Why are we even arguing about this?

Presented to the AGM of the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship and for the product launch of IntranetManager.NET.

It was just lucky that two groups asked me to present on essentially the same content on consecutive days.

Just 10 or so years ago, we were arguing whether email was necessary for our staff to do their work.

Not long before that we were arguing over the value of giving them phones on their desks. And Heaven forbid we give them long distance access!

At the same time, I doubt any of us even considered the corporate web site as a critical business asset.

15 years ago, the public Internet and the web were in their infancy, and we weren’t certain at all what we should be doing with them.

So why now, are we arguing about the value of social media for our businesses? There’s a wealth of good research on the returns for business on factors such as customer service, product development, innovation, findability of information and brand reputation.

For no good reason many businesses seem highly reluctant to allow staff to participate in social media activity – either internally or in public. I doubt there’s anyone in the room today that gives a second thought to the importance of the corporate web site, staff email and personal phones for all staff.

Why is this?

Today, we live in a world where almost everything about your business is public information. Not only that, the world is now hyperconnected in a way that makes discoverability and conversation about you a trivial exercise.

A few seconds of effort at Google and I can discover who your management team are. Shortly after that, a slightly more diverse search on Google, Plaxo, LinkedIn, Facebook and perhaps MySpace will give me a pretty intimate window into the business.

It’s quite possible that I’ll have a window into personal lives of many of your employees and probably your management team and board of directors. I’ll know where they’ve worked and when. What people thought of them. I might even know what they wore to the last New Years’ Eve fancy dress party and whether I think they have a sense of humor.

With not much more additional effort, I’ll know what your customers think of your products and of your business. What’s good, and what’s bad. And why.

I’ll be able to consume a vast range of opinions – a conversation – around your offerings.

Are you participating in that conversation? If you’re not, there’s nothing you can do about it. It will go on regardless.

In the end, you have two choices, and I’m not being extreme here – join the conversation and thrive, or die.

And to join the conversation you need to cede some control. Not all of it. Just some.

It’s actually highly likely that your staff are already taking part in this conversation on your behalf. Wouldn’t it be better if they had your backing?

The emergence in the past five years of blogs and wikis, of social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and of empowering publishing platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and similar tools have fundamentally changed the way you and your business need to interact with your customer base.

They have also shifted the power base – away from the PR flacks, the marketers and the heritage media into the hands of the people formerly known as the audience. Today, the audience is no more. They are your collaborators and your users. Whether you like it or not.

The Obama campaign used these tools – the tools of social media – to groundbreaking and groundswelling effect. Have no doubt that a significant and measurable part of the success of the Obama campaign was due to the grassroots empowerment of the volunteer community through the use of social media. Let’s look at some of the numbers:

Platform Obama McCain Difference
Facebook 2379102 supporters 620359 supporters 380%
MySpace 833161 friends 217811 friends 380%
YouTube 1792 videos since Nov 2006
114599 subscribers
Channel views 18413110
329 videos since Feb 2007
28419 subscribers
Channel views 2032993
403% more subscribers
905% more viewers
Twitter 112474 followers 4603 followers 2400%
Branded social network mybarackobama.com
Numbers not available but estimated in millions
McCain Space
Numbers not available

The use of social media for both Presidential candidates was significant, yet the Obama campaign, appealing directly to a part of the constituency that voted strongly for it, leveraged social media as an incredibly powerful medium to reach out, appeal to voters and garner both contribution and volunteer support.

And now that he has been elected, President-Elect Obama isn’t dropping the ball on social media. He has already released the first of what is to be weekly updates via YouTube.

And now, we have the Greens, Malcolm Turnbull himself, and just last week, the Prime Minister’s office using these tools to conduct an ongoing conversation with their constituency. Canvassing opinion. Discovering previously unknown issues. Connecting and having a meaningful, rich and human conversation.

In Australia though, we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in business adoption of these tools. And even further behind in government use of them.

In the UK for example, Downing Street uses social media tools to allow the PM’s office to speak directly to the constituency. And public sector workers, at an individual level, are expected to engage on subject matter within their are of expertise.

The same approach is being used by a number of successful businesses.

In Australia, Telstra has taken significant steps in the right direction this year after paying attention to the connected, social media using community. Formerly very old-school push-message focused, Telstra has fundamentally changed. Their customer service channel via social media such as Twitter and their Now We Are Talking blogs is arguably a more responsive, easier, more direct and most notably, more human way to get problems fixed than the robot call center that must be navigated in order to talk to someone on the phone.

Beyond our shores, brands such as SAP, IBM, Dell (Dell Community, Twitter), Comcast (video interview, Twitter) and the worlds largest online shoe retailer, Zappos (blogs, Twitter), rely on the reputation and innovation channels they have established via social media channels to get things done quickly, canvas opinion on product development, learn about issues and solve problems easily and in a way that builds reputation rather than customer dissatisfaction.

It’s critical that you empower your staff to be communicators and evangelists for your business. Understand and expect them to take part online in conversations about you and let them do so as a part of their jobs. Right now, stop passing everything through Legal and the Marketing Department and allow the conversation to be real, responsive and human. Your customers and staff will respect you for it.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Mistakes are human. In today’s social media empowered world, mistakes are expected. So make them fast, cheap and early, and then be real about admitting them and fixing them.

All of this applies equally to efforts inside the wall as it does to external communication. The use of social media tools within your walls provides your business with a wealth of opportunities you simply did not have access to five years ago.

A recent study by McKinsey found that deploying the tools of social media within businesses can be used successfully to address issues such as attraction, engagment and retention, locating expertise, building teams, enhancing flow, understanding workload, flattening communication and organisation structures, transforming leadership and management practice and increasing ability to innovate and change according to market demands.

Significant numbers of businesses are transforming their ability to communicate across the organisation, marshal staff, drive innovation and discover previously unknown expertise within their organisation by using social media tools within their walls.

In Australia, companies such as Janssen-Cilag, Cochlear and Westpac have made significant investment in social media tools to empower their staff to be more efficient and productive.

In today’s financial climate, where customer spending is trending sharply down and the need to be increasingly innovative and competitive is rising, can your business afford not to look closely at these tools? To identify issues that might be solved by them and build and implement a strategy that introduces these tools to make your job easier to do?

A word of warning.

These tools can’t be a bolt-on and nor can they be implemented without some strong strategic analysis.

You need to consider them as an integral part of your strategic plan and of the working life of you and your staff. You must evolve from bureaucracy to infocracy. This move is fundamental to building the conversation, collaboration and community your business needs to ensure ongoing success in the 21st Century. Social tools are not going away and your competitors are adopting them now.

Imagine your business if this was the way you worked.

Leave a Reply