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The web at work

Image of Euan Semple

As Director of Knowledge Management at the BBC, Euan Semple was one of the first to introduce social media tools into a large successful organisation. Now a leading independent advisor on the use of social computing in business he discusses how managers and organisations can use social media tools to facilitate their communications, management and strategic development.

Several years ago when I was Director of Knowledge Management at the BBC, and starting to deploy the web tools now known collectively as social media, my manager asked me to provide a one line description of my job for a form he had to fill in. I suggested 'Increasing the frequency and quality of the conversations that get your job done'. I was rather pleased with this but was told that the word conversation 'wasn't sufficiently business-like'. Sadly, nearly 10 years later, the response would still be the same in many organisations.

So what is 'business-like', what have conversations got to do with it, and how can the use of the social web tools help?

Personal

The first level of benefit from using any social tool is to the individual. As most managers who blog at work discover, having a reason to record what we do, and why, can be a very effective use of the 15 minutes or so it takes to write the occasional blog post or forum contribution. Pausing to reflect on challenges and your responses to them may seem a waste of time but as A.A Milne once wrote 'Winnie was sure there was a way of coming down the stairs without his head banging if he could just stop his head banging long enough to think of it'.

Once you start writing stuff down in visible places something magical happens. You start attracting readers. Even if what you are writing seems routine to you it is not to everyone and others will benefit from your insights and thoughts - what someone once described as 'the intensity of the mundane'. When you have a network of people taking the time to write about those things worthy of this modest effort, you get to see what is worth paying attention to - a collective 'ooh that's interesting'.

As people are discovering in their social lives, the little bits of information shared in Facebook can build a feeling of proximity and trust. Why would this not help build shared values and trust in the workplace? These are the sorts of ideals espoused in corporate mission statements but there are often few opportunities to make them reality. Online tools ought to be at least part of the mix of communications afforded to individual managers to build the networks they so badly need to do their jobs.

Tactical

Let's take two activities that take up the bulk of a manager's time, meetings and report writing. Meetings come in for a lot of criticism, and there are those who would say they are a complete waste of time, but done well, and with a little help from social media, they have their place.

If people are constantly being kept up to speed, moment by moment, through information sharing tools like Twitter, when they do have to have meetings they can hit the ground running. A common level of understanding can help participants get down to making better informed decisions faster. During a meeting at the BBC I noticed that the half of the room who used social tools had a shared understanding and an ability to allude to rich background context - the other half who didn't looked rather blankly at us.

A lot of managers' time is taken up with writing memos and reports but how often do these actually get read? We fill the available space due to conventions of content, spend endless time formatting, and then file the documents away in knowledge repositories. But how much benefit do we really get from all of these activities? Apparently one of the major consulting firms calls their knowledge repositories knowledge coffins because they are where knowledge goes to die.

In contrast the nature of social tools encourages brevity and conciseness. The haiku-like discipline of Twitter's 140 characters could have all sorts of benefits in the workplace. Trying to capture the essence of an important change in a well written blog post, that then gets virally linked to around your organisation, brings influence never attained by that word doc buried on a server somewhere. Writing your policy documents collectively on your wiki and filling them with hyperlinked references to other relevant content - the purpose that Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web for in the first place - can give them relevance, shared ownership, and currency.

Strategic

Most corporate strategies are written by small groups, or even external consultants, and rarely involve the wider organisation. Using a wiki is a very powerful way to approach strategising. Being able to pull together the document in front of a wide group of people and to do so overcoming geographical and time constraints allows for a much more flexible and distributed process.

You don't have to open up the wiki to everyone in your organisation - this is not management by committee - but being able to extend the range of people involved, without demanding a significant investment of time and effort on their part, can make your strategy much more robust and relevant.

Another advantage is that the document can be a live, ongoing work in progress. Many strategies take so long to write that they are out of date as soon as they are published and they then remain cast in stone until the next time you go through the process. Wikis allow you to be much more flexible both in the original writing and in the ongoing updating of the document.

You would be hard pressed to find a strategy, however written, that didn't contain the words innovation, effectiveness and collaboration. In all three cases our current management practices can make these more difficult to achieve but judicious use of social tools can make them easier and more attainable.

  • Innovation: Innovation tends to come about because people are disaffected with the status quo and decide to do something about it. However we don't normally give people a place to express this dissatisfaction and make it hard for them to summon the wherewithal to do something about it. In fact in normal circumstances we set up a committee to handle innovation! If you have lively and trusting online communities you have a constant focus on what is wrong and a means to do something about it.
  • Effectiveness: Once you decide what to do about it you have a wonderful platform on which people can muster their resources to work together to improve things and develop new ideas. For example an issue might come up on a company wide forum, several people might realise that they are all trying to solve the problem or are affected by it. They can thrash out what is wrong and what needs to be done on the forum and then set up a wiki page to become more focussed about what they are going to do and to begin to plan and document solutions. Those who have blogs can explain their perspectives in more detail and give richer context and all three activities can be loosely joined and given structure by hyperlinking between them.
  • Collaboration: Those involved in this process learn about each other and how to work together, in many cases without even needing to have physically met. Trust can be built up online in ways that might surprise those more used to face to face communication and relationships can be maintained more readily by those not sharing the same location or who come from different organisational groups.

Conclusion

Arguably we have paid a price for professionalising so many aspects of our businesses. With the rise of HR and communications, managers could almost be forgiven for thinking that dealing with people and communicating effectively aren't part of their jobs. Well they are. In fact they are the only ways to get anything done. We need to make it easy and attractive again for individual managers to say what they think, share what they know, and enlist the support of others to achieve their tactical and strategic objectives.

At a time when most organisations are being called upon to make cuts it is frustrating that attempts to deploy social tools in those organisations are often deprived of budget. The use of these tools has the potential to cut huge amounts of waste out of the average organisation and to make much more possible with the available resources than ever before.

All of what I have described above is deceptively simple - and yet has the potential to transform our working lives. The challenges are not primarily technical but rather individual and cultural. Having the temerity to put your hands on the keyboard, say what you know or think, and pressing save - sending your words out to potentially the whole of your organisation - is scary. Coming to terms with the speed and effectiveness of everyone's ability to share and learn from each other will challenge many of our current management practices. But for those who are willing to get their hands dirty and have a go the possibilities are truly endless to do more, with less, and have a lot more fun doing so.

Contact
Euan Semple, email euan@euansemple.com

Further reading

Website

Euan Semple's website
http://www.euansemple.com

Your comments: tell us more about this article

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Sally Halper

31 Jan 2011

Euan's blog is full of advice about using social media successfully in business, see http://www.euansemple.com/theobvious

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