The Literacy of [Social] Business The future of digital culture – yours, mine, and ours – depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives.

Howard Rheingold, NetSmart

I have been thinking a lot lately about the literacy of social and what it means to be social in a corporate environment. Predictably, I’ve ended up with far more questions than answers.

 

What does it mean to be ‘social’?

It’s a simple question.

I can read and write. I can add and subtract. I can write an RFP. I’d like to think I can get on with people. I’ve read Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. But what are the skills I need to work and communicate in a social business world? How do I learn them when the new paradigm is being shaped as it evolves.

The new paradigm disrupts and changes. It makes some anxious and concerned. Social has become a proxy for change. A type of change that is unfamiliar and uncertain. The dark heavy machinery of our industrial heritage starkly juxtaposed against the lightness of the world being shaped around us. In the liminal zone between the two, we reminisce, become nostalgic, and are a little bit curious.

How do I know I am being ‘social’? Do I need to be social all the time, or just some of the time? Is posting a picture of my lunch to Instagram or checking in to where I work – social? I have a Twitter account, numerous connections on LinkedIn, use Facebook, I’ve tried Tumblr, Posterous, Storify, FriendFeed and a whole host of others since gone, I write a blog. I tell myself: I must be social!

I must be social because I have all the social logos to prove it displayed on my about.me page. Or are they just like all the unread books on my shelf at home? I must be social because other people tell me so, because I send a certain number of Tweets every day. I must be social because I have a Klout, Kred and PeerIndex score? Although I don’t ever remember asking for one.

But what does it all mean? When you go behind the logos, the Tweeting, the posting pics to Instagram, what does it mean to be social? Who decides? Can I decide? Do I have the credentials to decide? Does it matter? But then by extension does authenticity matter?

I don’t even know what it means, but I know it matters…

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Freedom and words

For some reason I prefer the word organisation over company or business.

Words are important, and yet in social we leave them undefined. They are defined by assumptions, which are unquestioned and appropriated. Applied randomly.

And yet who am I to judge? Who am I to decide which words should be used, who can or can’t use them, who should define them and how.

Should I adhere to the definition of the crowd and the meaning they impose? The promise of freedom delivered on a tray; delivered by the masses.

Social brings with it a freedom, not of expression, but of scale. It binds people, unites them behind #something. It binds and unites at a scale we have never known before. It binds and unites at a speed we have never known before. We are still learning the possibilities. Still exploring.

But back to words. Back to the sense of freedom that social offers. Or perhaps, it’s the mirage of freedom. Either way, the pretense of freedom is tempting, alluring, encompassing. But am I fooled by it? Seduced by it. More than likely.

Is freedom, openness, authenticity a vain pursuit? The promise of it brought tantalisingly within reach by social. Sign in, create your profile, and all of this could be yours. Easy. And yet what freedom is there within the crowd? It is a relationship constantly fraught with friction and compromise.

But who am I to question the crowd?

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Mindset, Culture, Technology

I've also thought a lot about the context in which social business takes place, from both a personal vantage point, as well as a corporate one. By context, I probably mean the framework. And even then, I’m not sure if framework is the right word either. But let me try to explain.

Quite early on in my journey I realised that social wasn't a technology play. It required the technology to make it happen – absolutely, but the technology was simply the switch by which everything else happened. As Howard Rheingold states:

We’re in a period where the cutting edge of change has moved from the technology to the literacies made possible by the technology

The people, you and me, have embraced the change, and we’re now learning the literacies that will enable us to play, work, interact and communicate. Wasn’t it Clay Shirky who wrote: “When we change the way we communicate, we change society”?

But organisations are lagging behind, resistant to change. If only they had listened to The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999 and ‘got down off that camel’. The bit I’ve never understood, is that organisations are made up of people, you and me.

But back to my early journey.

It became obvious to me that these social technologies were inextricably intertwined with me. In many ways they reflected me: who I was, how I engaged with people, how I communicated with people. Perhaps I might even go so far as to say they were a reflection of who I could be, wanted to be. My inner self played out on a public stage as @guy1067. @guy1067 doesn’t exist, @guy1067 feels separate to me, I can hide behind the faceless mask of @guy1067. But @guy1067, he(?), it(?) is me. Who am I kidding?

The social technologies were also a catalyst or perhaps more likely a proxy that probed away at me, posing simple questions about private/public, inside/outside, work/play, me/you … but these weren’t questions I could walk away from, leave hanging. They demanded an answer, and they demanded an answer that could only be played out in one place: in public.

But I digress. As if I have followed a link and self indulgence and serendipity have taken me to another place.

The crux of the matter is that early on I realised that social wasn’t about the technology, it was about me and my mindset. And when I got to work it was about culture and organisational transformation. But who wants to talk to me about organisational transformation?

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Who are the teachers?

Who teaches me to share, to be authentic, how to collaborate, to understand the subtle difference between collaborate and co-operate? Who teaches me to be a connector, spanner, broker? Am I a Dipper, a Denier, or an Ultra? What skills do each of these require? How do I know what skills I need? Can I retrain?

Social reflects the type of person I am, not the type of person I want to be? If I am opaque, private or closed, can I ever hope to be open, authentic and transparent? Where do I start?

Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, (the company I work for by the way) in a recent address to the Council on Foreign Relations talks about ‘the social network being the production line within the company’. This is a captivating and enticing statement, signalling a fundamental and profound shift in the organisational foundations of a company. The social network challenges the norm. Imagine a system in which the sharing of knowledge is the cornerstone of the way you work: to share is to work. Sharing becomes the means of exchange, knowledge the currency.

My social eminence, represented in its current rudimentary form of Klout, Kred or PeerIndex scores, reflects a new kind of hierarchy, in which my actions, my knowledge, is directly reflected in my desire, my willingness, my understanding of how to share. My enemy is not apathy (can I be bothered?), but my ability to discern. For sharing for the sake of sharing is meaningless. My ability to share therefore is based on my innate understanding of the relevance of what I am sharing combined with how well I understand who I am sharing with. So even sharing is fraught with difficulty.

But what happens when we add another layer of complexity in and combine this score with degrees of benevolence, authenticity or openness. This may be foreign to us now, but this is where we will inevitably head. Every action tracked, every action measured. And let’s not forget to wrap a layer of gamification around it.

But in the end, as I reflect on all of this, it all seems to a large degree, somehow so familiar. Social business is a construct, just as @guy1067 is, and when all is said and done, I will still go to work. Yes the way work happens may change, is changing, but work was always social. We've just forgotten that, and social technology is helping us to rediscover that social aspect. We’ve rediscovered each other again. A degree of intimacy, albeit virtual, that was stripped away with production lines and call centres, is returning.

We’re simply thinking it through, exploring aspects of work we hadn't experienced before, because it wasn't possible. Take one variable out of the equation that has allowed us to be where we are today, and we could have been asking a lot of different questions (or not at all). But at the end of the day it’s still just business as usual. Ever was it thus.

 

Guy Stephens is a Managing Consultant, Social Business at IBM. He has 14 years’ experience within digital, with the last six focusing on social business. Prior to IBM, he worked at Capgemini and before this was industry-side at The Carphone Warehouse and Mars Inc.  Guy set up the use of social media within customer service at The Carphone Warehouse in 2008 and was described by Dr Dave Chaffey as ‘one of the world’s leading thinkers’ in this space, and as an ‘early adopter’ by Business Week.

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