Euan Semple at the British Library

Last night I went to Euan Semple‘s event to launch his book, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do, at the British Library. It was the first time I’ve live-blogged an event in ages, a skill I’m going to have to polish up a bit before Le Web London in June, hence the lag in getting this up on the blog. 

The event took for form of a conversation between Richard Sambrook (RS) and Euan (ES), which I have attempted to capture as faithfully as I can, but of course much of this is paraphrasing especially the questions. 

RS: Why do people Tweet, not organisations?  

ES: Got fed up of marketing folk doing 140 character press releases, felt intrusive, into what is a personal space. Surprised at industrialisation, it’s turned into a thing that can be bought and sold. But even if someone else does it for you, it’s still a person tweeting. Some corps are good, e.g Virgin Airways, they give a name, they’re open about the fact that there’s a person there. 

RS: Why is that important? 

ES: It’s important because we’ve lost our voices, having been part of the BBC for as long as I was, we’ve outsourced our storytelling to other people, our sense-making. We wait for others to tell us what to think, what’s right. Social media is giving us back the ability to tell our stories, and that’s very disruptive, and a lot of people are interested in assimilating it. A lot are making it just same-old same-old, and we’d lose a precious opportunity if we allowed that to happen. 

There’s a risk that some of us that ‘get it’ foist it on others, and that’s something we need to be wary of, so need to look at the opportunity. Once people grasp that opportunity a lot of the organisational norms we think are inevitable will turn out not to be. 

RS: You’re clear this isn’t about tech, but about what it enables. What is that? 

ES: We don’t have to all be the same, being different is what this relies on. If you end up with monoculture, you haven’t shifted things very far. Er, what was the question again?

RS: What is the cultural change? What makes it different? 

ES: This is more of the social changes that are happening anyway that the tech is enhancing, or speeding up. Tech appears when you’re ready, and I feel that the corporate period, the industrial then the corporate world that so many of us get sucked into and think that’s just what you do, have assumed that that’s what the world has to be. It’s infantilised us. At the BBC there was a divide between the infants and the grown-ups. So many big things, like democracy, are struggling, the financial world is struggling. And we have an unique opportunity – these phase shifts don’t happen often – to be part of something. That’s why I got into blogging, my kids will be into this more than I am, and if it’s going to be habitable we have to make it habitable. 

RS: You started from a position in Knowledge Management. 

ES: Twitch twitch

RS: But that’s a lot of what social media is used or these days. 

ES: And I’m going to have to get used to it, going to have to get over my discomfort with it. 

RS: What was the problem with KM? What was your epiphany? 

ES: It came out of my time at the World Service, as a studio manager I moved between the 30/40 different studios, and met a lot of people from different languages and cultures. The rest of the BBC was more tribal, silo’d, hierarchical and inefficient. Also the arrival of John Birt, but he took a sophisticated organisation and tried to plonk corporate ideas of efficiency on top of that and it didn’t always work. What I saw with the web was the opportunity of getting back some of those people-based ways of working that I’d seen before. Saw a virtual space, an organic online space that could flourish. 

RS: What were the benefits?

ES: We got into it long before anyone was calling it social media, and ended up, 25k staff had access to the forum. People had very practical problems about how to do things. A lot of small, low-level incremental stuff. Corporations go on about having strong corp culture, but then do anything to crush whatever emerges. Even just forums created more cultural change than official efforts. 

RS: What are the cultural benefits?

ES: Shared understanding of what we were doing and why. What did things mean? When the Freedom of Information Act became legislation, we had a good conversation about what that meant, and how to stick to that rule. 

Especially when you compare how that was ‘supposed’ to happen, via memos and official comms. If you tolerate the messiness of social spaces, people are at work and they want to talk about work. Treat them like grown ups then they’ll act like grown ups. 

RS: Lots of skepticism about self-organised spaces in business. There’s a limit?  

ES: yeah, it’s not  management by committee. It’s not bottom up, there’s as much value and interest in the senior and middle of an organisation using this. Shift from command and control, where people have authority due to job title, to having the ability to influence people through using these tools. The middle reasserts itself. There’s a role for middle management, and a chance to be more effective through using these tools. More senior folk are asking for help because they realise it’s not going away and there’s an advantage for them. 

RS: “Return on Investment”. That’s the wrong way to think about it, isn’t it?

ES: Yes, this is something that’s happening anyway. Don’t overplay Gen X/Y, but they’re growing up with this. So rather than ask to justify RoI for implementing it, justify RoI for preventing it. 

RS: What answers do you get when you ask them to justify preventing it?

ES: They don’t have any. There are people with non-trivial reasons why this stuff is hard, but ultimately they are going to have to face these issues and work with it. 

RS: How do you implement change in this way or, as you say in the book, “be strategically tactical”? 

ES: There’s a pressure on people to lay out a predictable, strategised future, and that’s not easy. Can make a case to be strategically tactical, ie you have guiding principles, but are willing to respond as this thing grows. “Keep moving, stay in touch, head for the high ground.”

RS. “A new literacy.” What does that mean? 

ES: Remember having pressure to have to write a formal document, knowing no one would read it. Also that temptation you learn at school to write formally, to write management bollocks. Lots of people write this stuff, send it to each other, don’t read it, and are filling their days up with it. Whereas a well-aimed blog post and Tweet can change the world. People who read the book have said that it “felt like me talking to them”, skill you learn blogging.

RS: It’s finding an authentic voice. 

ES: I don’t’ care about orgs, I care about people, and that therapeutic element is interesting. Just that self-awareness you get from sticking things out there and seeing people’s reaction and learning to deal with that, and deal with people disagreeing with you. We’ve all got things we’re not comfortable with, but that thing about sitting in your room, about to publish blog post, wondering what people will think about it… That’s why the blogs called ‘The Obvious’, but that leads to this, writing a book, because you started off sticking things out there. 

RS: What’s the power of that? 

ES: Goes back to KM. Value of a company is the people, and the knowledge of those people, and we’re not good at giving them ability to make the most of people. Freeing people to be themselves and connect with each other. Ideal org, everyone blogs, not overdoing it, and thoughtful engagement, got to be productive. 

RS: Talk about ‘networks’, what do you mean by it? 

ES: It’s ‘community’ that I think gets misused a lot. Shift from institutional structured power, which has always been accompanied by networks, & relationships but  legitimising that, making it visible and accountable. I’m not overly idealistic, because we have hierarchies, they are inevitably human, but move towards ephemeral meritocracies. 

RS: David Weinberger, if we don’t have networks, we can’t cope. The world is too big to know.               

ES: The idea you’re in charge and should know everything is unsustainable. Change in what is leadership. Those who are good at working with others, building networks will be more effective than someone throwing weight around. 

RS: Radical transparency, can be scary for orgs to embrace. Asks a lot of the observers, need a new literacy. 

ES: Interesting in the journalism, the responsibility of that double sided relationship. Sometimes people push back and say not everyone wants to think, that I’m being unreasonable. We just got them that way because we trained them that way. In the right circumstances, everyone wants to take responsibility for their lives. 

RS: How do you sell radical transparency?

ES: By quoting Dave Winer: “Don’t have a shit product”. That’s what was interesting about Wikileaks – there’s a degree to which tech makes it hard to put a lid on things. Equally, that doesn’t mean we end up with a good outcome, because it can be used by the bad guys as much as the good guys. Can’t be naive about the competitive world they live in. 

RS: The whole privacy debate.

ES: There’s that. Issue with indiscretion, that’s a cultural shift, that’ll change. The whole thing about the people who won’t employ people who were drunk as a student. Well, I wouldn’t employ someone who hadn’t been! There’s something cleansing. It’s evolution on steroids. It’s not about age or web natives, it’s about open or closed. This is open, generative, so appeals to people who see the world that way. People who want to contain things, it’s their worst nightmare. 

RS: End book on blog post about love. Are you basically in favour of love, through the work place? You’re an ageing hippy? 

ES: Yes, except I wasn’t there the first time round! These techs have come out of ageing hippies in California and they manifest some of those ideas in their software. There’s an ebb and flow between control and release. We need a big story. Until WWI it was the church, then that fell apart and so the next one became communism, and then that becomes capitalism and the market, and we need… 

RS: This is the emergence of the next story? 

ES: I think so. 



Talk about signal to noise, we’re a long way from semantic web, but getting there with hashtags. Did you leave it out on purpose? 

ES: Wary of the semantic web. What happens when you die? Should read Lessig’s Code, there are ways in which Facebook, Google etc impact how we can live our lives, has huge impact on those who don’t understand. Wary of automating, prefer the ability to point and say ‘that’s interesting because’. Goes back into knowledge management, the idea of harvesting information, haghstags are great because they are ephemeral and they come and go. Rather that than getting into semantic web. 

How does this affect social businesses, does that lead to them being more socially responsible? 

ES: Yes. Worked with some orgs I’ve been uncomfortable with, but have done so on the basis that if can help them get their arms round it, e.g. if banks had this before the dodgy mortgages, they might not have done it. Or selling food full of sugar. A lot of these things start because we have too small of a group taking responsibility for their business actions. What if people inside an org take responsibility for their actions?

If you’re right about social media democratising, why is Apple so successful? 

ES: If I had a penny for every time someone asked that. Some of the stories about how they work inside, they do give staff high degree of autonomy, happy to reshape and reinvent, so yes they’re not all over these tools, but they had 20-30 years of being the underdog who couldn’t afford to let ideas slip. In many ways, Apple aren’t typical. 

Dilbert Principle is best management book ever written. Youngsters empowered, they will bring their networks into the workplace. 

ES: Kids don’t alway know what a powerful took they have at their fingertips, and some kids are very conservative.  

A lot of the point of tools is to be more interesting face-to-face, not less. Interesting using location stuff, whether choose to turn it on, or not to. Almost like turning up/down a serendipity knob. 

In big orgs, have some areas that are bureaucratic than others, and need to consider legal implications. Doesn’t that lead to lumpy engagement, and tension between expectation of engagement, when not everyone is comfortable or able?

ES:  Not everyone will like it or take to it and shouldn’t dismiss those who don’t. Bus also how those groups manifest their responsibilities. e.g. using tools to talk about security is more likely to make your org secure. HR, IT and comms should be excited, but they aren’t. When you consider what they are meant to be doing, but they are stuck in places where they are more worried about status and formal stuff which is becoming less and less effective. 

For example, Head of HR for BBC came into office to do a live chat on the forum, 5k staff taking part. He and his team huddled to discuss what they’d answer, and then someone typed it in by dictation, but then he disagreed in what they’d typed. Conversational platform, tension was palpable, between live conversation and controlled process. Trick is to learn to migrate from one to the other. 

Want people to find a voice, but have they lost ability to listen and find a dialogue with colleagues? 

ES: Blogging, how you can write a blog post in such a way that it encourages people to react or respond, and turn it into a dialogue? If your’e just sitting there spouting stuff, unconcerned as to reaction of feedback, people will stop reading you. Conversations can only take place between equals. If this is a conversational platform, have to be willing to act like equals. 

Blogging, 3/4 paras to get people thinking, is different to ephemera of Twitter or Facebook, and it’s my blog! I can move it anywhere!

Interesting in future, and patterns that will emerge. Algorithms mining algorithms. Count on researchers to understand and analyse, compounded by fact that the dataset not published. Even thinking about Twitter, results are only available for a few days. 

ES: Thinkup, Gina Trapani, tools, if there’s enough of a demand people will come up with a tool and start paying for it. Wanted to save and search Twitter. Ephemeral nature is interesting. Genuinely worry that might be the first generation to leave not trace, no big manuscripts, just incompatible file formats. Which is why I use plain text, because I can move it effortlessly from one platform to the next.  

Worked with people good with numbers, but can’t do much with words. What hope to they have, where the winners are the wordiest? What about the value they create? Everything is about prose.

ES: We have an unbalanced world atm, people who are good face to face, so this isn’t perfect but it’s differently imperfect so slightly more equitable. 

You once said it is a slow process to introduce social media, change people one at at time. Has that changed?  

ES: No. How long to take full impact? 50 years. It’s impact will be that big and a lot of people as still early days. Been going for 11 years, but it’s still new to a lot of people. They don’t know. It’s shoe leather, have to give people – one at a time – enough reason to have a go, and that’s through conversation and advocacy. Build a network of advocacy, that’s what’s fascinating – world changing but only happens when someone sits down, writes something and presses save. Book written for people to give to those in orgs to help them get it.