Social media – I’m a fan. I blog, facebook and tweet daily, and love all of the additional resources and tools. But when an important social and technological phenomenon turns into a bubble of evangelism, we’ve got to handle it with care. I’ll present on the use of Social Media in organisations in Zurich this week, to Directors of many of Europe’s top companies, and explain the upside but it’s just as important to be open about the downside. I agree with the Nick Shackleton-Jones Tweet, “When the tide comes in you’d better don your trunks and not bury yourself in the sand” but it’s also rational, for some, to walk up to dry land to avoid getting wet. Even the Vatican had a Devil’s Advocate department when discussing canonisation, so before giving Social Media the status of sainthood, let’s consider some of the downsides.
Objection 1: Dumbness of crowds
We have ‘constructivists’ who wouldn’t be able to string two sentences together when asked what that actually means in terms of real psychology. Then the woolly ‘social learning’ advocates who see all learning as social (ridiculous) and can’t see that some of it is a waste of time, like going over the top of your head to scratch your ear. Much of my productive learning is completely solitary and I’ve spent far too much time in my life, in wasteful, long-winded social contexts, like classrooms, training rooms, lecture theatres, meeting and conference rooms, learning little or nothing.
It’s a matter of balance, not blind belief in half-baked social theory. We need to see a mix of approaches that include social learning but not to the exclusion of focused, solitary learning. Reading, writing, reflecting and deep processing needs isolation from others, not chattering classes.
Objection 2: Weapons of mass distraction
Employees and learners can get stuck in a tar-pit of unproductivity as social media is sticky, seductive and addictive. Most parents have experienced concern about the amount of time their kids have spent on say, Facebook and Twitter, when they claim to have been studying or doing assignments. At work, it’s easy to avoid doing things you don’t want to do by escaping into social chat.
First, if you’re really that worried, monitor usage, which many organisations already do. That’s fine, as it’s a way of managing excessive use, but it’s far better to police by policy. Simply add a few words to your existing HR policy around the excessive use of social media for non-organisational purposes. In any case, in the end, in the workplace, employees have to be trusted.
Objection 3: Confidentiality, libel & harassment
Many organisations have examples of naïve, even malicious use of social media. There are genuine fears around the leaking of confidential information and reputational damage. In addition, individuals have been libelled and harassed, leading to complicated and expensive HR management issues and court cases.
To be honest, I think the fears are exaggerated here, but they do have to be managed. Again, police through policy, pointing out the dangers of inadvertently leaking information and expected behaviour towards others. To be frank, these four words should suffice ‘Don’t be a dick!’
Objection 4: Non-alignment
In this survey, less than 18% of decision makers at 100 of the UKs top 500 companies (by turnover), thought that L&D was aligned with the goals of the business. It is not always clear that social media solves this problem, as it can encourage divergence of task, as one link leads to another and one is led, not by goals, but interest. This can be worse than simply ‘not seeing the wood for the trees’, as social media can be so random, fragmented, long-winded and unstructured, that it is difficult to square off effort with relevance.
Anders Mørch of the University of Oslo sees this as one of many ‘double-edged’ sword phenomena in social learning. Say what you will about informal learning, there’s still a massive role for ‘aligned’ formal learning. Many things can’t be left to the vagaries of a social approach, as they have to be tackled within a fixed timescale.
Objection 5: Crap content
The mixed quality of user-generated content is also a concern. Even in media sharing the poor quality of lectures on YouTube EDU and other media sharing sites, show that sharing in itself is not always a virtue if the content being shared lacks quality or relevance. Putting one’s faith in user generated content can be a disaster if you’re relying on that alone.
Wikis solve this problem by having a process of communal and tracked amendments, but you need volumes of contributors to raise the quality of the content. Rankings and strong social recommendations by trusted colleagues is another useful control, feeding high quality links and content from outside the organisation.
Objection 6: Redundancy
Many of the productivity tools are here today, gone tomorrow. Some simply collapse, as they have no sustainable way to monetise the product. Some get dropped (even Google products), others get bought by the bigger boys and suddenly disappear or become part of a larger software suite. It can be hard to keep up.
There seems little danger of the major entities, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter disappearing, so these are safe bets. However, it would be wise to regard others as useful even though they are temporary, especially tools such as Doodle etc. Data storage is another issue, however, Google and Apple are as stable as anyone in this regard.
Objection 7: Security
Many organisations, obviously the military, government and banks, but also many other organisations, are nervous about DoS attacks and data theft, and are rightly nervous about unlimited access to social media and tools. Global Corporations are under siege from hacker groups and online organised crime. Even Julian Assange won’t use Facebook as he’s sure the data has already been sucked out by non-desirables. This is not irrational fear, it’s the real deal.
However, HR and training bods should not be making this decision. They need to ask the IT experts about the dangers. This is fair as they wouldn’t be expected to restrict your behaviour in teaching or training. Once a real examination of the issues has been done, it can be allowed. Point to other organisations that have done this and have had no problems.
OK, that’s the Devil’s Advocate stuff over. The reality is the astounding rise of the internet as a social intermediary with social media being the number 1 use of the web, 600 million Facebook users. Potential employees, employees, learners and customers, are using this stuff in anger. The modern executive, manager, teacher or trainer can’t really call themselves a professional without at least a knowledge of social media. You’ve got to play with this stuff to understand its virtues and vices.
You also need to understand, plan and assume its use, for there’s no way that it will not be used. Every one of your employees has a mobile which is a pipe to the outside world beyond your control.
However, it’s easy for academics and advisors who have never really had to ‘run’ an organisation, or take responsibility for real jobs and lives, to get over-excited about their passions. They themselves can be subject to social conformity, groupthink, non-alignment and hype. It’s important that this type of over-optimism is not at the expense of realism.
To be fair, people like Jane Hart, Jay Cross, Charles Jennings and Harold Jarche et al, understand all of this, the danger is the bandwagon effect and evangelistic groupthink, which can lead to the abandonment of good practice elsewhere. Social media is not the answer to every problem, but it’s a undoubtedly a useful and powerful advance in learning.