Colonising Virtual Space


In Toronto recently, and now Sydney and Melbourne, I am having plenty of opportunity to contemplate the energy and determination it took for the original settlers to survive and thrive in what must have been hugely challenging circumstances. I find myself comparing their circumstances with those of the people I am here helping, people trying to bring the social web into the world of business. The same attributes of vision, courage and determination are needed. As are immense amounts of sheer bloody hard work. Building infrastructure, establishing laws, growing culture - the parallels are many.

However I then began to think about the downsides of modern cities. They all dominate the natural environment and, with a few local nuances, the architecture, populations, and culture are pretty much the same. They have also dominated, and to a large extent exclude, the indigenous populations.

I then found myself re-considering the parallels with the web. Maybe the geeks and early adopters are like the indigenous populations who worked with the land and lived in harmony with it. Maybe the settlers are the people who now follow on and “civilise” things turning online conversations into “social media” and BBS’s into Facebook. The hunting and gathering of the hyperlink will be turned into the factory farming of “social search”.

Maybe the geeks and idealists will end up being contained in reserves while the onward creep of northern European, middle class, industriousness continues to dominate the planet and the people on it ……


I often think that I am not teaching people in business anything new about social media  so much as helping them unlearn some bad habits about communication. Helping them to unlearn the use of management speak, the use of dispassionate third person language, the tone of aloofness that has seemed in the past to afford them protection.

I so well remember when I got my first real management job being petrified at the sense of responsibility. Like so many do I started trying to protect myself by wearing a tie and talking funny. Spouting stuff about “process” and “strategy” and “empowerment”. Thankfully I grabbed hold of myself, pulled myself back from that slippery slope and ditched the tie. Many don’t. They keep going and become so immersed in the nonsense that they forget how to be any other way.

Reminding them can be challenging. The trouble is it leaves them exposed - like the papier mache Mephistopheles of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness:

“I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe…”

Immoveable objects

I am often asked by clients how to deal with people who block their attempts to bring the social web into organisations. I still have the emotional scars from dealing with the same sort of people myself, so I remember the feelings of frustration well.

I didn't understand it fast enough but the most important lesson I learned about dealing with these people was that they suck energy. By even dealing with them you give them power. Instead of focussing on moving things forward you get dragged into dealing with their resistance.

But remember you are not going to "convert" everyone and nor should you try!

The way to deal with this is to find ways to route around them. Isn't this the way the internet was meant to deal with obstacles? Instead of clashing antlers find a way, or more often than not many little ways, to allow them to keep thinking what they think but do what you have to do anyway. I always have the image in mind of nature re-populating concrete industrial landscapes. Roots and shoots emerging through cracks and weaknesses in the apparently solid structures and gradually weakening them until they crumble.

What's the ROI on preventing the social web happening?

It occurred to me that the ROI question so often asked about social computing is back to front. It is asked because people have been conditioned to think that social computing is something that we have to make happen in organisations. They are trained by vendors to expect to pay obscene amounts of money for over priced, over engineered, process driven, time-wasting, life sapping tools! You can do most of what you have to do with social computing for practically nothing.

The social web is something that is going to happen anyway over time. People will start using these tools for business purposes whether we like it or not. They already are. All we have to do is not get in their way.

So next time someone asks you the ROI of social computing ask them to work out the ROI of stopping it!

Why not make the civil service social?

Interesting to read Sean Trainor's post this morning about the Civil Service People Survey; the largest employee engagement study ever conducted in the UK, covering over half a million civil servants across 95 departments and agencies.

The bit that caught my eye was

However only

· half of staff are involved in decision making

· one third believe their opinions count

· one quarter believe change is managed well and is for the better

This would be such an opportunity to have a serious attempt to introduce social tools and reverse some of those stats but the scary thing is we are much more likely to see the blunt instrument of hacking staff numbers and more rather than less management initiatives.

Data import and export

Curverider is launching a hosted version of the social networking solution Elgg and is making much of the ease with which Elgg will import and export data.

This is something I always consider when buying my own software but it brought back to me just how important it is for enterprise tools, and how I ought to mention it to clients more!

When we we were introducing tools at the BBC this was one of our most essential criteria. We knew that the churn rate of social tools was high - even then nine years ago and it is somuch higher now. If we didn't want to be stuck with all of our users data left in a legacy tool we had to get it out of the old one easily and then into the new one with as little pain as possible.

Worth keeping this in mind.