Further thoughts on the effects of air travel disruption

A couple of weeks ago I surmised that the travel disruption caused by the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull might force businesses to rethink how they manage their long-distance relationships. It might, I posited, force businesses to be more open to teleworking, teleconferencing and the use of social media for geographically dispersed teams.

Eyjafjallajökull is showing no signs of stopping. A reduced ash plume combined with favourable winds and a change in the aviation industry’s policy towards acceptable ash levels allowed air travel to restart, but the last couple of days have seen Ireland and Scotland forced to close airports due to renewed ash threat. The volcano became “more explosive” with a higher, denser ash column that was swept towards Ireland and Scotland by a southeasterly wind.

I think it’s reasonable to say that we may see further disruption in the UK and across Europe as this eruption continues, so it seems like a good time to remake the point: Start planning now for your business to be affected by further flight bans, especially as the holiday season creeps towards us, increasing the risk that staff may be able to get out of the country but unable to get home. Start introducing collaborative technology now. Don’t wait for disaster to strike, but get your staff up to speed with new tools whilst you still have the luxury of not being in the middle of a crisis.

Harold Jarche points out that working online is different, and it takes some getting used to:

[I]t’s not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide.

And Ethan Zuckerman makes a great point that we don’t notice how much we rely on our infrastructure until it has gone. I like Ethan’s definition of ‘infrastructure’:

Infrastructure is the stuff we ignore until it breaks. Then it’s the stuff we’re stunned to discover we’re dependent on.

He then goes on to point out how ridiculous our dependence on air travel has become, to the point where we expect to be able to fly in, do a 20 minute conference presentation and fly home again. I’ve even done that in one single day, and it’s not fun. But, Ethan says:

It’s possible that Eyjafjallajökull could change this. If a 24 hour trip to London has a significant risk of becoming a 5 day trip to London, the calculus changes. As much as frequent travellers gripe about delays and cancellations, they’re pretty infrequent, and mass delays like the ones currently being experienced are downright rare. If they become commonplace, I personally would expect to say no to travel lots more often and do a lot more appearances via Skype and videoconferencing.

From meetings to conferences to team-building events, unreliable air travel changes how we think about long-distance travel. It should also change how we think about working over long distances, and, thence, how we work with the people who sit right next to us.

And for anyone who thinks that this is all a big fuss over nothing, here are a couple of thoughts:

Firstly, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in December 1821, she did so in fits and starts, with two weeks of activity followed by nothing until June 1822 when she erupted again. Ash fell intermittently for months and activity continued into 1823. In June of 1823, Katla, her neighbour, erupts for four weeks. We are likely to see lulls in activity from Eyjafjallajökull, but we shouldn’t interpret that to mean that the threat is over.

Secondly, by implementing social media, encouraging collaboration and discouraging unnecessary travel your business will become more efficient, more effective and will waste less money on travel. Even if Eyjafjallajökull stops erupting, you’ll still be better off for having prioritised better collaboration practices.

How to start a movement

Brilliant video here from Derek Sivers, who discusses with real insight what would otherwise have just been an amusing video of a guy dancing.

This makes me think a couple of disparate thoughts:

1. Nurture your early community members: They are the ones who will bring in new people to your community.

2. That explains why the early social media leaders are mainly now eclipsed by followers: later followers don’t follow the leaders, they follow the early followers. That says something strange about human nature, but I’m not quite sure what!

Hat tip to Johnnie Moore.

Will Eyjafjallajökull force business change?

There can’t be anyone left who’s not aware of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland. Activity started on 20 March with a ‘curtain of fire‘ fissure eruption at Fimmvörðuháls, which sits in between two glaciers, then entered a second phase on 14h April with what’s known as a phreatomagmatic eruption actually under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. A phreatomagmatic eruption is one where magma reacts explosively with a water source, be it ground water, snow or ice, resulting in a plume of ash and steam.

I’ve been following the eruption closely since 20th March, mainly because my degree was in geology and volcanoes have always fascinated me. I love a good Hawai’i style eruption! When it was just a fissure eruption at Fimmvörðuháls it was basically a neat little tourist attraction, but things are much more serious now. This new phreatomagmatic eruption is a different kettle of North Atlantic cod, primarily because of the airspace closures that the ash cloud is causing.


Disrupted air travel is not just affecting tourists who are stuck abroad or whose holiday has been cancelled, it’s also affecting business travel and, much more importantly, airfreight movements. Airspace closure of a day or so is one thing, but it has been six days and that is going to cause some significant problems not just for the airlines who are currently haemorrhaging cash, but for any business relying on goods transported by air, whether as part of a just-in-time supply chain or not. We may soon start to notice this as perishables like fruit and veg become restricted to locally-available and in-season produce.

It seems unlikely to me that this current eruption is going to cease any time soon. It is, of course, impossible to predict with any certainty what is going to happen, but historically Eyjafjallajökull has shown itself capable of prolonged (two year) eruptions and we need to accept that we might just be at the beginning of such a period of volcanicity.

If that’s the case, then the main factor we need to keep an eye on is the weather. At the moment, the winds are bringing the ash right towards Europe, with Norway and the UK bearing the brunt of it. If the weather changes and a southerly starts to push the ash plume up towards polar regions, for example, then hopefully that’ll clear the air and we’ll be able to start flying. However, I think we should at the very least start to prepare for a future in which air travel is unreliable and where we suffer ongoing sporadic airspace closures. Even if the weather changes enough that we can start to fly again mid-week, there’s no guarantee that we’re not going to see more bans in future.

What does this have to do with social media? Well, if I were a CIO right now, I’d be looking at making sure that everyone in the company has access to video conferencing software such as iChat or Skype, particularly those who usually travel a lot. I’d also be looking at encouraging clients, partners and customers to ensure that they too have these tools installed. I would also provide everyone in my company with IM, would install one of the better wiki platforms and start encouraging people to ramp down their business travel and use social media and video calls instead.

Now, admittedly if I was a CIO I’d be doing that anyway. When people have a choice they tend to choice the status quo over change, but necessity is the mother of invention adoption. Continued sporadic air travel bans will take choice away, so it is in business’ best interests to prepare now for what could be a long period of unreliable travel.

Business travel – such as for meetings, conferences, training – is something we’ve taken for granted. But we haven’t always done business that way and there’s no reason why we have to rely on face-to-face meetings now. Social media can step in to fill the gap, providing a better solution than conference calls alone. I wonder if Eyjafjallajökull is going to force the wider adoption of social tools as air travel once again becomes rare.

Why I’m a fan of small talk in business

Derek Sivers reminds us that on the other end of our keyboard there lies a real person, someone who has real feelings, who will have real reactions to what we say.

When we yell at our car or coffee machine, it’s fine because they’re just mechanical appliances.

So when we yell at a website or company, using our computer or phone appliance, we forget it’s not an appliance, but a person that’s affected.

It’s dehumanizing to have thousands of people passing through our computer screens, so we do things we’d never do if they were sitting next to us.

He’s right. I’ve recently had an experience with someone suffering a total empathy failure, who didn’t seem able to put himself in my shoes and ask himself, “So, how would I feel about this situation?” It wasn’t very pleasant. This chap seemed to have entirely forgotten that their was another human being, with real feelings, who was being directly affected by his poor behaviour.

But I think we can do something about the dehumanising aspect of device-mediated interactions, and that something is to use more social media, particularly the tools that encourage small talk and phatic communication. In 2004, David Weinberger said in his JOHO newsletter:

[…] Art expresses something big in something small. (If it expresses something small in something big, you leave during the intermission.) Likewise, in small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don’t, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground. Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations.

[…] I’m more of a constructivist than an archaeologist when it comes to social relationships. My aim isn’t to expose my buried self to you. It’s to build a conversation and then a relationship that eventually is so deep that we can’t disentangle the roots. For that, we need lots and lots of ambiguity.

He is still spot on. I responded to him in a post on Headshift’s blog, where I was writing at the time, and said:

What are the best aspects of conferences? The bits inbetween the panels and Q&A sessions where we get to chat with our peers. What is the best bit of the working day? Those watercooler conversations or lunch down the pub. Why do smokers have an advantage in the workplace? Because they take regular smoke breaks where they get the opportunities to chat and exchange scraps of information that become important later on.

Small talk is part of the ‘social grooming’ that is required to create and maintain social bonds. Through small talk, people reveal contextual information that they couldn’t otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It’s around the coffee machine that you’re most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in a meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed – the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps keep the team working together instead of fostering mistrust and other destructive emotions.

Yet small talk is often despised, particularly in a work environment where one ‘should’ be concentrating on the task in hand, not chatting. But without small talk, without those bonds and the trust that they engender, teams fragment and become inefficient. The strong work ethic that has become prevalent since the industrial revolution has lessened tolerance for the social grooming activities upon which a sense of community depends, yet some companies spend a lot of money on team-building exercises which are really nothing more than formalised (and therefore often ineffective) opportunities for small talk.

The demise of the communal teabreak in offices has probably done more harm that good. The habit in many offices is that people work through their breaks, including lunch, and the idea of taking a short break mid-morning and mid-afternoon is very much frowned upon. People also have a tendency not to take breaks communally anymore except for the odd lunch or drinks after work. These trends decrease the opportunity for face-to-face small talk in the workplace.

Instead, people use email, instant messaging programme or external blogs or bulletin boards in order to get their fix of chitchat. The social requirement for small talk hasn’t gone away, it’s just moved online.

At the Social Tools for Enterprise Symposium, Euan Semple talked about his experiences implementing social software internally at the BBC. He found that a significant fraction of posts on the bulletin boards were not overtly to do with work, but either passing on experiences gained outside of work or the sort of small talk that glues communities together. But, as Euan says, “People get to trust each other through small talk, and I actively defend it against those who say it is not work related.”

It’s as true now as it was then.

Useless artificial divisions

I’m increasingly of the belief that trying to split social media into ‘internal’ and ‘external’ uses is a totally pointless waste of time. Equally I hear people talking about B2B and B2C social media case studies as if they are somehow different, but they really aren’t. These are shallow, superficial divisions that have no basis in reality.

Social media is about people forming relationships with each other. The tools they use are irrelevant. The context is irrelevant. This is about people, whether they are colleagues, customers, clients or vendors. It’s not the what, it’s the who.

Creating these social media silos of marketing and internal communications and B2B and B2C just seem to me to be doing the very thing that social media is often used to combat: putting up walls between different groups of people who are doing very similar things and who could do with talking to each other once in a while. Frankly, I think a lot of the really focused social media types, who zoom in on one tiny application of social tools, could do with getting out a bit more. And the people who focus on using social media for marketing, rejecting the idea that they might actually gain something from using the tools between themselves, are idiots.

We don’t need social media to turn into just another branch of marketing, or just another thing done by internal comms teams, or something that customer-facing companies do but B2B companies don’t. Start thinking like that and we’ll end up with the very sort of blinkered stupidity we’re already struggling to combat. Letting social media become what we’re trying to replace would be, to put it mildly, dumb.

Instead, why don’t we just accept that social media is rather like a hammer: you can use a hammer to build a garden shed or the Taj Mahal, but at the end of the day you’re still using it to hit a nail. Social media can be used to build a garden shed or the Taj Mahal, but at the end of the day you’re still using it to build relationships with people. I’d rather see businesses set up a separate Social Media Department populated by people steeped in social media culture who then helped everyone else in the company, regardless of who they are or where they sit, get the best out of social tools than see it eaten up by marketeers or managers who want to turn it into something safe, comfortable, familiar and vapid.

Let’s face it, most companies need to be shaken up a bit. Internal business cultures often suck, based on command-and-control and he-who-shouts-loudest-wins. A lot of marketing is just brainless drivel based on an out-of-date assumption that we’re all passive consumers just waiting to absorb your ‘message’. Social media can humanise all aspects of business, empowering any and all individuals touched by the company, whether employees or customers or just idle bystanders. But not if we let ourselves get caught up in these artificial divisions, cutting ourselves off from the wide variety of ideas that could so easily inspire our thinking.

I know this blog is called The Social Enterprise, but it is in fact this name which has lead me to writing this post. I sometimes worry that what I’m writing isn’t ‘enterprisey’ enough, but I’m not even sure that ‘enterprise’ has a meaning relevant in the context of social media. Does it matter if you’re a multinational or an SME when you’re trying to improve collaboration? No. What matters is that you understand how collaboration works, how people function, how social tools fit into that landscape. The underlying concepts and constructs are the same in both contexts. How people work is the same in all contexts.

I suspect that this splintering of social media comes less from intrinsic differences and more from the way that existing powermongers re-interpret social media through their own lenses, attempting to remake it in their own image so that they can control – i.e. defang and declaw – and own the change, whilst not really caring whether the change is genuine or meaningful. Social media therefore becomes a tool in the constant game of empire-building, either as a prize to be squabbled over or a stick to beat others with.

So I’m calling time on these pointless divisions. It’s all about social media and people. Fin.

The Tyranny of the Explicit

Johnnie Moore has a great podcast episode talking with Viv McWaters and Roland Harwood on how an undue focus on metrics can get in the way of real thought and understanding. I see this frequently myself, too, when people want to focus on ‘return on investment’ or ‘success metrics’ for social media at the cost of understanding the intangible results, which are actually more important than the measurable ones. There are some great nuggets, so well worth listening to. I particularly liked Johnnie’s discussion of how learning has become codified in unrealistic ways and how that relates to best practice documents that don’t get practised.

If you want innovation, let people do it on their own

Mitch Anthony links to a post form PsyBlog about how groups redefine ‘creativity’ as ‘behaviour that conforms to group norms’:

When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.

Afterwards when they judged each others’ work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the ‘words’ group rated posters with more words as more creative and the ‘images’ group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.

In another part of the same experiment these results were reversed when people’s individuality rather than their group membership was emphasised. Creativity became all about being different from others and being inconsistent with group norms. When freed from the almost invisible shackles of the group, then, people suddenly remembered the dictionary definition of creativity: to transcend the orthodox.

If you want people to innovate, you need to give them the room to work things out for themselves. I have always thought that innovation works better when the innovator is tackling a problem that affects them on a regular basis, an itch that they just have to scratch. Certainly in web innovation it seems to work best that way.

How do we best enable individuals to innovate? Simply being able to think through their problems and propose solutions might be a good starting point. Innovation isn’t, after all, about massive step changes – although they do happen they are really quite rare – but about incremental improvements. If one person saves his or her department of 12 people just half an hour a week, that’s still going to add up: to 44.5 person-days per year, to be precise. Now, if you extend that to a company of 10,000 people, each saving just half an hour a week, that’s 37,000+ person-days per year.

Social media can probably achieve that simply by shifting some types of email to more appropriate platforms. Think of a what a concerted drive to help people make life easier – aka innovate – for themselves in their day to day life might achieve.

The Blogger/Evangelist Lifecycle

For years I’ve been talking about the Blogger Lifecycle – the way in which business bloggers react to the act of business blogging. Last week this topic featured in a workshop I was running so I finally drew the graph that has been in my head for the last several years.

Blogger/Evangelist lifecycle

Based loosely on the Gartner Hype Cycle, it tracks the emotional response of business bloggers and social media evangelists as they develop their online presence. In reality, people’s response to the act of blogging (or other social media activity) varies depending on a number of factors, including:

  • The evangelist’s personality
  • Amount and quality of reader feedback they get, e.g. comments
  • Quality of feedback from peers/managers
  • Time pressure
  • Success of venture as they perceive it

In my experience, evangelists tend to start at either:

1. Scepticism/Uncertainty: They are unsure of themselves and/or of the value of social media.


2. Enthusiasm: They are keen to engage with social media.

As the social media project progresses, the novelty wears off and the evangelist is faced with the reality that:

  • Social media takes time and effort
  • It can be hard to get comments and feedback
  • It can be hard to become a part of the wider community
  • Enthusiasm doesn’t always result in action

That last point is a broad one: It’s not just the enthusiasm of the blogger we’re talking about, but of their readers, colleagues and managers too. Although the blogger might be getting enthusiastic responses from readers, if those responses don’t result in an action, e.g. discussion in the comments or even sales calls, it can still be demoralising. And if enthusiasm by colleagues and managers isn’t matched by relevant actions on their part, e.g. helping promote the blog, that can also damage the blogger’s sense of how things are going.

Lack of comments/feedback can make the evangelist feel isolated and unappreciated, undermining their enthusiasm. Even as an experienced blogger, I still suffer from this. Starting a new blog these days is really very hard and if you get no feedback or, worse, negative comments it’s easy to feel disillusioned. And at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment is when a blogger or social media evangelist is most likely to quit.

This is the point at which the good social media manager steps in and supports the blogger/evangelist, encouraging them to carry on, helping them refine their blogging style and giving them tips on how to promote it. Evangelists whose work is appreciated internally, who are supported by peers and management, and who feel that they are producing something of value are more likely to persist with their social media work during these difficult periods.

Evangelists are subject to the same time pressures as anyone else and if they are are not completely committed to their social media work they will find it too easy to sideline it. Successful evangelists find ways to embed their social media activities into their work day and create new habits that support those activities.

If I were running an evangelist programme, I’d create internal communities of practice and encourage evangelists to support one another, share best practice, and sense-check each other’s reactions to difficult situations. This kind of peer support has proved very helpful in some of the projects I’ve worked on, and often it’s so useful that it springs up all by itself as the evangelists naturally start to help each other. Giving them a place to talk right from the beginning jumpstarts that process.

Now, you might wonder why all this matters. So what if someone starts a blog or a LinkedIn Group and doesn’t carry it on? Blogs die all the time… Well, frankly, I think that abandoned blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn or Facebook Groups do not reflect well on the company. If I turn up at a Twittter page or a blog and see that it’s hasn’t been updated in months, it tells me that the company just doesn’t care about communicating with its customers, which I interpret to mean that it’s not going to care about me either.

Even in a professional context, using social media is an experience that involves human emotions. It’s easy to lapse into the ‘we’re all professionals here, emotions are irrelevant’ attitude, but that’s clearly nonsense. Business is made of people and people are emotional. Pretending we aren’t doesn’t get us anywhere useful. Acknowledging that we all have ups and downs, that social media is a long term investment requiring long term emotional investment, and supporting that investment are essential to the ultimate success of any social media project. Company ignore the emotional at their peril.

What does it mean to be busy?

I don’t think I can put it better than Scott Berkun does in The cult of busy:

The person who gets a job done in one hour will seem less busy than the guy who can only do it in five. How busy a person seems is not necessarily indicative of the quality of their results. Someone who is better at something might very well seem less busy, because they are more effective. Results matter more than the time spent to achieve them.

Great post from Scott, and definitely worth reading the rest of it.

How do you stop yourself getting busy? For me, the biggest challenge has been how to learn to say No to stuff, as there’s always the fear that if you say no once, you may never be asked again. Accurately judging how long something will take so that you don’t take on more work than you can manage is another key trick. But I’m still doing battle with the insidious culture of overwork that insinuates itself into even the most logical brains: Finishing my day’s work early means I’m effective, not lazy!