A Lesser Known Benefit of Enterprise Social Tools

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Naturally much of the talk, and vendor pitch, around organizational social tools is about the tangible value they can bring to the work being done; reducing emails, eliminating meetings, working out loud, collaboration, innovation, etc. What is not often noted however is how these tools can reveal the heart of the organization in the stories that are shared within.

Our enterprise social tool existed at my current employer before my arrival. It’s been growing in use and today most have adopted it for various purposes. Together we are focusing more on adaptation and working within it as well as stretching it’s capabilities beyond employees (more on that another time).

Early on, as I perused the conversations within, I came across one that our CEO began when an employee, who was there from the start, was leaving to embark on a new adventure. He reflected openly on the early days, painting a vivid picture of small office spaces and bleak surrounding that spoke to what every start-up probably physically looks like. It was written with a nostalgic emotion as it conjured images of a business struggling to survive, hope, partnerships and the profound belief in an idea. I found it refreshing to see an organizational leader opening up for all to see, sharing a story and just being real. As a new employee I was instantly able to feel like I was there in this simple exchange between founder and employee. It was the epitome of what these tools provide us; 1. transparency, where I could peer into the past and see how people were connected beyond work and 2. openness, where I and others could contribute to the story and even reawaken the conversation well after it had paused.

As an organization grows it risks social atrophy, where the space between us widens and the humanity is sucked out  – leaving a void which is usually filled with rigid hierarchy and the departmentalization of work. Social tools however can keep the arteries open and be a window into the past. They make visible the small flecks of culture found within each conversation, enabling new employees to learn who the organization really is beyond the titles and org chart. In essence, they can keep an organization small even as it grows bigger by helping all to never forget where they came from.

Vox Populi (part 2)

Since my post Vox Populi was written and shared I have had the fortunate opportunity to have three casual meetings with some local folks wanting to chat about social and social organizations.  I’ll share some generalizations and themes I picked up on.

For starters the people I met with were in traditional leadership roles in organizations providing health care services, education/training and project management. When I broached the topic of social organizations with one, the response was: “I don’t even know the full spectrum of what it all means.”  As I dug deeper into this response with them, the conversation went broader not deeper. Ideas around hierarchy, leadership, social, networks, Wirearchy, trust, conversation, communication, and learning were surfaced and it was clear to me that in a world of fast flowing information, those in the trenches of work have only scraped the surface of these notions and have a cursory understanding. To many then it’s all just disconnected jargon. I tried to synthesize it into a single word and the one I chose was “autonomy.”  I expanded on this by saying how power, aided by technology, has shifted to the individual – yet individuals don’t often take advantage of this shift and neither are organizations. In many cases both are limited by old world thinking about power structures or just comfortable in the current state; change can be scary.

An explanation of what is happening today, not happening and needs to happen can be found in Jon Husband‘s principle of Wirearchy.  This principle provides guidance to all facets of being both a citizen and a worker today. I recommend strongly one reads it.

A theme I picked up on that was present in many of the conversations can best be summarize as “work moves at the speed of trust.” Several spoke of 1. decision-making in a vacuum, 2. the all to familiar business unit “silos” and 3. competition over collaboration. Simply put – 1. Employees were not trusting their leaders, 2. leaders were not trusting their employees and 3. employees were not trusting each other. In each case work, productivity and innovation were hindered as openness and transparency are severely lacking in their environments.

Each in their own way made it clear that change in their settings to a more social organization appeared to be a daunting if not impossible task.  And maybe still stinging from the recent recession or the fact that Syracuse is not an economic juggernaut, these folks didn’t appear empowered to be change agents as the status quo has a firm grip on the mindset of organizations. I look forward to many more conversations like this, different industries and different levels to see the very valuable perspectives of the Vox Populi (the voice of the people).

The Long Tailers of Social Business

Social business talk hasn’t progressed much beyond what it is or how it’s done. Jon Husband noted this in a brilliant and succinct post back in 2013 where he said that “most of the conversation circulating and re-cycling regarding [social business] … what ‘social business’ is and/or is not, how to do it right, or in 7 easy steps, or with pizzazz and ROI and why it’s changing everything (or nothing at all)

What has changed however in the past 2 years is that the idea of Social Business, like Social Media, has been further positioned by large firm Marketing and Advertising departments as their charge. Markets are conversations so says the ClueTrain Manifesto and so shortsighted marketing and sales have moved to “Social Business” strategies which mostly just employing social technology with the same push information tactics.

Social LongtailHowever where social sincerely exists are those businesses on the long tail . Organizations here, the smaller more niche players, are more often inherently, unconsciously and positively social inside and out. Their business survival is predicated on a meritocracy over hierarchy, openness, trust, feedback and transparency – it’s here where the soil is most fertile.

Social Business, (what we do) can’t survive long without firm roots in a Social Organization (who we are).

For the larger, market dominating organizations, they turn to social technology (like any other technology) to fix problems vs. prevent them. Inside these organizations social tools are applied in a futile effort to open communication for knowledge sharing, a cure for their social atrophy. However the best opportunity for social technology inside has passed, the arteries are now clogged by competition, policy, procedures and rigid hierarchy.

Social technology may be best as preventative medicine vs. the miracle cure.

It’s the Long Tailers that need to understand this and move quickly to stay who they are. But to stay small as they grow larger, technology alone won’t be enough – social requires people and a holistic approach. They should also employ a Change Prevention strategy (vs. Change Management), maybe a new internal role of an Unchanging Officer to help leaders see their culture today and the big picture potential of social tools beyond communication and knowledge sharing. A well crafted change prevention strategy can anchor their progressive culture and help maintain the healthy status quo.

It’s far too easy for long tail business leaders to fall into established, yet floundering, 20th century practices as they grow. There are still many visible, seductive monuments of this past success and misguided social business approaches.

Long Tailers must act now for there is much to lose if they don’t change.

 

 

Losing the Soul of Social

Technology can extend the human condition but it can also work to dehumanize, transforming the sincere ideals of community and relationships into exploitable resources. The vendor marketing machines have lots of money and content marketing is their new effort to turn spin doctors into gurus as they work to convince you they are not selling but educating. Let the buyer beware. Some “though leaders” in this space are really after mind control and in many ways I think it’s working. For example I sat in a conference session recently which was a bit alarming. The discussion was centered on community building but was framed around tools. No discussion of trust and time and shared values or support. Rather it was a conversation about things like how to use gamification to get people to share! Or this recent post titled How to Master Social Marketing Quickly and Effectively which is chock full of advice like Automate It, Know Your Numbers, Get Followers. More likely than not some of the approaches in this article work in the short-term but are quite devoid of anything resembling sincerity or human relationship building.

Technology is seductive. I underestimated its power at my previous organization. I had leadership on board that improving transparency and collaboration would help in reducing redundancy and increase innovation; a huge win. Within days a team formed to assess social technology options! I was dismayed but also being new I figured it was best to tentatively support this as I naively believed that I could simultaneously explore technology solutions and also assess how we were currently collaborating and communicating throughout the organization. I carried on looking for where the pockets of healthy teams, departments and interactions were. I sought out conversations that informed me of barriers as well identified ambassadors or nodes in our already existing networks. I deepened my understanding of the business and culture. While I looked at business problems the tech train was gaining strength. My slow roll out was ultimately compromised by a need to justify the expense of a chosen solution. How ridiculous of me to a think we would leave a Porsche parked in the garage when it looked so sunny outside. The platform was on the table too soon and too many were letting tech take the wheel.  In the end the technology rolled out before the needs of the organization were really defined. Not quite a failure but definitely a struggle that was unnecessary as adoption became the goal not adaptation where real business value was.
Money is in technology focus, but effect is in people focus.” – James Tyer

Human history is littered with examples of where technology temporarily blinded us with devastating results to body and mind. The Industrial Revolution made people mere appendages of the machines and child labor was a widely accepted practice.  More recently (and far less cruel) Learning Management System spin has misled people into believing a formal course is how and where learning takes place and that access, completions and scores equate to learning – wasting time, money and reducing morale. The former was ultimately defeated through the birth of labor unions and progressive legislation and today, the LMS is under attack by progressive minds using data to help people see where learning is actually happening and change mindsets.  Eventually, as history shows, we do come to our senses. However, if we sit passively allowing the voices of deception to coexist with the sincere, the longer it will take us to realize the true benefits of social – benefits gained as we move through the machine not within it

Conversation Brings Change, Naturally

I’ve been thinking about Media Naturalness theory for some time. Well, more often it just pops up because it’s not like I’ve invested all than much effort into it. In short, if you’re not familiar, Media Naturalness Theory is the idea that human beings were built for face-to-face communication over thousands of years of evolution. Our gestures, voice inflection, eye movement, body language all contribute to giving and receiving information. Therefore anything that shifts away from this “medium” impacts our ability to effectively communicate. There was a lot of study around this with the introduction of email. To learn more I found this Wikipedia article a pretty good place to start.

Being more into the media rich New Social Learning (i.e. learning through social technology), I haven’t put much stock into Media Naturalness theory but I had a bit of an epiphany at a recent meet-up here in Syracuse. I’m a member of a local Bloggers Facebook group. We comment and exchange posts as well as ask for advice, etc. I was wanting to meet some of these fine people in person and pick their brains about blogging and why they do it, how they do it, tools, approaches, etc. I think I’m somewhat of an outlier in this space as I don’t blog for money, I do it for myself (although if the occasional speaking gig arises I usually don’t say no), my topic is a bit fringe, and I’m a bit of a purist in that I focus exclusively on my writing/reflecting and do nothing in regard to researching tags, SEO and monetization.

Meeting virtual friends face to face is always pleasant and since we didn’t engage much in long discussions in our Facebook group the opportunity was there to sit, have a beer and just hear each others voices if nothing else. Upon my arrival I moseyed up to a trio and introduced myself. After exchanging pleasantries I was asked by one, Joe I believe, “So what is it you write about exactly?” Without missing a beat I rattled off something like “I write about organizational social. How increasing transparency and openness can improve performance. You know, how social tools can be used inside an organization for sharing and collaboration.”  As I sputtered out my final words I realized, but didn’t feel compelled to add it in, that I said nothing about learning. I hadn’t even whispered the term that has defined my career for over 20 years now. No ID. No elearning. No L&D. No training. Nothing.

Blogging has a unique pressure that really only strikes you when you hit “publish.” Even as comments to your posts come in, you can pause almost indefinitely and ponder a reply. But in the heat of a face-to-face conversation, with real human eyes cast upon you and ears finely tuned, your response is unrehearsed, visceral and probably the most honest you can give. I write so much on my interest, beliefs, observations, efforts, etc that I really haven’t even given conscious thought to the transformation I have been undertaking. In reflecting on this moment over the past week I started looking back at my conversations online, my blog posts over the past few months and years and the pattern was obvious; I have slowly shifted away from being L&D-centric and have been seeing the whole organization’s role in impacting individual performance. Learning is a part of the work not apart from it. And thus learning is mostly indistinguishable from the other activities that make up the work we do, it is an unconscious underpinning. No longer does learning, in the formal sense, dominate my thinking and practice any more than communication, human interaction, culture, leadership, and trust.

Change happens one conversation at a time or in this case, change is made obvious through conversation. And why not – we’ve been learning about others and ourselves this way for thousands of years.