1: Social Technologies: An Introduction

The chapter begins with a scenario of a manager, whose department is composed of young people who have been with the company for less than two years. She sees them using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube a lot at work, sharing links and articles with one another, and using their mobile devices to send text messages and check their e-mail in meetings. Their performance seems up to par, but she suspects they would be more productive if they weren't so distracted.

This narrative is not at all uncommon in the workplace: given that the technology is new, those who haven't adopted it don't quite understand it, and given that younger people are more likely to be adopters, it widens the generation gap because older, senior staff see social media and mobile devices as something the "new people" are bringing into the workplace, and their knee-jerk reaction is that it is not a good thing.

For a time, it may have been reasonable to make this assumption: social media did start off as a leisure pursuit, used to casually chat with friends and acquaintances - but it has since been integrated into their daily lives as a communication tool that is used for a variety of purposes, both leisure and professional.

As such, managers can no longer regard them as pastime pursuits, but recognize that they are communication tools that make workers more productive, rather than less, and managers would do well to familiarize themselves with the technology

If managers fail to provide a good example by using these tools personally, they won't only be failing as leaders, they'll also create a chasm between themselves and those they lead. It's now clear that social technologies aren't a fad, and they're here to stay. This demands that managers become knowledgeable of the tools - or better still, to adopt them for their own use.

A Bit of History

The author gives a brief account of "Web 2.0" - which began shortly after the dot-com crash of 1999 - one of the principles of which was the use of technology to enable people to connect with one another, rather than the (mis)use of the network as a mere broadcast channel.

(EN: I'm annoyed when authors portray "Web 2.0" as the beginning of the social Web ... it was a social medium from its very beginning. Even before it was called "the Internet," back to the days of modems, BBS, and online services, the computer was used as a communication tool by people seeking to communicate one another. When commercial interests intruded in 1993, they misused it horribly - but the social element, while pused to the background, continued to thrive. Granted, the "2.0" technologies such as blogs and media-sharing sites made it easier for people to publish without having to learn how to use an FTP client, and it's a lot easier to set up a device to send and receive e-mail - but there never was a time the Web was not social.)

What is "Social"

Because "social" is the buzzword of the day, many individuals and firms are attempting to take the lead by inventing their own terminology, or merely to garner attention by tossing the word "social" in front of anything else (social marketing, social recruiting, social commerce, etc.), whether they are actually social, have some smidgeon of social functionality, or even have no connection to social media at all.

In the most basic sense, "social" pertains to people communicating with one another using technology. There are a wide array of services and tools for doing it in different ways, managing the nature and amount of content that a person provides and which other people will be able to view it - but it comes down to people communicating with one another.

Where the author is concerned, "social" is important in three contexts:

(EN: The last two seem to overlap, but perhaps a better way to distinguish them is social media focuses on the content - you watch a YouTube video and comment on it, but don't have a connection or relationship to the person who posted it. Meanwhile social networking focuses on the people - when a person puts a video on Facebook, they are not doing it so the world can see it, just those people in their network of friends.)

The author goes through a number of different sites and services, and the various kinds of information people share, and remarks that the older generations may find it unfathomable that people would want to share personal information online, from their most personal details to their most inane thoughts, during their every waking hour. But the degree to which social media has been adopted is staggering.

With that in mind, consider a couple more vocabulary terms: "blocking" and "monitoring," which refers to the actions employers have taken as a method to control the behavior of their employees by either using technical means to prevent them from accessing sites, or threatening corrective action for "inappropriate use" of it.

(EN: I recall reading in a blog that claimed that monitoring was more effective than blocking. The blog described informal research in a small company, where blocking certain Web sites did not curtail employee misconduct - if you block one game site, people find another gaming site to use at the office - but putting in place monitoring and threatening employees with disciplinary action greatly reduced their use of the Internet at all.)

The author implies, but does not directly state, that these practices reflect a lack of understanding of social media: to assume that Facebook, Blogger, and YouTube are wastes of time rather than valid communication tools is to miss out on their considerable potential to be used to support "real" work.

How Did We Get Here?

Most "game changing" technologies do not live up to the hype that surrounds them - they are not that significant in terms of the way they impact the user, and they have a very short life. Social tech seems to have genuine claim to the term. In this section, the author will explore some of the qualities that have made social tech so successful.

Primarily, social tech does not empower people to do something entirely new - it is an evolution in the tools used to do something that they are already doing and have been doing for a very long time: communicating with other people. This is a significant factor in adoption: people didn't make phone calls because the telephone was invented, but the invention of the telephone gave them the ability to fill a need they already had - to communicate with others across distance. It wasn't a new task, but a way to do it that was better in several ways from the precedent of the written letter or even the telegraph - and that's why it caught on.

Over the past century, the need to communicate across distance has become more critical: we are no longer isolated in self-contained villages, but are geographically dispersed from people we know socially (family and friends) and professionals (vendors and customers), and we "know" and have the need to communicate with more people, across greater distance, with greater frequency, than in the past. Social media does this better than the technologies that were previously used to do this.

Take the example of Facebook: a single status update reaches hundreds of individuals instantly (or as soon as they check in). To do so with a telephone or written letter would be time-consuming and entirely ineffective. Even to do so with e-mail would not be as effective (or as acceptable to the recipients). This is far more powerful than it might at first seem.

Another value of social media is a growing inventory of online content. People are contributing factual information, along with their thoughts and ideas, to a rapidly expanding body of text, audio, image, and video data that touches on every topic imaginable (and many that are utterly unimaginable). This is also "nothing new," as people would provide information to others (telling someone about an item you bought, sending a recipe to a friend) in a loose, unorganized, and temporary manner.

The Internet, with personal content, opened this up. Anyone could type in anything, post it to a personal space, and organized it as they pleased. Others could find it and read it, and it would be there until they took it offline. But prior to Web 2.0, it was a difficult process, and few people undertook the effort. Between blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and many other services, it's very easy to do the data entry, even from a mobile device, and drop raw content into a system that will organize it for others to find. And it's very easy for others to tap into the feed, to see what hundreds of thousands of others have to say about something.

A few stray notes: many social sites have opened themselves up to Google, so that comments posted on a social site can now be searched along with other sources of information. Also the US Library of Congress has undertaken to archive every Twitter "tweet" in a central database - which means anything that anyone has ever posted will be archived indefinitely.

This works in both directions: not only can you aggregate all comments made about something (a product, brand, company) to get a sense of the general perception of it, but you can also can aggregate all the information published by a person to get a fairly detailed sense of their personality.

The author refers to the common stories about embarrassment and damaged relationships (personal and professional) as a result of what someone posted to the Internet, sometimes immediately or sometimes years prior, and the damage that is sometimes caused by employees making remarks about their companies. It's not uncommon for firms to monitor the social network for mentions of their name, and react against critics. It's also common for firms that do so to damage their reputation - harassment and bullying people are not a traits that resound with customers and candidates.

But in general, monitoring the social network (klout.com and socialmention.com are specific tools) can give your firm a sense of its presence in the social media - how many people are talking, whether what they are saying is positive or negative, etc. More will be said on relevance and reputation later in the book.

Naturally, "social" has been a challenge in terms of privacy. The entire point of communication is to share information with others, and we often lose control of privacy, such that comments that were intended to be private become public, through our own carelessness or that of a service provider. But even at that, our desire for privacy has waned. A person's religions and political views, once considered very private matters, are on display in our public profiles - and people are fine with that.

Why It's Critical to Actively Manage Social Tech Usage at Work

Prior to the Internet, and especially prior to mobile computing and social media, employers had the ability to restrict their employees' ability to communicate. Restricting access to paper communications, wired telephones, and networked computers to control what employees were able to say and whom they were able to say it to was a simple matter. With mobile devices and social tech, the employee is at liberty to communicate freely from the workplace to the outside world, and within the organization.

And employers panic. They block access to social media in the office, discourage or forbid the use of personal mobile devices, and struggle to maintain control over their employees. But this is fighting evolution: employees will use social media, and they will use it for professional as well as personal ends. And all in all, the socially-connected employee is empowered to do more good for the firm, not just more harm, than the socially-disconnected one.

(EN: Some years ago, I recall hearing someone speaking on the topic of internet access at work, specifically in sales. A firm refused to provide e-mail accounts to salesmen and prohibited them from using personal accounts for company business. In effect, it crippled its own people, and itself, as salesmen in competing firms were using e-mail to contact and communicate with prospects and customers. The same is likely true of social media.)

"Executives are quickly learning that they need to deal with social tech," whether to leverage the benefits or protect the organization from misuse. The problem, in the author's sense, is that they are making policies and dictating practices regarding tools that they do not understand, and do not use themselves - meaning they lack the information to make good decisions. Neither do they have a good grasp of what social tech their people are using, and make equally uninformed decisions in that regard.

And as social media is an evolutionary tool, the approach to it should likewise be evolutionary. Chances are, a firm already has rules in place about communication - how employees are expected to use a telephone, fax machine, photocopier, or any other communication device in the workplace. Chances are it's not as draconian as the approach taken to any new technology (you discourage spending too much time making personal calls, but do not fire an employee for an occasional personal call), and chances are these same "rules" can be conveniently ported to any communication technology. The principles are the same - and the only difference is efficiency. Social tech doesn't do anything a telephone cant, it just does so in a manner that is faster, easier, and reaches more people.

As a staff manager, your role is to negotiate between the staff and the executives on the potential value of social tech. The author predicts executives "have an irrational fear" that "young people" are using social media as a time-waster - texting their friends, updating Facebook with personal notes, and watching silly videos on YouTube. You are going to need to demonstrate to them that these tools contribute to,. Rather than undermine, productivity, and manage your staff to ensure they use them appropriately in the workplace.

The author refers to the way the Internet was received by business - it got a chilly reception, with executives fearing people would spend all day shopping, playing games, and looking at pornography. Over time, this settled into a happy medium, with certain sites blocked but the rest of the Internet open for use, as it was recognized to be a valuable resource that contributed to productivity.