Data security vs agility and cost

Third party social media tools really are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they allow you to get up and running almost instantaneously for little or no money, but on the other hand you have no data security or guarantee of uptime.

I’m reminded of this dichotomy by the recent closure of a number of music blogs by Google’s Blogger service. Despite the fact that these blogs were all operating legitimately and within the law, Google removed their content from Blogger without either a warning or an opportunity to back up. This appears to be bad behaviour from Google, but they are not alone. Yahoo! has a track record of closing down Cinderella services without much of a by-your-leave, resulting in confused and unhappy users whose data has been lost forever. And, of course, there was the catastrophic server meltdown at Ma.gnolia, a rival, which resulted in their entire bookmark repository being lost.

Whether it’s a company targeting a few users, closing down underachieving services, or suffering massive data loss, there is just no guarantee that the information you put online is still going to be there in the morning.

So does this mean that corporate information should never be entrusted to third party sites? Not at all. Firstly, it’s not always possible to run your own internal version of a third party tool, and often it’s not even desirable. You could never replicate the networked nature of a third party social network, for example.

Sometimes you can install software, such as WordPress, on your own servers, but if your IT department is maxed out or uncooperative, you may be forced on to instead. There could be a significant cost to the business if you have to wait months for your own installation to be set up and for your project to get started, in which case the hosted option becomes the most viable option.

The answer? Your social media tools should, where possible, be regularly backed up just as with your own servers. Recovery of your social media presence should be at the top of your disaster recovery plan, if only because if something serious happens to your company or any of your other data, your blog could be a key communications channel. (This is also a good reason not to host your own blog on the same servers as your main website, by the way! If everything else goes down, you need to have some way to communicate with the outside world.)

Perceived barriers to wiki adoption

Alan Porter writes a great blog post – one I wish I’d written! – over on Ars Technica examining some of the perceived barriers to wiki adoption that he has come across. He says:

As I continue to research and write my upcoming book on wikis, I keep hearing one word over and over again. That word is “BUT” (complete with all-caps), as in, “I would like to use a wiki, BUT…” or “We tried using a wiki, BUT…”

What follows is usually an excuse for why the speaker feels that a wiki isn’t a worthwhile tool for collaboration in his or her environment. I use the word “excuse” deliberately, because rarely does anyone articulate an actual business reason, such as a lack of need. When I ask deeper questions, I invariably find that the objection isn’t to the wiki technology itself, but instead to the concept of collaborative authoring and a perceived loss of control over the content.

Porter’s post is an excellent view into the cultural and technical barriers people erect in order to isolate themselves from change. Cultural excuses include:

  • We tried one once and no one used it
  • The cost/benefit ratio is too high
  • I’m too busy doing actual work to try anything new
  • It’s overwhelming, and I don’t know where to start
  • If my management doesn’t care, why should I?
  • It won’t be accurate
  • I prefer meetings

Technical excuses include:

  • I need to learn a mark-up language
  • Search doesn’t work
  • It’s a black hole
  • It isn’t like (name your favorite application here)
  • It’s a security nightmare

Porter debunks each myth with great care, and then poses a set of questions that everyone should ask themselves before they embark on a wiki project.

The whole post reminds me of the Why Don’t You/Yes, But… Game from Transactional Analysis where one person offers the other help, but that help is rejected every time with an excuse. I have certainly observed managers (even quite senior ones) playing Why Don’t You/Yes, But… around social technology, particularly wikis and blogs. Let me write you a sample script:

Manager: We need to improve collaboration and capture knowledge.

Consultant: Why don’t you use a wiki?

M: Yes, but it’ll take us 18 months to get it through IT.

C: Why don’t you use a hosted wiki?

M: Yes, but then our data won’t be secure.

C: Why don’t you create a regular back-up schedule?

M: Yes, but that’s too difficult.

C: Why don’t you go with a vendor that backs up for you?

M: Yes, but that’s too expensive.

C: Why don’t you install open source software on an under-the-desk server, Trojan Mouse style?

M: Yes, but if IT ever find out, they’ll kill me.

As Wikipedia says, “”Why Don’t You, Yes But” can proceed indefinitely, with any number of players in the [Manager] role, until [the Consultant’s] imagination is exhausted, and she can think of no other solutions. At this point, [the Manager] “wins” by having stumped [the Consultant].”

Every time I have found myself embroiled in this game, the project has stalled, often before anything has happened. It’s so easy to think of reasons why something won’t work and much harder to think of ways to make sure it does. And when I say Manager in the above example, I don’t just mean middle managers; I have played this game with CxOs, people you would think could just say, “Make it so”, people who are supposed to be the ones setting their company’s technology agenda.

We have to recognise that many companies behave like dysfunctional mega-personalities, with each member of the collective reinforcing each other’s bad behaviour. We can’t always use logic and evidence to deal with people playing these games, but instead must draw from other sources of inspiration such as psychology in order to understand how to move things forward. And that’s easier said than done!

Listening – Connecting – Publishing

Chris Brogan talks about a handy framework upon which to build your social media strategy:

There are three main areas of practice for social media that your company (or you) should be thinking about: listening, connecting, publishing. From these three areas, you can build out your usage of the tools, thread your information networks to feed and be fed, and align your resources for execution. There are many varied strategies you can execute using these toolsets. There are many different tools you can consider employing for your efforts. But that’s the basic structure: listening, connecting, publishing.

This framework is ostensibly about external social media usage, but these concepts are just as important internally:

  • Listen to what staff what and need, and allow staff to listen to each other
  • Provide meaningful ways for staff to connect with each other
  • Allow staff to publish information in a way that makes sense to them

Does it work that way in your company?

Are you T-shaped?

I recently discovered Keith Sawyer’s blog, Creativity & Innovation. Keith is a professor of psychology, an expert on creativity and well worth a read. In his post about cross understanding in teams he discusses the observation that teams including people with the ability to understand another’s perspective do better than teams that don’t:

[…] cross understanding can help us to explain several apparently contradictory findings in group collaboration research:

1. Diversity often has a negative impact on team performance, and this is sometimes explained by the “social categorization bias” that people have towards similar people. But in some groups, diversity does not result in reduced performance; the authors argue that this will happen when cross understanding is high.

2. In some groups, strong sub-groups can interfere with effective collaboration. But if cross understanding is high, this problem can be reduced.

Related to this is the idea of ‘T-shaped people’ who have one particular area of deep expertise which makes up the shaft of the T, but then also have knowledge and skills in other areas (the crossbar).

It strikes me that most of the social media and tech people that I admire look T-shaped to me: Leisa Reichelt, Stephanie Booth, Stephanie Troeth, David Weinberger, Euan Semple, Lloyd Davis… the list goes on. I wonder if being empathic, able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, curious about the world around it and other people’s experiences, and able to recognise patterns across disciplines is really what marks out a social media natural.

Some people really do just ‘get it’, almost without trying, whereas others just can’t wrap their heads around even basic concepts no matter how often or how clearly they are explained. I have never been able to spot a correlation between age, online experience, social media experience, activity in communities and that ability to comprehend what makes social media different to other forms of communications. Hm, that could be an interesting area of research!

Avatars, faces and the socialisation of enterprise software

I just read a great post by Joshua Porter about the origins of avatars in computing and it made me think about the importance of faces in our online social interactions. It reminded me of a blog post that Kevin Marks wrote in May about faces and trust, which then led me on to posts by Brad Feld and Dave McClure.

Brad talks about the importance of real photos in Twitter, rather than a graphic or cartoon. He then discusses tying photos to people’s contact details on his iPhone and how useful it would be to have the same functionality in email. Dave McClure discusses the importance of faces in a wide range of situations and provides a lot of examples and counter-examples.

Faces are undoubtedly important to us. It’s how we primarily recognise people and those of us who are… let’s say physiognomically challenged find themselves frequently embarrassed at social gatherings because we are expected to be able to recognise people we have met before.

What, then, are the opportunities for enterprise software to become just a touch more social by incorporating avatars? Would email be a less awkward communications mechanism if we were shown a picture of the person we are replying to as we write? Would seeing a photo make us think a little bit harder about how our words might be interpreted by the person on the other end? Or would we end disadvantaging people who aren’t very photogenic? Or encouraging prejudice against those who have characteristics that can be perceived negatively, e.g. white hair triggering ageism.

The cost of IT failure

The worldwide cost of IT failure is $6.2 trillion, according to Roger Sessions. His numbers are based on a set of assumptions which he outlines in a white paper, but as ZDNet’s Michael Krigsman points out, the details are unimportant. It’s the scale that’s scary. Last year, Krigsman reported that 68% of IT projects fail, another scary statistic.

My own experience is that when it comes to social media, IT departments range from reluctant to obstructive. And some IT decisions defy sense. In one case, £14 million had been earmarked for a Sharepoint installation, whilst a wiki project costing £4,000 was having to ‘prove its worth’. I’ve seen IT departments point blank refuse to install any social media, even when asked by the CEO.

When, I wonder, did IT become the problem?

And yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that some very good people work in IT, and that they have to deal with a lot of problems of their own, and that not all IT departments are short-sighted idiots.

But given that, how is it that, generally speaking, they are busy losing $6.2 trillion and that 66% of their projects fail? IT needs a radical rethink, part of which has to be to answer the question, “What is IT for?” Is it just about maintaining network integrity? Or is it to solve business problems with the appropriate technology, if such technology exists?

What makes a website successful?

Paul Boag has written a great blog post about what makes websites successful, and many of his conclusions are directly applicable to social media projects too. Paul says,

Before we can address issues of aesthetics, usability and code, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients’ website will fail.

I could very easily rewrite that to refer to social media, without having to change much:

Before we can address issues of social tool choice, metrics and community building, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients’ social media project will fail.

Well worth a read, both for businesses considering a website redesign and those considering a social media project, internal or external.

Newsflash! RSS still not dead: Story at 11.

I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years various people have declared RSS to be dead, dying, moribund, comatose or laid low with a dose of swine flu. The latest is a piece by Read Write Web’s Richard MacManus who says, RSS Reader Market in Disarray, Continues to Decline.

RSS is a bit of a weird duck, really. It is infrastructure more than it is a service and there’s a distinct lack of clarity outside the tech community about what it is and what it does. That’s not helped by the fact that there are competing standards, not to mention competing terms: RSS (and all its version numbers), RDF, Atom, web feeds, news feeds, syndication, syndication feeds, even just plain ‘feeds’.

In short, RSS confuses people. It’s not until I explain how easily RSS can save time that people start to become interested. In a business context, RSS is invaluable. So many information publishers now produce RSS feeds of one stripe or another that it has become possible to draw together huge numbers of sources in one place very easily indeed. Anyone in market or competitive intelligence, marketing, PR, research, and any other department that relies on aggregating information should be all over RSS like a rash. But they aren’t. Why?

This is where RWW’s piece becomes relevant. At best there is stagnation in the RSS reader market, at worst there is a genuine decline. RWW reports:

[…] Feedburner no longer publishes any useful data about RSS Readers. The product has been infrequently updated since Google acquired it in June 2007 and it no longer even has a proper blog (a Google blog called Adsense For Feeds was the closest I could find).

Pheedo also has gone quiet from a blogging perspective – its last blog post was January 2009.

[…] There’s little sign of life on Bloglines’ blog either and its traffic numbers show a decline since June 2009.

Netvibes, FriendFeed, Newsgator and PostRank are the only other english language competitors showing in our Feedburner numbers. The others are either browser (Firefox) or operating system readers.

Also note that Newsgator shut down its online RSS Reader at the end of July this year.

We are not seeing the kind of innovation that we need in the RSS market. I suspect that part of this has been because businesses have been very slow to realise the usefulness of RSS and so hoped-for licensing income hasn’t been forthcoming for aggregation vendors. Partly this is down to the fact that getting new software assessed, accepted and rolled out through business is a long, tedious process in most companies – long enough to kill off relationships with cashflow sensitive start-ups.

A friend of mine once told me that it took his company 18 months to code-check new software. Doing that with social tools is IT suicide – most tools have iterated half a dozen times in that period. At least. It’s no wonder that most of the companies I talk to have not implemented any RSS readers internally. By the time they’ve got the software approved, it’s out of date.

This means that people are stuck using web-based applications. Whilst Netvibes and Google Reader are very good at what they do, they are also a little limited. Google Reader is a very introspective tool – you can share stuff with other people within Google Reader, but there are no tools for sharing on Twitter, Delicious, Instapaper etc. Netvibes does a bit more, in that you can share on Twitter or Facebook, but again it doesn’t embed itself in the wider content-reading ecosystem.

RSS still has huge potential, but the landscape it sits within is complicated, comprising of RSS sources, RSS readers, IT department policy makers, and those social media community members who are actually still communicating to business that this is a really useful tool.

That’s a lot of ducks to get in a row, but I am pretty sure (or rather, I hope!) that at some point, it’s going to happen. I wouldn’t call time of death on RSS just yet.

Incentives in social media

I found myself explaining to a client the other day why incentives don’t work very well for encouraging people to get involved in social media. Indeed, incentives can have the very opposite effect so must be handled with extreme caution.

This excellent video from Dan Pink explains very succinctly why incentives do not work for anything other than simple mechanical tasks, and goes on to examine the importance of autonomy.

You should also read Johnnie Moore’s blog post Incentives, innovation, community which adds yet more flavour and context, including lots of quotes from and links to studies in the same area. And you might also like my post on incentives from earlier this year.

It’s unsurprising that these flaws ‘business operating systems’ affect the way that social media projects are rolled out, as companies try to remake social media in their own image. But it’s also interesting to (sometimes) see how the more autonomous processes of social media can rub off on business culture. Might social media even be a powerful enough force to change the default settings under which business operates? I hope so.

Notes of caution and notes of hope

Stephen Baker writes an interesting piece over on Business Week sounding a note of caution about social media snake oil (and publishes some paragraphs that didn’t make the final cut on his own blog). The comments take Baker to task about the case studies he selects, but I think the point he makes still stands: It’s very easy to become a well-known name in social media regardless of your actual knowledge and experience, and quite a different thing to achieve results.

The problem of social media carpetbaggers is something I’ve mentioned before, but it’s a topic worth revisiting regularly because it’s not one that’s going away. People can be suspicious of consultants at the best of times and now that the job title “social media consultant” draws the same reaction as “estate agent” or “used car salesman”, it’s clear that the carpetbaggers are having a strong and negative impact on the perception of social media.

Therein lies the problem. Social tools can be incredibly powerful, but they have to be used well to stand even the slightest chance of success. If you have a crappy email client, you just have to learn to live with it. A crappy social media project is not only something that people can reject out of hand, it’s also likely that when it fails it is social media that is blamed, not the implementation.

Baker suggests that there is “danger of a backlash”. I’d say that the backlash is already happening – I see it already in the scorn some people heap on not just consultants but the tools themselves.

We saw exactly the same thing happen after the Dot Com Crash. Companies that had invested in expensive web projects, many of which were doomed from the outset due to being patently stupid ideas, failed to look at their own poor decisions and instead wrote off the web as a bad idea. “Internet” became a four letter word. (If you tried raising biz dev money in autumn 2002, you’ll know that!) The baby was thrown out with the bath water.

Seven years later, companies that had been quick to throw their digital talent under the bus have found themselves way behind competitors who reacted more sensibly to the end of the boom. Those who invested wisely in the web and ensured they had good digital people on board have flourished. The nay sayers are still running to catch up.

So here are two basic truths about social media:

* Social media is not a panacea. It cannot perform miracles. It cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. It can go horribly wrong horribly easily.

* Social media is not a waste of time. It can be transformational. It can empower your staff and your customers. It takes time, effort and understanding to get it right.

Companies making bad decisions now about social media are going to have a lot of running to do in five years’ time when they suddenly realise how far behind they are.