Re-naming the rose

My colleague, Ainsley, has just returned from the CIPD 2012 conference. In the fullness of time, he’s going to blog about his experiences and reflections, but chatting to him this morning inspired a different line of thought – essentially around the way that we invite (or deflect) potential interest from others from the way that we present ourselves (or an event obliges us to self-present).

We both confessed to have attended events – typically ones with ‘exhibition halls’ – where the name badge has been stuck very quickly in a pocket. There’s an art to walking through these halls, and it’s mostly comprised of managing to get a clear view of the salient points of each stand while avoiding all eye contact with the people manning it. There are two reasons we do this. The first is that no-one really enjoys being on the receiving end of some very amateur-ish NLP techniques (particularly the one where your first name turns up as every fifth word the other person uses, presumably in case the numbing effect is causing early-onset amnesia).

The second is a product of an underlying mismatch of intentions. They want to clock up as many sales, additions to email lists and potential leads as possible, so their conversation is geared towards closure. You want to find out enough to know whether you’re actually interested in their product or service, which tends to need a longer – and more honest – conversation than you’re likely to get. Depressingly, it often requires information that the people on the stall you’re already regretting stopping at seem to actually have. Or it requires the ability to understand that my product or service purchase will be made to serve my agenda rather than theirs. (It seems I’m not the only blogger with this experience either, judging by Ben Eubanks’ post at his UpstartHR blog.)

As Ben says, there are many potential ways of changing this scenario, which doesn’t seem to be working terrifically well for either party. But I think Rob Jones’ Masters or Bust posting from last year’s CIPD conference made a suggestion that Ben has missed. Rob, of course, was essentially making the point that bloggers aren’t always taken seriously. Which remains – despite the tendency of larger organisations to adopt blogging, tweeting and so on – largely the case. “I’m a blogger” is, from my own experience, plainly still seen as an inadequate response to “And what do you do?” – I suspect if I ever am introduced to HRH Queen Elizabeth II in a line-up somewhere, I shall bend the truth and say “I’m a journalist”. The inclusion of a Social Media Hub at the 2012 CIPD Conference suggests that it, at least, is taking social media more seriously.

The cynical former web developer that still lurks inside me hopes, as it so often does, that social media is not currently the equivalent of the web site in about 2000: something that it is felt that an organisation should have, even if no-one who is arguing for it is entirely sure why. I spent a lot of working time in the early years of the century wishing that more organisations were aware that they were committing what usability guru Jakob Nielsen identified as Error No 1: forgetting that they are not the audience for their own website. Coming from a background in editing, particularly in open learning, I wanted to tell them that each page needed to focus on the people reading it, not the people writing it – essentially the same problem as we experience in conference exhibition halls, but transferred to a screen. (At least online we can be ‘gone’ in just a mouse click: slowly edging beyond conversational range is much slower, and a great deal more socially awkward.)

But there is a more direct parallel between badge wearing and social media that occurs to me. The social platforms that I use repeatedly and gain the most from – both in terms of advice and of conversation and rapport – are not environments in which your name badge matters one iota. They are places where your contributions – be they questions, answers or comments – are what attract or repel conversation with others, not the label that you arrived with. Your name in these contexts is most often simply a username, and usually something that suggests an interest, hobby or outlook on life rather than a role or function. And let’s be honest, you are going to respond to and interact with someone called Greybeard52 rather differently to the way that you might with someone called SamanthaHRatHQ. Quite apart from anything else, you are likely to suspect that SamanthaHRatHQ is going to be judging you every bit as much as you are likely to be judging them. And all that pre-judgement can turn out to be quite an obstacle to discussion, disclosure and participation.

These particular platforms also tend to be both busy (in terms of participating numbers) and to have a faithful following – your online interactions will, over time, often feature ‘names’ you’ve come across in other threads. There will, just as is the case offline, be those that seem to speak on every topic and those who contribute far more rarely, but there is that most nebulous of things: a sense of community.

Part of me can’t help but think that there’s an important lesson there for organisations contemplating their employees use of social media, especially on internal social media platforms (a recent posting at RapidBI includes a SilkRoad infographic showing that 67% of organisations are either doing so or planning to). Many a pixel has been commandeered by many a blogger – and others – to comment on generational differences and the use of social media. They have a good case, even if I can’t help but feel it’s been made often enough, and the repetition may be becoming irksome to those of the older generation whose ‘opposition’ is a matter of entrenched opinion rather than rational analysis). But the argument undersells the number of people aged over 35 who use social media just as frequently. And that underselling possibly undermines the demographic-based argument that can be summarised as ‘the majority of people use social media, so organisations need to do so too’. Adopting social media within an organisation doesn’t mean the cultural equivalent of abandoning the cosy living room to move into the shambolically adapted former garage with the offspring. It means embracing something that’s happening anyway.

But it also has to embrace something else: what drives people to connect with each other. There are several common mistakes here: that people need to be focussed on the technology (which confuses the medium and the message in a way Marshall McLuhan wouldn’t have agreed with), that if you built it people will come (if I had a pound for every unused forum I’ve linked to a website …), that vibrant communities will spring to life because someone sent a memo instructing people to join them (I’ve not received a memo that exciting recently, but your mileage may differ).

The key factors in building successful online social networks lie elsewhere: online communities need trusted advocates, community leaders and moderators. As Quy Huy and Andrew Shipilov point out in an excellent article at MIT Sloan Management Review, the first thing that needs to be built is emotional capital. Those unused forums I never got a quid for have things in common: they provide no reason to get involved, they project no sense of willing connection, they don’t have a culture you can identify. They are the online equivalent of a generic looking and mostly empty restaurant that you pass by looking for somewhere more tempting, more … human. They are likely also to have been set up in the belief that their existence was somehow enough, and active communication would just magically break out like cherry blossom in springtime.

It’s a mistake very similar to the one Gautam Ghosh points out in his blog post No. Social Technology or Social Media will not make your employees engaged. Engagement is a measure of culture, values and behaviours, not the application of technology: the person that you currently avoid in the canteen is a person you’d avoid online too, given any choice. The better corrective procedure is to make people approachable and supportive, not to digitize your existing dysfunctions. But get the emotional capital right and you can achieve unexpected things. I’m thinking of internal discussion boards in previous employers where the organisation has discovered:

a) a programmer who rarely spoke up in face-to-face meetings but revealed a detailed knowledge of interface design in online discussions that not only redirected his career more rewardingly but significantly helped the organization in delivering substantial later projects

b) that its timesheet system was utterly deplored and that the staff were willing to design and build a better one, FOC, as they understood what was required and why, but they also understood that ease-of-use would probably mean the data put into it was accurate and meaningful

c) that staff conversations with customers were revealing a rather different response to the organisation’s marketing activities than the company’s leadership were assuming.

In all cases, the online platforms tendency to make us focus on the words and not the speaker played a part in these insights: we looked at who the badge was attached to, not at the badge. Our use of social media had also been led, rather than managed: if that sounds like a hair-splitting difference, it’s an important one. Don’t worry about the particular platform: just pick one most people are already familiar with (it’s a means, not an end). Connect people, and then give them a space to stay connected in, where they can invite others to join them. Don’t dictate content: people congregate around what bothers them, not what bothers you. Police as lightly as possible – the community leaders’ role is to encourage, not to punish (unless absolutely necessary). Use your eyes and ears as often as your keyboard. (Richard Millington sums up all these things neatly here.)

And don’t insist the people wear their digital name badges as they stroll through your online world. The people who really need to find each other may well do so more quickly and more willingly without them, as long as you focus on giving them reasons to. Otherwise you’re effectively giving people free cars and wondering why they’re not driving to (random example) Manchester. Until you make the destination attractive, you aren’t addressing the real issue. Social media are about relationships: build a culture that lets them flourish as your first step.

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