This post is the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing conversation (Organizational Development Talks: OrgDevTalk) between Michael Cook and myself. Mike contacted me after having read my posts through the Human Capital League, which cross-posts many of my articles.
“Thanks again for both the time and the conversation we’ve started on social media and uses in the workplace. As a starting point for our dialogue I’d like to begin with a broad question…I am an OD consultant by profession with a passion for improving the overall return on investment that a company makes in human capital and a co-equal commitment to improve the overall experience of being at work in any environment for each individual. Honestly, I want to see less suffering in the working experience.
Given these two commitments why, in your view, it is consistent with what I am already working on to give myself over to gaining a better understanding of some of the newest developments in the social technologies. I mean to say here that I am first and foremost a people guy. Won’t getting involved with these technologies simply be a distraction, a boost more for my ego than necessarily moving my commitments forward?”
Let me restate the question. Why should I, as an OD professional, concerned with the human aspects of organizations, have to understand web technologies? As Andrew McAfee says, “it’s not about the technology”. McAfee addresses much of this question in his post, so I won’t repeat what he says.
All organizations use information and communication technologies to some extent, whether it be email, data management systems or more recently, social media. The one technology that is changing how we work, learn and relate is the Internet, especially the web. Many information technologies are just exploiting Internet connectivity in some way. Saying we don’t need to understand the Internet is like saying we didn’t need to understand speaking, reading or writing to do our jobs before. In my experience, most organizational issues boil down to one factor: communication. The Internet is where we communicate; from voice to data to social networking.
With this ubiquitous connectivity, more of our work is at a distance, either in space or time. Telework and distributed teams are becoming the norm. If we are going to support people doing this kind of work, we need to understand it. However, working online takes practice to be proficient. It is difficult to understand theoretically. For example, even though I have worked online for over a decade, I did not really understand Twitter until I used it.
But can’t we understand these communications media theoretically, or get advice from our IT department? For example, a doctor does not have to have suffered a disease before discussing how to treat it. Many academics in business school have never started a company, yet they can talk about the fundamentals of business.
Why is the Web, and especially social media, so different?
I think that one fundamental difference about social media is they have a strong influence on the user, very much in a McLuhanesque medium/message/massage way. Those who come to web media for the first time are like adults learning a new language. You cannot start with the same advanced mental models and metaphors that you have in your primary language. Furthermore, if you do get to an advanced level in your new language, its idioms, metaphors and culture may have had a strong influence on how you think in that language.
Social media change the way we communicate. Write a blog for a year or more and your writing (and thinking) will change. Use Twitter for some time and you will get a sense of being connected to many people and understanding them on a different level. Patterns emerge over time. Even the ubiquitous Facebook changes how you react to being apart from friends. Social media can change the way you think.
When you adopt a new web social medium you are also starting on the bottom, or at the single node level. You have to make connections with what will become your network, either by connecting to existing relationships or doing something that helps to create new relationships, like writing a blog post. Starting over, in each medium, can be daunting, especially for someone in a position of authority who is concerned about image or influence.
Yes, you need to use the tools in order to understand what it’s like to be a node in a social network. There is almost nothing like it in the industrial workplace or school system to prepare you for this. Therefore you won’t know what you’re talking about until you learn the new language of online networks. The only way to learn a new language is through practice.
Social media are new languages.