Social media and internal communications

It is interesting working with clients from such a wide range of businesses and organisations as I am at the moment and seeing what the similarities and what the differences are.

The first thing to say is that they have more in common than they have differences and certainly more in common than they think. In fact the sense of being different is very often a block to changing as they have such a strong sense of "how we do things around here" that considering new practices is difficult. And yet people are people and share the need to communicate with each other to get things done and the desire to belong to something bigger than themselves that is worthwhile. Even if social computing is not universally appropriate it does tend to be almost universally attractive.

Individuals too vary enormously in their openness to change and responsiveness to the more joined up way of working that social computing offers. It is always fun watching what happens when one person in the audience confidently asserts that this stuff is a waste of time and no one in the organisation with any sense would use it only to be rounded on by his colleagues who have been thinking how attractive it was as a way of working and how much easier it would make things. And it is that sort of percentage too by the way. The number of people for whom blogs, wikis and forums are anathema is reducing rapidly and given that most of my corporate audiences, unlike conference attendees, are not self-selecting this represents a considerable shift over the years I have been doing this.

So given that we appear to have a fair wind behind social computing in business at the moment what's the problem with getting the horse to drink?

Personally I think I it is like any significant change in world view - and I do believe that is what we are talking about here. People rarely change over night and certainly systems and processes don't. There is so much of the world of work that is very deeply rooted in assumptions about command and control that just isn't going to go away over night. There will for some time to come be an element of risk in working in the new ways that are now possible and even longer before organisations reach a tipping point and it becomes the norm.

One of the main things I learned watching what happened when we did this at the BBC was that as individuals and collectively you have to be very, very patient. Even though at 18,500 out of a total of around 23,000 staff having used the forums our progress was in some ways impressive we were nowhere near tipping point in terms of a more open sharing culture and even further from shifting the power base of the organisation. Forums have been around for years and years, blogs have been around for six and it took us four years to get where we did. This is a frustrating message for clients to hear especially those with the short reporting cycles forced on them by the city.

However this doesn't mean it is not going to happen. I believe that there is such a shift in the expectations of people coming into the workforce that it is inevitable. Youngsters who have been doing their homework collectively online, instant messaging with their mates and playing Second Life all at the same time all the way through school won't accept anything else. I know that I for one wouldn't consider working for anyone who tried to stop me working the way I now do accessing networks and friends all over the world all of the time. What we can do is to engage with this new world as it emerges in business and help it to happen a little quicker and a lot less painfully.