Social Media: Educate or Regulate?

What do your instincts tell you to do in the face of fear and uncertainty? Fight or flee? Fear of the much-discussed dangers of social media has pushed far too many organizations into flight mode or, in certain cases, into a state of deep denial. Some organizations that were willing to face those fears and take action have opted to regulate social media usage in order to minimize the risk of damage.  On the surface, this can seem like a prudent course of action.  However, an unfortunate effect of extreme caution can be strangling precisely those elements of social media that provide the biggest rewards.

An example of extreme regulation is demanding that any online posting about an organization or by its employees first receive the blessing of that company’s marketing department. Except in the most skillful hands, a rule like this has the effect of making every communication official and bland.  While this approach may be fine for announcements, it just doesn’t work as well in conversations.  And conversations are the currency online.

Into this dilemma come the helpful folks at Common Craft who have just issued a new video entitled Social Media and the Workplace.  In this video they explain some of the benefits of social media and suggest the following approach for organizations that want to move past paralyzing fear to take advantage of social media:

  • Realize that “customers want more than just another press release.”  Instead, they want to have “an honest conversation with someone from the company, often outside the company website.”
  • Encourage employees to understand and participate in online conversations about your company and its products.
  • To maximize the benefits (and minimize the risks) of these conversations, companies should:
    • create official company accounts on popular social media sites
    • set up alerts to monitor what is being said about your company and its products on these social media platforms
    • consider appointing certain employees to monitor and respond to online conversations as part of their regular responsibilities
    • establish clear guidance to help all employees become effective online representatives of your company
  • The Common Craft video suggests that before anyone in the company responds to an online conversation, they use the following checklist:
    • does this issue really require a response?
    • is a particular employee the right person to respond? Does he know the facts? Can he add value?
    • does the responder understand the culture of the particular social media platform hosting the conversation of concern?
    • each responder should identify herself as a company representative, but speak in the first person
    • focus on the facts, not the personalities of the people involved in the conversation
    • be “personable, respectful, and never angry.”
    • before posting anything, the responder should review it to ensure that it follows company guidelines and does not disclose any confidential information

The key to all of this is to educate.  Each organization needs to educate itself about the benefits and risks relating to social media.  Next, each organization needs to educate its employees so that they can help maximize those benefits and minimize the risks.  Given the pervasiveness of social media, it’s foolhardy to believe that you can centrally control every online conversation from your marketing department.  Given the popularity of social media, it’s lunacy to believe that you can stop employees from participating.  In the face of these realities, do you really believe you can regulate this to protect your organization from every danger?  Regulation alone will not protect you completely.  You need to educate.

[Photo Credit: Wetreksearch.com]

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Managing the Fire Hose

People talk about the velocity of current flows of information and inputs and say it’s like drinking from a fire hose.  That’s wishful thinking.  On far too many days, it feels more like living in the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina.  For Clay Shirky, that sense of drowning in information is a sure sign not of overload but, rather, of inadequate filters.  If he’s right (and I think he is), we have to find a better way of coping.

A great deal of daily life now consists of filtering and managing the inputs so that we can be productive.  For me, this is a matter of personal knowledge management:  the art of gathering, organizing, storing, searching and retrieving the information we need to live well.   I’m an avid  student of the subject and have discovered that one never quite masters it.  There is always a new challenge and always something to learn.  So I thought I would collect some resources in this post for myself and any others who are seeking a slightly saner way of managing the fire hose.

Gathering Information:

  • People First – If you’re looking for reliable information, you need not look any further than your friends and trusted colleagues.  Building your social network and ensuring you have accurate contact information will go a long way to helping you find what you need when you need it.  Once you know who is in your trusted network, how do you tap it?  Social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed help you stay in touch and share information you consider interesting or important.  The beautiful thing is that when you use your social networks to gather information, your friends do the filtering for you.
    • See the quick tutorial in the Common Craft video:  Social Networking in Plain English
    • Twitter does much more than simply provide updates on your friends.  It can also be a great research tool.  However, it all starts with connecting online and here is a Common Craft video to explain how:  Twitter in Plain English
  • Let the Information Come to You – Through the magic of electronic subscriptions and web feeds (e.g., Really Simple Syndication (RSS)), you no longer have to go hunting for current information.  It will come to you.  All you have to do is place your order — and that just takes a couple of clicks of your mouse — and then sit back and wait for the content to be sent to your e-mail inbox or your RSS reader (e.g., Google Reader).
    • See the quick tutorial on how RSS readers work and how to subscribe in the Common Craft video:  RSS in Plain English.

Organizing Information:

  • Create a Personal Archive – When I first started practicing law, each lawyer would create an elaborate set of folders (aka the “form file”) that housed every piece of paper that seemed interesting.  That’s where you stored precedent documents, research results, notes, etc.  The idea was that you created a private archive of useful information designed to help you work more efficiently.  We still need personal archives, but today they consist primarily of electronic content.  And, given how cheap electronic storage has become, there really are not many physical limits on how large your personal archive can be.
  • Organize Your Electronic Materials Electronically – A few years ago hand held label makers were all the rage.  They allowed you to create the illusion of order despite the underlying chaos of your system.  An electronic storage system can be every bit as chaotic and electronic labels every bit as illusory.  However, employed properly (according to a scheme that makes sense to you and that you diligently apply in a consistent fashion), these electronic labels can help you organize enormous amounts of information.  You can apply these labels via a variety of Google applications (e.g., Bookmarks, Mail, Reader, etc.) or through social bookmarking, as discussed in the next section.
  • Let Others Help You Organize Information – through social bookmarking tools (e.g., Delicious), you can enjoy the benefits of the organizational efforts of others.  When they identify interesting content and label that content electronically, that creates an organizational scheme that is available to anyone else who is interested in that content.

Storing Information:

  • People Information – In the olden days, all you needed was a simple address book (hard copy or electronic).  Now, just sign up to that giant rolodex in the sky known as LinkedIn and let others take care of keeping contact information up to date for you.
    • For information on how LinkedIn works, see this Common Craft video:  What is LinkedIn?
  • Electronic Storage Only – Don’t store information in hard copy unless it is something you really need at hand in a physical format.  Otherwise, store it all online.  If you don’t have concerns about information security, store it remotely in an externally-hosted blog or wiki, or via Google or any other comparable service provider.
  • Minimize the Number of Storage Sites – Remember that old paper form file?  The great thing was that it was the only place you had to check for information you had saved.  Now, you have to check your e-mail folders, the favorites on your web browser, your social bookmarks, your hard drive, etc.  Stop the Madness! Try to consolidate as much as you can in just one or two places online so that you don’t have to search over and over again for the information you have saved.
  • Make Your Personal Archive Portable – If you work exclusively at the office,  relying on a hard copy form file is still feasible (barely).  But if you have lots of electronic information you need to keep, then putting it in a paper file is neither convenient nor considerate of the environment.  Further, if you’re ever working at a client’s office, at home or in a hotel, you won’t have access to those paper files and then you’ll understand why so many of us believe in the value of a portable electronic archive that is accessible anywhere you have an internet connection.  And, given today’s economic realities, I should mention that having a portable personal archive means that if you should ever part company with your current employer, you can keep the archive you’ve built up so carefully, provided it is outside your employer’s firewall.  (Obviously, client confidential information should not be stored outside the firewall, but information you obtain publicly via the internet is yours to store and organize outside the firewall.)

There you are — an introduction to some personal knowledge management information and techniques.  Try them out and see what works for you.  And if you have other suggestions for effective personal KM, please leave a comment below and let us all know.

[Photo Credit:  Anxious223, Creative Commons license]

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