bit scared.

But this isn’t just lofty wisdom and can-do confidence affirmations; this blog is packed full of practical business advice and everyday examples of people leaving their offices and setting up on their own doing something they love. If you think you can’t, come here to see that you can.

5. Creativist Society (link)
A bumping place for new ideas in society
Twitter: @creativistsoc

I really like this blog, and not just because they were kind enough to publish my own work on the spirit of ideas earlier this year. Olivia Sprinkel and Arnold Beekes came together via twitter to create a space that takes forward the tenets of Olivia’s Creativist Manifesto, published on ChangeThis (another great online space) back in January, focusing on reframing our approach to life away from passively consuming what we are given to taking back the power to create our own future. Thoughtful and mind-expanding.

Community – a basic need?

Last weekend I went to see ATC‘s brilliant production of Ivan and the Dogs at the Soho Theatre.

Credit: ATC

This is a story about a four year old boy growing up in severe poverty in Yeltsin’s Moscow who runs away from his abusive home. Sad, scared and alone, he befriends a pack of dogs and, over time, makes them his new family.

Apart from being an incredible (and true) story told with heart-felt intensity by Rad Kaim, what really struck me about Hattie Naylor’s play was how much humans need a community in order to survive and thrive. Even in the harshest conditions, Ivan is happy when he is with his dogs – looking out for one another, playing together, knowing they will always watch over him. Facing adversity was not such a hardship, as long as they were facing it together.

What does this say about our need for community? As individuals we have some incredible resources, but isn’t our potential amplified by working together with others? And when times are tough, is community more important than ever – can we get by without it?

Five Courses in Digital Culture

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the world is undergoing something of a digital revolution. So it makes sense that more and more people are devoting their time and money (yours truly included) trying to understand what impact that revolution in connectivity is having on us – as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a civilisation.
The Sistine Chapel

It therefore isn’t a great surprise that all over the world top universities are adding digital anthropology courses to their under-grad and post-grad curriculums. Here’s a quick overview of some of the programmes and schools throwing their intellectual and technological might at developing a deeper understanding of this emerging field.

1. Masters in Digital Anthropology, UCL

This MSc brings together three key components in the study of digital culture:

1. Skills training in digital technologies, including their own ‘Digital Lab’, from internet and digital film editing to e-curation and digital ethnography.
2. Anthropological theories of virtualism, materiality/immateriality and digitisation.
3. Understanding the consequences of digital culture through the ethnographic study of its social and regional impact.

Sounds pretty cool.

2. Master of Digital Communication and Culture, University of Sydney

What might be marginally cooler however is heading to Sydney’s top university to hang out on Bondi at the same as studying. It’ll cost you though – $25,000 to be exact which is no mean feat when the pound is struggling so.

While not as ‘heavy-weight’ as the UCL course – the course description certainly uses fewer words with four or more syllables – it is comprehensive, covering practical study in digital design to more theoretical approaches to the impact of technology on society. Plus, it’s in Sydney (have I mentioned that already?).

3. McLuhan Institute, University of Toronto

Even from their old (soon to be updated) website you can tell this is an institute of real calibre. It isn’t clear if their involved in the pedantry of Masters study, opting more for full on PhD research programmes in things like information ethics, ‘techno-psychology’ and ‘the era of the tag’.

Having met a few people who have done their PhDs here, it’s clear that it’s a place with a solid history in researching the impact of technology on the world – they have been so since the 60s, decades before the term ‘social media’ was even invented.

4. MIT, Boston, USA

Of course this would be no list at all without a mention for MIT and their Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology and Society (or HASTS for short). While the site states ‘it is impossible for any program to cover the full range of problems raised by the multiple interactions of history, social studies, science, and technology’, they seem to be giving it a fairly good go.

This one isn’t explicitly about digital technology – it covers everything from nuclear weapons to biomedicine, but they do run a course on the digital divide and it’s implications for development. Just up the road from Harvard, this is something of an intellectual technologist’s mecca.

5. Masters in Digital Culture, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland

Taught entirely in English, this programme focuses on various aspects of culture and its digitalization, placing special emphasis on the relationship between humans and technology.

The best bit about this one is that there seem to be no tuition fees, which will come in handy when living in a place as expensive as Finland. Plus it’s in a pretty small town, so you’ll certainly have the chance to focus on your studies.

Know of an excellent digital culture course? Want to comment on the courses listed here? Feel free…

The Spirit of Ideas

This article also appears on the Creativist Society ideaspace.

This is not the article I planned to write.

The plan was to write something quite different; something exploring the relationship between ideas and stillness, creativity and meditation. Something big, drawing on philosophy, psychology, theology and history. The begins of a discussion on where inside us our ideas come from. An invitation for others to share their experiences.

I had spent an entire evening mapping out my thoughts; books I wanted to read, people I wanted to have conversations with; the different angles the article might explore. I was excited about it, I thought it had potential; maybe it would be more than just one article, perhaps it could be an entire project? Maybe even a book?

And yet, even as I was sat at my kitchen table getting way ahead of myself, sketching out various thoughts (in a big A3 sketching pad that I’ve started using for these sorts of things), I started to become aware of something.

A kind of scratching noise. Actually, it wasn’t so much a noise. More like a feeling. It was like I could feel something was scratching, quite gently you understand, on the edges of my mind. It felt like something had been creeping up on me, something I was becoming vaguely conscious of which was now (not so subtly) attempting to get my attention.

Of course, I swatted it away. I was in the middle of something. I didn’t have time for distractions and flirtations. I continued on my original track even though, for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, it no longer felt like quite the right thing to be doing. My mind was just starting to become, well, cluttered. The scratching was throwing me off. I wasn’t in the flow anymore…or at least I wasn’t flowing in the direction I was supposed to be. It was like swimming upstream.

It was here I did the best thing I possibly could. I decided it was time for a break. I closed my sketch pad, got ready for bed and began to relax into sleep. And it was here, in this calmer state a floor away from my plans that the scratching upped its game and became a fairly insistent banging.

With nothing to distract me, I didn’t have much choice but to relent. So, I opened the door and let the new idea in.

It literally ran me over. It powered through me so strongly that I actually felt winded. I tried again to ignore it (can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?!) but it was futile. I had been struck by lightning. So, on a Monday night at 2am I turned on the light, picked up a pen and started writing. Writing this, in fact.

It feels like an electric shock. It feels like Niagara Falls. It feels like I have been injected with an overdose of energy and adrenaline and endorphins. It feels like I’ve been possessed. And while I can’t tell where exactly this idea has come from, I’m pretty sure it’s either from deep inside of me or from far outside of me. Or possibly both. It feels like both. It feels incredible.

This idea is running away with me and I can’t seem to write fast enough. And it’s deeply inconvenient. I have to work tomorrow. Twice now I have turned off my light, rolled over and tried to sleep. Twice this idea has gotten me up, switched on my light and insisted I keep writing. It won’t rest. I’m alive with it.

And while I can’t know if this is a great idea for an article – to write about the experience of having an idea – I know it is the right one. It’s the article I’m supposed to be writing.

And with that, I sense that this idea is finished with me. I turn off my light, take a breath and fall asleep.

This is not the article I had planned to write. I wanted to write about something quite different; something exploring the relationship between ideas and stillness, creativity and meditation. Perhaps, in a round-about way, that’s what I have ended up writing? The spirit of ideas works in mysterious ways.

What does it feel like when you have a new idea? And where do you think your new ideas come from? Share here…