Some thoughts on social media, the importance of IT literacy, and “humanising the web” (channelling Dave Coplin at #SMWB2B)

Yesterday, I spent the morning at the fifth B2B Social Media Huddle, organised by Kerry Bridge (@KerryBridge) and Neville Hobson (@jangles). I’ve written about these events before – and I find them fantastic because they are focus on using social media for business to business communications, whilst many events are focused on consumer audiences. Some would say that doesn’t matter – the channels are the same (i.e. the same social networks) and you are still communicating with people (and, fundamentally, people buy from people, so it’s about building relationships) but I do believe that the two markets have very different needs (B2B is not just B2C scaled down, as someone once suggested…).

Unfortunately I had to leave before the unconference started – so I’m sure I missed some great content later in the day but I wanted to call out some of the fantastic points that Microsoft’s Dave Coplin (@DCoplin) made in his fantastic opening presentation.

Restricting access to social media at work

Firstly, taking a look at the view that employees shouldn’t be allowed access to social media at work.  Thankfully, IT departments are becoming more enlightened and the number of organisations blocking access at the firewall is dropping but there are still issues in management. The concerns generally boil down to:

  1. I don’t want my team wasting time.
  2. I don’t understand the value (of conversation flow, etc.).

As Dave eloquently pointed out, if you are concerned about people wasting time on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you should probably also frisk them for newspapers with crossword and sudoku puzzles.  And, as Helen Reynolds (@HelReynolds) added on Twitter, whilst you’re at it, ban small talk and daydreaming!

Understanding the value is harder – like Dave, I thought Twitter was a waste of time, until I saw a moderated stream used alongside a keynote video. These days I’m hooked (although Twitter’s apparent desire to self-destruct might change that one day soon…). Another way to look at this is that we might once have struggled to see value in email, or the world-wide web – and now there are large groups of employees for whom we would not envisage a world without those tools (or something similar). Social media is the next iteration of modern communications and, whether its on internal or external networks, there is immense value in many of the conversations to be had.

One important point that Dave made for those who think social media is just “for the kids” is to take a look at the #bbcqt hashtag on a Thursday night and you’ll see a lively debate from across a wide spectrum of Twitter users. Social media is certainly not just for “Generation Y” – and even those middle managers who frown upon its use at work probably use at least one social medium, even if it’s just to follow their favourite sports team, or to pick up deals from a brand with whom they like to transact.

IT literacy

Dave Coplin suggested that there are two common threads when talking to people (real people, not IT or technology marketing people!) about IT. The first is the “I know nothing about computers – I need my son/daughter to control the insert piece of technology here” response, suggested as if it were a badge of honour (i.e. “I’m not a geek”). Dave continues to comment that “I know nothing about computers” should not be acceptable; people need to realise that they are part of society and digital literacy is as important a skill as reading and writing in a traditional sense. I’m not suggesting (and I don’t think Dave Coplin was either) that everyone should be able to write computer programmes, but the idea that some people are proud not to understand how to use common technology like smartphones, video equipment, an Internet browser is a social problem that needs to be addressed.

Secondly, companies that say “don’t worry about IT… we’ll deal with that for you” are not helping – they need to empower users to take control of technology and use them to good effect (writes the man using a corporate PC with so much “security” software piled on it that it takes 5 minutes before it is usable after turning it on…).

Many of the issues are about educating people for a digital future [I’d say a digital present] – not just children but every member of society – and Dave suggests that we need to change our approach, to start teaching skills not tools.

He went on to illustrate the point, something like this (although it might need to be adjusted depending on the audience, this worked for the Generation Xers in the room yesterday!):

  • Our grandfathers went to school where there was no electricity.
  • Our parents went to school when there were no PCs.
  • We went to school when there was no world-wide web.
  • And our kids will go to school in a world without hover-cars.

In other words, technology develops at pace and it’s no good teaching people about technology – we need to equip them with the skills to apply as new technologies come on stream.

In another example, there are signs in various parts of the world advising drivers not to follow satellite navigation (e.g. lorry drivers under low bridges, motor vehicles along footpaths).  I’m sure that the creators of the sat-nav technology didn’t intend to take away the responsibility of the driver to apply some common sense – technology should augmenting human reactions, not replacing them.

In other words, Dave Coplin suggests that the world we should strive for is one of human plus machine, not human versus machine and critical thinking is a more important skill than word processing.

“Humanising” the web

Humanising the web is Microsoft marketing-speak. The company I work for talks about a “human centric intelligent society” and I’m sure there are others in a similar vein but the point is  a similar one – tapping into a network of people to change the way in which services are delivered.  Somewhat cynically, I tweeted that this just sounds like crowdsourcing but there is more to it than that.

Our smartphones are permanently authenticated to us as individuals – they are truly personal devices and that gives companies the opportunity to deliver personalised services.  For example, Dave suggested that mobile can make accessible mean something to a wheelchair user – “what’s the best route into a station – and which of the eight entrances has a ramp?”.  There are other opportunities to augment reality too – like translation, or overlaying information onto pictures. But why stop there, asks Dave? Why not stitch things together and deliver new experiences – applications that know our preferences and suggest activities accordingly?

Much of this depends on “big data” and machine learning – and, the more we use data, the more we can provide new insights. Data scientists will become increasingly important as we find a way to navigate information, without over-reliance on algorithms – which are really powerful but can have unintended consequences when combined.  Dave gave an example whereby, if enough people perform a search, then the engine will decide that it’s important and adjust the results accordingly – that can have unintended consequences (a bit like the example in this old blog post of mine).

Of course, when looking at humanising the web, we need to consider social implications too and there are, undoubtedly, some people whose online behaviour leaves a lot to be desired.  We’ve seen that before though – fifteen years ago, people would interrupt conversations to take a mobile phone call but these days it’s normal to use silent rings, or to divert to voicemail. As a society we have learned how to integrate mobile telephony into our conversations but we are less mature in other areas. Dave Coplin suggests that Facebook is not a problem – the way the (some) people behave on Facebook is the issue – we’re still learning how to behave online – we troll, bully, etc. And that leads to a society that gets really challenged…

Which leads on to privacy – we all have a line above or below which we are comfortable. For example, my Facebook is just for friends and family (although I have extended it to aquantainces from my “real” life too); whilst LinkedIn is only for people I have worked with professionally (and whom I would like to work with again some day); meanwhile I’m pretty open on Twitter, sharing a mixture of the less-personal personal stuff, with technology, things I find out and topics related to my hobbies.

But, as a society, our definitions and expectations of privacy change over time. In one of Dave Coplin’s anecdotes he spoke of how the landlord in your local pub knowing your name and drink of choice is an accolade of social acceptance. But what if you walked into a pub in a different town and the barman said “Hello Dave, pint of the usual is it?” – that might be a little strange (how do they know your name and how do they know what you drink?).  Ultimately though, it’s just personalisation of service – and we will increasingly see this on the web as our expectations of privacy and information sharing evolve.

We’ve seen this before – in another example Dave reminded us how Caller ID used to be something to avoid (“what, give out my number to someone when I call – no way!”) but these days we use it extensively and screen calls that don’t show a number that we recognise. Technology evolves, as does our use of that technology, and our acceptance of the implications of its use.

Empower others, be human, and don’t just engage – enchant!

Dave closed his presentation with three points about their use of IT, in particular in their use of social media:

  1. Empower others – to make decisions, to interact, to learn.
  2. Be human – companies need to have humour and personally in their online interactions and too many just want to sell (or be dull).
  3. Don’t just engage, enchant. John Lewis’ ads don’t tell us where the stores are and what they sell – instead, they reach out to us emotionally and drag us in.

Dave was speaking of last year’s Christmas ad but the same can be said for the latest “Never knowingly undersold” ad, which continues in that vein (and is far more sophisticated and, dare I say, enchanting, than earlier ads featuring a selection of products on sale):



For those who would like to watch Dave Coplin’s B2B Huddle presentation, a copy is embedded below:

[Update 2 October 2012: Added video of Dave Coplin’s presentation]

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