Business as usual? @euan at #DigitalSurrey

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Last week, I made my regular(ish) trip to Surrey’s digital networking evening, Digital Surrey.  This month’s speaker was Euan Semple (@euan), former BBC Director of Knowledge Management, author, consultant – and, it seems, entertaining public speaker.  This blog post covers some of what Euan had to say about business and the social web…

Back to reality

Euan started out by saying that he used to dread talking to people working with social media but then he realised that even people in “social” don’t have the time to stop and look at what it is, and where we’re going. In fact, he takes issue with some of the basic premises of what’s going on right now [and he has a point]:

  • Labelling something as “digital” draws a line between it and the alternative – it makes the rest “other”.
  • Social media has been turned into a “thing” – the industrialisation of something that should be personal…
  • “Social” is not a collection of channels, it’s a singular phenomenon, that’s been hijacked by marketing…

Wow. Controversial. Perhaps? But what Euan suggests is that what we’re doing with “social media” is really about getting back to real connections with real people doing real stuff, albeit in a digital format.

At this point, Euan moved on to knowledge management [something which has been causing me pain over the last couple of weeks, as a result of some dubious decisions made…]. In his time as the BBC’s Director of Knowledge Management he found that people wanted him to create knowledge repositories. But a repository sounds like a medical term, leading to knowledge extraction, which is just a short step from knowledge harvesting (some sort of cerebral milking machine)?! And then we wonder why people don’t engage with knowledge management, he says.

At the BBC, Euan’s team started of by putting in a basic bulletin board, which has only recently fallen by the wayside in favour of Yammer. They also created wikis and blogs. And yes, that was all some time ago but even today, Euan’s clients are being forced to spend money on Jive, Tibbr and Yammer, etc. but he says it’s all still just little text boxes. Over engineering what is required so that the IT guys feel comfortable.

What I found most interesting is that the BBC created its blogging guidelines with collaboration via wiki – in effect they created a social media policy without any meetings and people lined up behind the policy because they had been part of creating it.

By comparison, many organisations are stuck in a mindset of managers telling staff to do things, then measuring and monitoring. We can but hope that this will move to the side as people self-organise.

The Cluetrain Manifesto [a book which is often quoted but which I have yet to read] talks of “globally distributed, near instant, person to person conversations” and Euan has examples to demonstrate this in reality: journalists catching up on Twitter after an event happens; educationalists trying to get their head around informal learning (a process that is sometimes disparaged). But, reassuringly, it’s all about people, building relationships and trust in relationship.

Euan describes how his blog has the power to form relationships – he has online friends that he knows better than people he’s worked with – just connected differently [I can echo this].

“The knack of blogging is a willingness to open up and share – it can foster some really powerful relationships.

[Euan Semple, Digital Surrey, October 2012]”

Three different mediums, three different uses

Euan went on to describe three different social mediums and how there are subtle differences in their use.

Looking first at blogs. He’s written posts that he thinks will change the world and nothing happens [me too!]. Conversely, he’s written “rubbish” after a drink and the world thinks is interesting! Either way, we still create networks. Your blog with your own domain name is your space on the web.

Euan believes that organisations should allow their “nerds” to blog, first internally, then externally. In this way, they can be seen to be trustworthy and reliable. And, if everyone blogs, we get a sense of the organisation that’s not possible yet. Taking that a step further, if we make the content available externally, it can have a huge impact on the brand.

The second medium is Facebook, where we seem to have a willingness to open up compared with internal social networks where we tend to think “what will we share?”. There’s also the point about oversharing and drunken student photos to which Euan’s response is that “I wouldn’t employ someone who hadn’t got drunk as a student” [A view that I also share]. And then there’s his view on dress sense for business:

“Suits used to make you look respectful and trustworthy – they just make you look like a banker now!

[Euan Semple, Digital Surrey, October 2012]”

Next up is Twitter, which Euan used to see as yet more “inane twoddle”. Now he confesses that he can’t do without it (although he may have to soon if Twitter continues to make the changes that are hacking off users). He says that Twitter filters the web and cuts out a lot of noise but the numbers can get ridiculous – so he has some advice in order to make better use of the medium.

Euan has over 7000 followers [I have around 2000 and recognise the issue]. He follows many so that they can send direct messages but he only actively follows a list of 100. The resulting effect is better information, faster. And Twitter is also a resource – people will give answers to questions, because of reciprocity: if enough enough people get value from his tweets, they will decide to follow and then converse.

The de-industrialisation of knowledge

The old phrase that knowledge is power used to mean that holding on to knowledge made you powerful. Now the power is in giving it out…

Once you have a blog, you find that you start to write more. You see things and think “oh that’s interesting, I might blog about that”. [I have many unwritten posts inside my head]. This creates a chain of thought, and hopefully others will find it interesting, point to it, comment or react to it…

Euan suggests that this has potential as another way to run businesses – noticing people, setting things off, creating ripples…

We used to recognise the power of the hyperlink but this has been corrupted by Facebook likes and Google pluses. Even so, there are other means to harvest information sources and make them work for us.

RSS  is a mechanism that allows people to subscribe to content. By choose sources carefully (blogs, etc.) we can add value without causing stress or noise, making choices about information, assembling our channels rather than relying on others to pump information to us.

Many Twitter constructs, such as hashtags, or even even the @ sign to direct a message were user-created. Now they appear on hoardings, TV captions, almost everywhere and they represent a user-driven method of assigning meaning and importance.

What we’re doing is really about de-industrialisation. Pre-industrialisation, more people used to work in what we would now recognise as freelance roles, as artisans, travelling in small groups. Maybe this is where business is heading today?

Finding our voice

As businesses, Euan suggests that we’ve outsourced communications to professional communicators; we’ve outsourced caring to Human Resources; and we’ve outsourced storytelling to the media.

We need to find our voices. More than that, we need to find a way to communicate that we’re comfortable with, that’s authentic, and that gives the confidence to express ourselves. Euan has seen senior people getting worked up about writing a blog post [I’ve experienced this too], finding it difficult to get their heads around non-vetted conversation.

Euan cited an example of an organisation that captioned themselves as thought leaders. But how can you be a thought lead when no-one knows what you think? We need to take the time to think (blogging has the advantage of giving someone the time to stop and think “why am I doing this”) and to start “writing ourselves into existence”. There’s something therapeutic about the network way of thinking, and leaving a trace on the world.

Retaining knowledge

About a month before Euan’s role was made redundant at the BBC, he was asked to take part in a meeting to discuss preventing knowledge leaving the organisation! Ironic, maybe, but it illustrates a certain way of thinking inside many organisations.

Euan says that PwC call their document repositories “knowledge coffins” and that they are “where documents go to die” but internal social networks are different. One piece of advice that he offers is to try to resist people trying to “tidy it up” and make things more sanitised.

To use an analogy, villages grow other centuries, they are haphazard but work, based around a focal point. Euan compares this to the modern town of Milton Keynes, built around a grid system that seems makes sense but which people struggle to relate to [I live near Milton Keynes and can’t see the problem with the grid, but I do have to work with internal social networks that I don’t relate to…].

Effectively, we’ve become too good at tidying up and, in cutting out the noise, we cut out the signal.

We can’t achieve everything in one go and Euan suggests taking a “strategically tactical” approach. Set up projects that will go off and find their own way but eventually come together – a concept described as “Trojan mice”! Or, to put in another way, create a “start-up”/entrepreneurial attitude and fund some small things to see where they go.

Making it real, with enthusiasm

Whilst many organisations grapple with becoming “web 2.0” businesses outside the firewall, Euan suggests that they struggle to be even 1.0 inside. That may be harsh but there are are organisations where sign-off is required on blog posts, tweets, etc. and, if you’re lucky, you might get to release a 140 character press release! It makes no sense and, Euan suggests, is the organisational equivalent of your dad dancing at the disco. You’re proud of him for having a go but you’d really rather he stopped!

The reality is that the inside is the outside – all of your staff are on social networks. But are they allowed to talk about work, or even to admit where they work. In the modern, connected, world we expect 24×7 communications but what’s the impact of this?

Brands need to allow staff to be advocates, to be enthusiastic about working for them. After all, if your staff are not enthusiastic, you have a problem anyway.

Euan tells a story about his Crumpler bag and how the company helped him to understand how to re-thread the strap but then the zip failed, and he tried to make contact again, only to find that his contact was no longer there. He had a sense of relationship with an individual inside the organisation but then he felt let down because it was no longer there. That’s disappointing [and a reason that organisations need to plan for long-term social media engagement].

At the other extreme, Euan talks of organisations where they think no-one wants to know about their product (for example, a brick manufacturer). But they do… sometimes! There is latent interest in even the most superficially dull topics, we just need to find out how to unlock it.

Euan suggests that we’re really at the start of something and, just as when the  printing press was invented, we don’t know where we’re going. That might take another 50 years, but we have to be in there and making the space habitable in order to gain the benefits.

Euan Semple’s book, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do: A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web, is available from Amazon.

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