Saturday, April 10, 2010

Authentic concerns about social media - Part 1



This is the first in a series of blog posts where I will address authentic concerns about social media that I have encountered. Here comes the first one:
"What would it look like if everybody would say what's on their minds?"
It's quite ironic (or scary) that this concern was expressed by a CEO of a small communication agency (regarding the suggestion to start using an internal micro-blogging platform so that employees located at different offices could get to know each other better and help each other out whenever needed).

So, how do you answer such a question?

This is how my answer would look like.

Social media allows people to meet virtually, in public spaces, where anyone can listen in to and, if they want to, join a conversation.

Numerous studies have concluded that the kind of informal meetings that occur spontaneously by the water cooler, or in the corridor, are the most effective ways to exchange knowledge, ideas, news, experiences, and so forth. These are examples of places where we can meet and talk to each other (socialize) in informal ways. When we do, we tell and listen to stories that in some way relate to our own experiences. Story telling has always been a effective way for us to exchange knowledge and different kinds of information, such as what is going on and who's doing what.

It is very unlikely that conversations taking place on an open platform will be trivial, negative and about non work-related things. These things are typically said in private, using channels such as mail, phone and face-to-face meetings behind closed doors. It just doesn't make sense to do it in public - unless you really want to reach out with a message.

Internal social media (or social software if you like) such as micro-blogging platforms allow anyone to share anything about anything with anyone within the organization or enterprise across time, location, organization, and positions. Contrast this to something that's being said in a meeting room and which usually isn't made accessible in an easy way to anyone outside the meeting room.

Social media also makes sharing easier. The reach, interactivity, immediacy, and ease of use of social media tools such as micro-blogging lowers any barriers to sharing to close to zero. Behavioral and cultural barriers such as fear of being misunderstood by peers and managers, unwillingness to share information due to internal competition, and so on might still exist, but that is something that can't be changed by technology itself. The point is that if you remove technological barriers and makes sharing as easy as on the web, you know what you need to work with.

To sum up, it is common to overestimate the risk and consequences of employees using internal social media for nonsense or non work-related purposes, and it is common to underestimate the risk and consequences of employees not being able to share information that can be of great value to others.