A recession: Perfect time to implement social software

We’re in recession. The global economy has bronchitis and is coughing up dead and dying banks all over the place. Governments are scrambling to put together bailout plans. The housing market has zombified, with house values plummeting and foreclosures sky-rocketing. Consumers have no disposable income and are struggling with food and fuel prices. Businesses everywhere are pulling their horns in, wondering how – and if – they are going to survive.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that businesses reconsider how they communicate, collaborate and converse, which means that the most important thing they can do is invest in social tools. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Suw, what are you smoking?” But bear with me here.

Recessions mean you have to do more with less. You can’t afford to have your people wasting time, even unintentionally, using inefficient tools or sticking with bad habits. For many, that means that email is a liability. As I found when I was researching my article for the Guardian on email, some people in business are checking their email every five minutes. Given that it takes some 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after being interrupted by a ‘new mail’ alert, that’s over 8 hours wasted each week.

Of course, that’s not the only way that time is frittered away in the course of day to day activities. Using email to collaborate on documents is astonishingly wasteful, compared to working on a wiki. We lack studies that specifically look at how email is used in this way and how long it takes to collaborate via email attachment compared to on a wiki page, but my experience is that using a wiki really cuts down on the time and effort required to co-author a document.

Then there’s duplication of effort. I did some work with a company recently who had started to use social tools to improve collaboration. One unexpected side effect was the discovering that there were two teams, in different locations, both trying to solve the same problem. Once they knew that they were both working on the same thing, they could share resources, information and expertise.

Institutional knowledge also often gets lost: people end up re-learning what others already know, because there’s just no communication between them. That’s especially true of day-to-day knowledge which is important, but not the sort of thing that gets encoded into documentation (which is out of date as soon as it’s published anyway). Opening up the conversation by encouraging people to do their work on a wiki is a great way to capture information as it happens. It’s not about cataloguing it after the fact, but keeping info alive as a side-effect of just getting on with things. In a recession, you can’t afford to be reinventing the wheel all the time.

A recession is also not a great time to just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. But businesses don’t need to experiment, they just need to work with people who truly understand social tools. More than anything, businesses need to invest in their people, in understanding how they work right now and how they could be working.

Personally, I fail to see how any business right now can afford not to address the inefficiencies inherent in their organisation’s existing comms tools. Now, more than ever, businesses need to raise their game, improve communication, improve collaboration, improve conversation. But in this climate, they can’t afford to get it wrong – there’s no slack in the system anymore. Luckily, there’s no need to get it wrong. There are some great people out there who can help you do it right.

Why isn’t social software spreading like wildfire through business?

Andrew McAfee asked a deceptively simple question to a panel at Enterprise 2.0 last week, “If Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches really are so beneficial and powerful, why haven’t they spread like wildfire?” He was surprised that no one fingered management as the culprits.

In their initial responses all of them identified users, not bad managers or inadequate technologies, as the biggest barriers to faster and deeper adoption of Enterprise 2.0. Entrenched practices and mindsets, some degree of technophobia, busyness, and the 9X Problem of email as an incumbent technology combine, they said, to limit the pace of adoption. These factors slow the migration from channels to platforms and necessitate continued patience, evangelism, and training and coaching.

I didn’t expect the panelists to say that the Enterprise 2.0 tooklit is so incomplete as to hinder adoption, but I was a bit surprised that none of them identified management as a real impediment in their first round of comments. So I pressed the point by saying something like “I didn’t hear any of you point the finger at the managers in your organizations. Were you just being polite, or are they really not getting in the way of Enterprise 2.0? The new social software platforms are a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare because they remove his ability to filter information, or control its flow. I’d expect, then, that each of you would have some examples of managers overtly or covertly trying to stop the spread and use of these tools. Are you telling me this hasn’t happened?”

That is in fact what they were telling me, and I didn’t get the impression that they were just being diplomatic. They said that managers were just another category of users that needed to migrate over to new ways of working, and not anything more. In other words, the panelists hadn’t seen managers in their organizations actively trying to impede Enterprise 2.0.

I think the issue is far more complex than a simple “Is it the management?”. The IT department, for example, has become a common source of no, and issues around legal and compliance can scare people off. But management exert a strong and inescapable influence on how well social media is adopted in business.

Firstly, I have indeed come across managers who have refused point blank to use social software, who have actively campaigned against its use and have told their teams that they are not to use it. Whilst managers that vocal are rare, they do exist.

I have also seen managers who have damned the tools with faint praise, ostensibly supporting their use, but undermining them by planting seeds of doubt about things like how safe the data is or how long the tools will be around. These people talk up the tools in meetings, but never actually use them, so they give off mixed messages to their teams who then feel uncertain about what they should and shouldn’t do. If someone feels uncertain about a new tool, the chances are that they will avoid it or will interact with it only half-heartedly. This damages adoption just a surely as open hostility and is much more common.

More insidious – and much more common – are the indifferent managers. They are not vocal, and maybe not even all that negative about social media; they just aren’t interested in it. They may show up for coaching sessions, but they won’t bother using the tools, and they won’t encourage any of their team to use them either. They won’t complain, they’ll just ignore what they don’t want to engage with.

Now, in some ways these people are just “users” who need to be persuaded of value of using social tools, but to describe them that simply is to miss the point – managers have a subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) power to either encourage or discourage their teams to behave in a certain way. They set the culture in their team, and the adoption of social media is about culture and behaviours rather than technology.

Managers who show disinterest are broadcasting a message to their team that new tools are of no value, and so they will dampen interest amongst people who actually are keen to learn and use new software, even to the point of stopping that person going to a training session or using the tool for their own work. This kills off grassroots adoption in a very quiet, subtle, almost unnoticeable way. You won’t here these people complaining. You won’t hear them talk about social software at all, but they can have a powerful effect on the success of a new tool.

But the main way that managers hobble the adoption of social tools is through simply not thinking it through, not considering what they are doing and why. They don’t provide the right sort of coaching or support, and then they wonder why people aren’t using the tools. They chuck up some blogs or wikis and hope that ‘nature will take its course’ and that people will just see the light and start using them. That, of course, doesn’t happen because not everyone has the time or the inclination to investigate new tools.

Once the early adopters – the people who are naturally curious and experimental – have discovered and started using social software, growth slows because just as in tech product marketing, there is a chasm between early adopters and the mainstream user than needs to be deliberately bridged. Businesses who have not thought about how to bridge this gap will find that adoption slows, stops, and then sometimes starts to contract. (Particularly if your key evangelists leave.)

Why doesn’t social media spread like wildfire in business? Because few people provide the tinder for a spark to ignite. Disinterested managers act like firebreaks, hostile managers act like rain, and managers giving off mixed messages act like firefighters pouring water on otherwise susceptible land. If you want a wildfire, the conditions have to be right for it to burn, which means thinking harder about what you’re doing.

Suw is holding a seminar on the adoption of social tools in business on June 27 2008. Deadline to sign up is June 25.

Fruitful Seminars: Making Social Tools Ubiquitous

Lloyd Davis, Leisa Reichelt and I have been spending a lot of time plotting just lately, and the result of our machinations was the creation, at midnight in a semi-derelict Gothic mansion and with the help of a bolt of lightening, of Fruitful Seminars. The three of us will be putting on a number of day-long seminars on various Web 2.0 subjects over the next few months, starting on 27 June with my session, Making Social Tools Ubiquitous:

Many companies have heard that social tools, such as wikis and blogs, can help them improve communications, increase collaboration and nurture innovation. As the best of breed tools are often open source, it is easy and cheap to experiment with pilot projects. But what do you do if you don’t get the level of engagement you’d like? And how do you progress from a small-scale pilot to widespread adoption?

This seminar, run by social media expert Suw Charman-Anderson, will take a practical look at the adoption of social tools within enterprise. During the day you will be lead through each stage of Suw’s renowned social media adoption strategy and will have the opportunity to discuss your own specific issues with the group. You will have access to one of the UK’s best known social media consultants in an intimate setting – with no more than 9 people attending – that will allow you to get the very most out of the day. By the end of the seminar you will have a clear set of next steps to take apply to your own blogs or wikis.

Perfect for CXO executives, managers, and social media practitioners who want to know how to foster widespread adoption of social tools in the enterprise. Perhaps you have already installed some blogs or wikis for internal communications and collaboration, but aren’t getting the take-up you had hoped for; or have successfully completed a pilot and want to roll-out to the rest of the company.

We’re keeping the sessions very small, with a maximum of nine people attending each one, so that everyone has the opportunity to fully take part in discussions. Sessions will be quite practical and participants will be able to really get into the nitty gritty. I think that’s something that’s really missing from conferences and the bigger workshops – you don’t get the chance to really get down and dirty with what’s relevant to you. I want people to come away from my seminar with a really clear idea of what they are going to do next, and how they are going to do it.

Registration is already open – it’s very easy to sign up and payment can be made by PayPal or cheque/bank transfer. The fee includes lunch, tea and coffee.

Any questions? Just ask!

UPDATE: We’ve also now got a Google Group mailing list for news, announcements and discussion of Fruitful Seminars topics and events. The group is open to everyone, so do join up if you’re curious or interested.

SHiFT: Euan Semple – The Quiet Revolution

Here at SHiFT in Lisbon, a two day conference on Social and Human Ideas for Technology. Again, not going to blog every session, just a few here and there. First up, Euan Semple.

Words ‘social’ and ‘media’ and ‘business’ help people make assumptions about what is happening, so they then package and dismiss it. People come up with all sorts of reasons why blogs/wikis/etc won’t work in their business, why it is nothing to do with them.Some people are jumpy about ‘social’ in the workplace.

BBC, implemented social software and had ‘globally distributed, near instant, person to person conversations’. Different from the way organisations usually talk. Most businesses try to manage relationships and information, to control communications. The global nature of the net and the uncontrolled nature of the conversation on the net is intimidating to most people. But the thing that scares people the most is the fact that it’s person-to-person. business has sanitised the personal out of business. You try to act as your job title instead of your as a person, and you’re not encouraged to act as a person, to be yourself, and a lot of businesses actively discourage it.

Way BBC implemented social computing was different too. Usually do months of consultancy and user testing and that doesn’t really work. Companies get fleeced by IT people doing that. Decided didn’t want to do that at BBC, so had own ideas, own technology, and wanted to just get on with it.

Created a forum first. No marketing, all word of mouth. Out of 24k staff, 18k had used the forum at some point or another. Most of it’s mundane, people asking questions. Exposed differences within the different parts of the business, which previously they’d pretended didn’t exist. Smart manager engages with the conversation, even when they are negative or critical. E.g. weather graphics were not liked by people in the BBC, and the manager in charge of that came into the conversation and just talked calmly to everyone.

Euan keen not to own the forum, fought off people branding it, or tell people how to behave. When there were problems he’d go and just ask questions about it, to encourage discussion.

Forum talked about big stuff too. Jerry Springer the Opera. Big discussions. First time that they’d had a pan-BBC discussion about something big.

People think it’s just about the technology, but it’s not. Is naturally disruptive. But organisations don’t have a choice – the MySpace generation will demand this if it’s not there – they’ll either not work for you, or they’ll do it on the web which could be really bad for you.

Then put in a social networking tool, Connect.Gateway. Tools helps people get to find people interested in the same things, and empowered people who would otherwise not have had a way of connecting.

Then added blogs. Euan’s still cautious about blogs in business because they work on the basis of having an opinion and expressing it, and that’s not trivial in an organisation. It’s difficult tot say what you think. It’s paradoxical – in business it’s hard to say what you think and there’s no accountability, whereas in the geek world if you don’t say what you think you don’t exist, and there’s a trail behind you that everyone can follow.

Richard Sambrook started to get interested, and wanted to talk directly to a new division of 1500 people and didn’t want to do memos and staff emails and newsletters, so he used a blog instead. Did it well, blogged every day, mix of stuff, allowed comments. Would raise strategic issues and sometimes other senior managers would engage in the conversation in the comments thread. Those conversations would have happened elsewhere, but you wouldn’t have seen them publicly.

His internal blog at one point was being read by 8000 staff, now settled down to 4000 staff. Also humanised him, took him out of the org chart. Has now just started his own public blog. Very challenging for people in an organisation like the BBC. Some of the stuff eh wrote on his internal blog ended up in the press. The edges are getting fuzzier, what can you and can’t you write about.

Then introduced wikis. Adoption curve was steeper, less popular. Firstly, people used it as an easy way to set up a website. Allowed people to publish information that they couldn’t have published any other way, as had no budget for a web designer.

Euan then used the wiki to collaboratively write a policy for employee blogs. Asked 90 BBC bloggers to help work on the policy, using comment son the wiki pages (Confluence). After a couple of weeks it slowed down, as the policy writers reached consensus (with no meetings), and so got given to the management to ratify.

Someone in the forum said that it was frustrating that BBC staff can’t take part in BBC competitions. Set up competition internally, and collaboratively people put together the rules, the criteria, etc, for a photography comp. Now they are using it for organising programmes.

Something about the ownership about it, the self-selection that allows people to really engage with it.

RSS helps. Lots of people talking internally, but need a way to manage all that conversation and RSS does that. Began to see who was interest to who and that showed them who’s interested in what.

Tagging also an important. Tools that replicate delicious inside the organisation.

We have a glimpse of how this works, but when the MySpace generation comes into business, they will expect this, and they will know better how it works, and how to sidestep the red tape that can get in the way of getting things done.


Business Blogging at Supernova 2005

This year’s Supernova conference – San Francisco, 20 to 22 June – looks like it’s going to be a blast. Kevin, Jeanne and the team have put together a great line up including Esther Dyson, Dan Gillmor, and David Weinberger. Finally, I get to be at the same conference as David! I feel like I’ve been cyberstalking him through conference back channels for the last year without really ever having anything intelligent to say, so I’m looking forward to finally meeting him. Although I still won’t have anything intelligent to say.

I’m going to be moderating the Business Blogging Workshop, with Robert Scoble (Microsoft), Charlene Li (Forrester) and Michael Sippey from Six Apart. That’s on Monday 20 June, 2.30 – 4.00 pm, if you’re interested in coming along.

I am hoping to be in SF for the week before the conference, so if you want to meet up for a pint, or edamame, somewhere, let me know.

Dark Blogs: The Use of Blogs in Business

When people think about ‘business blogs’, they usually think about blogs used as marketing tools by businesses who want to open a dialogue with the public. Thus discussions about business blogging tend to revolve around issues like authenticity, transparency, honesty and voice.

There is, however, a ‘dark matter’ of blogs which we know exists but which we cannot observe directly. These ‘dark blogs’ are those used internally by companies for purposes such as team management, event logging, cross-shift communications or knowledge sharing. Because dark blogs are behind the firewall we can’t see them, can’t evaluate their usefulness or find out what hurdles had to be jumped in their implementation.

Yet, because blogs are easy to use, flexible and cost-effective, they are an obvious choice for business use. Coupled with RSS feeds, aggregators, and other social software, it is possible to create a powerful knowledge sharing system which can be used with minimal training and IT outlay.

For the last few months I have been talking to a number of blog software vendors and blog technology companies, along with businesses that are using blogs behind the firewall, and have gained their support for a new research project – Dark Blogs.

In Dark Blogs I shall be interviewing businesses from a variety of industry sectors to find out how they use blogs, RSS feeds, aggregators and other social software; what challenges they faced and how they surmounted them; and the impact that blogging has had on their business.

The case studies, some of which will include a podcast/webcast, will be published here on Strange Attractor under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. The first one is already underway, so keep your eyes open for it!

If you are interested in being a sponsor or a case study, please email me and I will send you a prospectus.