Thursday, 23 February 2012

Why we will use social media for both work and personal life

In her Harvard Business Review article “Why We Use Social Media in Our Personal Lives — But Not for Work” from February 16, Tammy Erickson claims that the conditions under which we use social media in a personal and an organizational context are entirely different, and therefore should lead to massive challenges in getting adoption for Social Media solutions within enterprises.

I must say, while Tammy makes some valid points (e.g. that internal platforms are usually less user-friendly than public tools), I find many of her arguments somehow missing the mark, which leads me to formulate a thorough critique of her article here.

First of all, I cannot agree with Tammy’s sharp differentiation between use of social media in our work and our personal lives. This feels as odd as claiming in the early days of the telephone that the phone would be less useful for business than it is for personal use, or saying the same about email in 1990. What’s more, the lines between personal and professional networking have been significantly blurring more and more (e.g. I’m engaging regularly with professional peers outside my organization through Facebook, LinkedIn or blogs). Drawing such a sharp line between the two does not do justice to the realities that a professional workforce faces today where often professional and personal email accounts are managed on the same smart phone, and professional peers we engage with online become part of social exchanges too .

Most importantly, however, the key reasons for using social media tools are the same in both personal and professional realms: communicating with my peers, voicing my opinion, sharing what I do, being visible, earning reputation and respect, asking questions, receiving feedback, presenting the “self” that I want others to see of me. Those are part of the general human need for attention, recognition and finding meaning in what we do. And it is this need basic need that made social media so successful. I don’t see how this need would be less prominent in the workplace than it is in social life, other than that individual organizations might not have a culture of treasuring staff communicating with each other, valuing their options or giving them respect and recognition. But that is a problem of the organizational culture itself, while social media is exactly there to change this.

As with the telephone and email, full-blown corporate adoption might not be there from the start, but it is inevitable if the tool meets the basic need of communication and recognition.

I also have some issue with the detailed comparisons Tammy makes between personal use and workplace use of social media:

“Personal use:
We're usually invited to participate by people we know and trust.
Workplace use:
Often we're instructed to use it by someone in authority, rather than invited by friends.”

I agree that use of social tools is only powerful when it is voluntary. Hence, the use of social tools within an organization cannot be mandated. However, rolling out a social tool within the organization with a mandatory imperative is not the only option. Within our organization, we went for a stealth approach in which we put an internal social networking prototype online and let the news spread virally (a core ingredient of social media adoption in the first place). After half a year we had 2000 of our 8000 staff trying it out and a survey among those users after 7 month showed that 90% of the respondent thought that both the organization and they as individuals would benefit from such a tool.

“Personal use: There are specific things we want to do with the other people involved, such as share photos, stay up-to-date on a club's activities, or develop a personal reputation.
Workplace use:
Little of what we actually get paid to do (or believe we get paid to do) requires information or input from the vast majority of other people on the network.”

Not sure where this idea is coming from or what type organization this should represent. But when we are talking about an organization that has to deal with any kind of intellectual assets, then the daily work of a regular employee has everything to do with getting information and input from others than him/herself. Of course I don’t need input from everyone in the network, but that is not the case for my personal networks either. One of the key challenges of a knowledge organization (one that deals with knowledge as its primary resource and output) is helping individuals to get the right information to the right time. Social media is the best mechanism conceivable today (other than mind-reading) to do exactly that.

“Personal use: We get something back from participation: advice, practical information we need, a network to tap when times are rough, or the emotional pleasure of seeing others photos or hearing their news.
Workplace use:
Participation feels like dropping pearls into a black hole — there's often no sense of getting something in return for sharing an idea or suggestion.”

I agree the “pearl dropping” issue is a valid one, but I experience that this can happen as much in Twitter or Facebook as it can happen in an internal network – sometimes I just don’t get any feedback. At the same time, I am part of very strong professional networks (some formal, some very informal) that I rely on heavily in my professional development and learning, a group of people I can vent ideas with and ask for advice. And where I receive emotional satisfaction by the professional recognition and respect that we give each other. Anyone who doesn’t get any emotional satisfaction of engaging with peers at the workplace I would suggest to change jobs as soon as possible and find a nicer environment.

“Personal use: We have control over who sees our information.
Workplace use: We have no control over who sees our information and little idea what "they" are doing with it.”

I guess this depends on the tool you use. In a public Twitter profile (which for me is the most reasonable way to use Twitter), I have no control whatsoever over who reads my tweets, and I formulate accordingly. Within the organization – as in Facebook, LinkedIn, etc – I know exactly the number of people who can see what I write, and who they are. Knowing the scope of a limited audience helps me in formulating for that audience accordingly. And at the end of the day, the golden rule of social media “only say what you are comfortable to be read by you mother, your boss or you ex-partner” should be kept in mind both in confined and public social media spheres.

Finally, I’m only comfortable with half of the recommendations Tammy makes to organizations who want to implement social media internally:

1. “Strategy — a clear, specific purpose”

I never used most of the social media in my personal life with a clear strategy in mind. Social media for me is all about experimenting, trying things out and seeing what works. I didn’t join Facebook or Twitter with a purpose in mind, and I never got one prescribed from top down – I discovered my best uses of these tools myself over time. While we know that the “build it and they will come” idea usually doesn’t work, I’m also highly skeptical of demands for clear business cases and top down strategies to incorporate social media into formal business process in the organization. The power of social media is that the best uses emerge over time by themselves, and most often they are very different than what we thought people “should” use it for. Hence, having strong ideas of how staff should use social media tools within the organization is counter-intuitive to the very idea of social media, and can suffocate its adoption from the start!

2. “Technology — designed around user behavior”
Absolutely agree. This for me is the strongest point of Tammy’s article.

3. “Organization — supported by new structures and practices as necessary”
I agree that the introduction of social media usually collides with existing organizational cultures and processes, and can cause confusion for staff in the beginning. But again, rather than prescribing ideas of how staff should use it in their processes, let them find this out themselves. Work has to be done one way or the other, at the end staff should be accountable for results. Where social media does help to improve a process or achieve a result, it will be used. Where it doesn’t, it will not, and that is perfectly fine. I don’t believe we can effectively design new structures and practices for the most effective use of social media from top down. We need to observe the best uses of the new tools by the users, and then adapt those uses accordingly by scaling them up.

4. “Personal Engagement — catalyzed individual discretionary effort.”
Absolutely agree. The use of social media cannot be prescribed. Organizations where senior management doesn’t understand this fundamental characteristic, are not ready yet to adopt it successfully.


In sum, I think the conditions of the use of social media in professional and personal environments are much more similar than Tammy’s article would make it seem. If we want to achieve adoption we have to focus on the basic needs that bring people together in any kind of communication technology. It is the extent to which new tools addresses those basic needs adequately (and often in a new way) that decides over success or failure of their adoption.

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