As many of you know, Terrence was a thought leader not only for the Los Angeles learning community, but throughout the world. He had a particular passion for social media as a tool for learning. We were lucky to have him as a regular contributor to our chapter newsletter. Here is the final article he wrote on the subject. Enjoy!
“Build it and they will come.” This adage from the book Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella may work for building magical baseball fields (or soccer fields for that matter), but it hardly works for most business applications. However, in its own right, it is a start. After all, if you don’t build it there is a guarantee: they won’t come. The same holds true for social media. The concept is hot in today’s business world but it is more involved than simply building a platform, opening access and expecting the masses to suddenly want to communicate and share. Building a social media community requires a strategy and a purpose.
First, let’s put everything into the right perspective. It’s important to ensure we are communicating in the same context. So let’s define a key term. Wikipedia.com defines social media as:
“Media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media uses web-based technologies to transform and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues. They support the democratization of knowledge and information and transform people from content consumers to content producers.”
The activities we engage in while using social media are not new, unique, or dependent on technology. These activities are a part of being human and communal.
As members of an organization with or without technology, we have been performing these now labeled “social media activities” since we uttered our first words (or grunts) as a species. The technology of social media makes the potential reach of our efforts exponential, unlike any other time in our history. Therein lies the true value of social media.
Today, we can collect, share, collaborate, grow and engage our network with unprecedented speed and reach. A problem in a corporation can be experienced in China and solved in Brazil. A question can be posed in India and answered in Turkey. The intellectual capital of our communities is now captured and accessed via social media.
Brian Solis, the author of Engage, calls social media “the redistribution of influence.” Traditionally, influence and information were centralized. As learning professionals, we held the keys to influence. If a manager wanted a training class, the training department would create it. If an employee needed an answer to an HR question, he would use his chain of command until the answer was found. In this structure all answers lead to the top of the pyramid, as if a deity or wizard were present at the highest level with all the answers. Although this system has worked for decades, that monopoly on influence is decaying and will soon be as ancient as the Egyptian pyramids.
Influence is no longer exclusively in a hierarchal structure. With social media, it has transformed and we are all interlinked. Influence is based on one’s content and not position. People follow those with solutions and not titles (for the most part) in the social media realm. The advantage of this structure is that an employee is no longer limited to a chain of command structure but can search for answers to work challenges within the context of his extended network. The “chain of command” structure is limiting because the solutions are restricted to the intellectual capital of that command body. With Social media, the resources multiply exponentially as the network spreads throughout the organization and even beyond as firewall security is relaxed. People save time and discover abundant options. Therefore, our first point is, every organization should be developing a social media infrastructure for their employees, customers, and every stakeholder in the organization to share knowledge.
If that hasn’t convinced you to use social media within your organization, here are ten additional points about why you should.
- Internet transparency allows you to hear what your employees and customers are saying about you but not to your face.
- Employees can access subject matter experts directly, saving time and money.
- The backchannel becomes a form of assessment, steering your organization to solutions.
- Employees become engaged and influential.
- Networks of collaboration form to solve organizational problems without guidance.
- Best practices spread exponentially across the organization or even industry.
- The organization has another option for sourcing potential new hires by witnessing their influence in the network.
- Training is no longer limited to the instructor’s knowledge, but now grows to include the intellectual capital of the community.
- Solutions are globally created and centrally catalogued.
- Intellectual capital is not lost with turnover. Once information is shared, it becomes the property of the community and the organization for future employees to use.
This list can go on and on. Most would declare that social media is not a fad. Instead, social media is an integrated learning, communication, assessment, and team-building system. The catalogue of Social media tools is literally hundreds. To add relevance, let’s look at one of the most popular social media tools, Twitter.
Twitter, Inc. defines its product Twitter as “a rich source of instant information.” Common perceptions about Twitter lead outsiders (non-users) to believe this social media tool is about people sharing irrelevant information like laundry dilemmas and gossip. Truth be told, there is a fair amount of useless information circulating the Twitterverse. But what else does that sound like? The Internet has an abundance of useless information dancing from server to server. Would anyone recommend they isolate themselves or their organization from the Internet? That’s not likely. Internet use is as common as most appliances these days. As savvy Internet users, we have learned to filter the Internet just like we did a newspaper, or a library for that matter. Not everything that is published is relevant to us at any given time. Therefore we filter what we want. Twitter is no different.
Twitter is an amazing search engine as well. Sites like www.search.twitter.com can yield content as strong as a Google, Yahoo, or Bing search. The difference is Twitter doesn’t gather the information. Instead, it gathers users who share information. That information then becomes part of an extensive database everyone can access for free. Some of the information can be more useful than a traditional Internet search. For example, if you were wondering how your employees felt about a new compensation package, you would not be able to do a Google search to find that information. However, if you had a robust Social media network (like Twitter) in your organization, you would have a level of transparency that not even surveys contain. In addition to the transparency, you also get immediacy. The data are current, unsolicited, and typically authentic because of that transparency. How much would you pay for an assessment company to create a survey to do this same thing?
Twitter is a platform for the learning professional as well. Since Twitter, the backchannel has become a well-established entity in many classrooms. This pipeline of informal dialogue adds another dimension to training events like seminars and conferences. At the recent ASTD International Conference and Exposition (or most large conferences for that matter), people used the backchannel to gather feedback about speakers before they joined a session or provide feedback to allow others to avoid being trapped in a session that wasn’t going well. Comments and links from many presentations were being shared and expanded upon by conference attendees and even those who were unable to attend. The network of users of this Backchannel even coordinated a “Tweet-up”, an informal gathering of Tweeters (a name for those using Twitter).
Best Buy (electronics retailer) in the United States realized the potential of social immediacy and real-time feedback. They created Twelpforce (@twelpforce on Twitter). They saw a need to develop a stronger relationship with their customers. Best Buy empowered their tech support to unmask the corporate logo and simply go into the Twitterverse with their own identity and address customers’ concerns and problems. At the end of 2009, @twelpforce had provided 19,500 answers to customer questions. Additionally, every answer provided now has become part of a searchable database that everyone on Twitter can use.
Perhaps the marketing aspect of the @twelpforce initiative is evident. But, at first glance, to HR professionals the usefulness may seem evasive. Depending on the size of your organization, your employees are talking about you on Twitter and other social media sites. Some use their own name, others whimsical usernames but many are giving you one of the most valuable gifts an employee can give you, feedback. The opportunity is for your organization to start listening. What could they be talking about?
- Attitudes about the organization
- Logistical issues creating obstacles
- Problem solving
- Gossip and rumors
- Competitive intelligence
- Best practices
- Collaborative efforts
These are just a few. Many HR professionals have wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall by the water cooler where employees gather. With social media tools like Twitter, now you are that fly. You can hear what your employees are concerned about. This isn’t a license to abuse, though. Big Brother scenarios will cause a stampede out of a social network. Employees must be free to share without retribution or retaliation.
Security should not be discounted but it doesn’t have to shut the door to social media in your organization either. IT’s concerns are legitimate and should be addressed. Employees need training on what is appropriate to discuss on open networks like Twitter. There are several Twitter-like platforms that are either password-protected or installed behind your firewall (Yammer.com is an example). If you have an email policy, you have a social media policy, or at least the start of one. Some could argue that email was one of the first social media tools along with the telephone. Emails can leak information just as easily as social media. I encourage and recommend consulting your IT and legal departments.
You’ve been listening to an army of evangelists over the years touting the value of social media. The technology is very effective. However, the value of the site lies almost entirely with the community. First comes investing in the tools. Investing in the community is paramount. Content won’t show up magically. It has to be seeded and harvested through user engagement. You still must build it for them to come.