Social Networking: The Benefits Outweigh the Constraints

If you sit in the average conference room with, say 40, executives from both the public and private sector and enthuse them about the power, speed and, indeed, empowerment of social networking, you have all the heads nodding in seconds. There are few people out there who think this is all a flash in the pan, and fewer still who fail to recognise the real shifts in communication patterns which are occurring.

Take this same, enthusiastic and smiling group and ask them how many people work for companies that restrict access to social networking software or ban it outright, and 35 hands shoot up, and the smiles immediately stop.

“Itʼs our IT Department, they are paranoid about security.” “Our Chief Executive doesnʼt get it.” “Our marketing director says the company must control the brand messages internally and externally.” I do not have to point out that there is a massive contradiction here. And furthermore it may be learning that unlocks the tangle and helps resolve the tensions in the “to social network or not to social network” conundrum. Let me explain.

There are more and more pieces of software that let you build, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and wikis inside your intranet. Microsoftʼs SharePoint has been spectacularly successful in delivering enterprise control but loose, flexible apps and freedom for individual employees to choose where to go, if they have permission. But it is quite tentative at the moment and many organisations are ʻthinking about itʼ. If you are a learning professional, lead the way!

Peter Drucker, in frustration at the over-complex definitions of innovation in companies came up with his own simple and straight forward rendering. And it works for me too:

Change which creates a new dimension of performance

That is also the key output for learning in an organisation. Or it should be. Like it or not, if you are in the learning space you are a change agent. You change individuals who change other individuals, who change companies. And you organise change in order to build better individual, team and corporate performance. That is how you should see your role and how you can justify the investment in that role.

No place is standing still. Certainly not at the current time or in the current climate. And it does not matter if you are hunkering down to survive, reshaping for the upturn or embracing the new opportunities that have been thrown your way. You are in the process of change in order to add new dimensions of performance: to do what you do better, or do radically new things. And all of this requires not just bright ideas from the top, but a workforce that works with you, alongside staff able to see both the need, the benefit and the requirement for personal changes in behaviour. Before that, the individual has to be open and receptive to new ideas. None of this can be done by bullying or threats.

Whole industries have disappeared because the way forward was blindingly obvious, only no one bothered to convince the workers. The spectacular collapse of the London docks in less than ten years in the 1960s is one of many examples. It happened because the dockers’ Union refused to allow its members to touch containers. Show me a docks complex anywhere in the world now without containers.
I wonder if , in five year’s time, we will look back at a big, successful, contemporary organisation and say: “no wonder they collapsed, they refused to touch social networking”! That may be egging the cake and the reality is probably a little less dramatic and spectacular. But the impetus to change the workplace will be as great. You wait and see. So there is a remarkable opportunity for the Learning Leader to take ownership at this critical juncture. Developing a learning culture is not only about skills development, however critical that is, it is also about building a culture that embraces the new, and opens people up to change.

In an environment where the speed of change is remarkable, the willingness of staff to, essentially, develop themselves with a bit of support becomes more and more critical. If skills are clearly defined and ʻhardʼ, then learning culture is soft and emotional. However, the culture creates the environment that allows learning to flourish. If this occurs, then change can be embraced and new dimensions of performance can be achieved.

Social networking slots neatly into this model. It cannot happen in an organisation which does not trust its people. It generates too much traffic to ʻcheckʼ everything. It cannot happen if you do not allow free communication right across the organisation. And it cannot happen if you do not incentivise sharing.

It needs time to embed too because when it starts, there will be an inverse ratio of information and chat to solid content and learning or, if you like, fluff to substance. As the process gets into second gear, that ratio will alter substantially in favour of substance. And, if it really takes off, you create an explosion of media and messages wrapped around good practice, and new directions. This will make a significant impact and taken the whole organisation forward.

In BT -according to their previous Head of Learning Peter Butler- what is on offer to staff embraces the whole spectrum of learning opportunity which stretches from the highly formal and generic, like cbt and simulation, to the highly personalised and informal, like instant messages, staff blogs and podcasts. In other words, the appropriate learning delivered at the point of need, geared to the individual and the circumstances he or she finds him or herself in. On the job, informal learning, is as valid as a formal sit down course. A tag cloud can be as useful a resource as a complete cbt program. It depends on the need and the circumstances around delivery. In BT, learning is available all the time, whatever the circumstances, to all staff, because this organisation has a massive change agenda on its hands as it moves from Telco to software services company.

The BBC has developed Moo, which is an intranet application, that encourages staff to share (any media, any time), blog and inspire. The culture that the BBC wants, embodies those that aspire, emulate and stretch each other. Moo is a significant part of that change process and a dramatic realisation of the journey ahead for employees. It is also full of insights, case studies and good practice that are accessible in one click. All of the material has been contributed, ordered and ranked by the users. Moo is a framework that relies on participation and ownership elsewhere for its success. It functions rather like an internal Facebook application but with more media rich resources and the debates are work-based rather than social in nature. In itself it has value but it also projects an image of the workplace that reflects creativity and openness.

The growing impact of social networking on business will manifest itself in a suite of tools aimed specifically at business users. For example it is now possible to post to various Twitter accounts simultaneously and get back an analysis of how many people are reading the information you post, and where they come from. This is of peripheral interest to a single Twitter account user, but vital to measure business impact. More and more product focussed user groupings are appearing on Facebook as well, and there are many blogging
and wiki options available to those who do not want the information to be shared with anyone on an open and insecure internet. This is a good first step.

But these tools are merely part of the process once you have made the commitment. The learning leaderʼs role is somewhat different and a little in advance for this. He or she is the person to get the culture right, to look at the people implications and perhaps manage a ʻsmall proof of conceptʼ trial. At the point where it is going live, the learning leaderʼs role necessarily diminishes considerably. Preparation might also form part of the leadership development and general cultural development of the organisation. In an on line poll conducted by Business Zone, Twitter and Linked In were run away winners in a contest about ʻwhich social networking tools are most useful to your businessʼ.

Why is social networking important when the technologies have downsides and the rules have not yet been firmly established?

Here are ten good reasons.

1. Share knowledge instantly
2. Create a buzz around an organisation or its products
3. Share information
4. Build virtual expert groups at all levels including customer or user level
5. Find out what customers think
Locate experts and temporary staff quickly who come with recommendations
Profile your company
8. Appear to be future facing in the eyes of the world
9. Isolate and deal with emerging issues and problems
10.Spot trends fast and early

Individual organisations need to work out for themselves how much that all adds up to. But I think the learning operation should be the part of the company that marshalls the information and organises the planned way forward. Then someone else can do the metrics!

Dan Martin writing in About.Com brings the benefits down to three critical areas: build trust; find new employees or business partners, and turn negatives into positives. These particularly apply to small businesses who need networks to survive. But they equally well apply to large companies attempting to keep in touch with their own more complex networks.

Dell announced early this year that they had secured $3m of business through their Twitter account, which cost virtually nothing to set up and run. Dell releases sale items and special offers through Twitter and directs readers to their website. They have built up a huge following as a result, and monitor the tweets about the company and its products in return.

According to PR 2.0, amongst uniques users in the US, internet traffic has only increased 2% from May 08 to May 09, but social networking traffic increased by 13%. However, that masks the spectacular growth of Facebook: up by 97% to over 900m US, and Twitter up by a staggering 2, 681% to 90m users. As far back as August 2009, there were 350m unique users visiting Facebook worldwide with the majority, middle income or better, and 58% were aged between 25 and 54. Twitter had 66m unique visitors worldwide in that same month, with 65% aged 25 – 54. It is substantially more now.

In itself, this is a considerable shift in the pattern of internet usage and demonstrates the read/write web in action. And just as businesses who where slow to embrace the internet
in the 90s, lost out to their more agile competitors, those that fail to embrace social networking, will suffer similar losses of credibility, creativity and market intelligence.

Let us return to Peter Drucker and his definition of innovation: change which creates a new dimension of performance. Social networking offers a framework for innovation which could shift a business into many new dimensions of performance. The guide and instigator in this difficult process should be the learning leader, if he or she is willing to grasp that nettle now.

A version of this post appeared in Learning Technologies Magazine

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2 Responses to “Social Networking: The Benefits Outweigh the Constraints” - Leave a Comment

  1. Nigel, you’re absolutely right that social networking benefits outweigh its constraints. One of the major setbacks to achieving social networking at work is that senior management simply doesn’t get it. Your top ten tips in social networking are a great list – a must read for senior management.

  2. Well, it’s all about understanding and taking step forward. The management in most of the organizations are slow to react and follow these things. They do not want to get this kind of hype created in the environment, but they don’t realize that this hype can work wonder and it can turn it into a big success. Sometimes our internal things go out make headlines outside (negative or positive. So, we must follow these things.
    Your top 10 tips and tricks are really amazing and practical, these can be very beneficial if applied properly.

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