Unsociable Uses of Social Media

There’s been lots of negative reaction here and elsewhere in the blogosphere to the notion of mandatory blogging. (See the comments from Patrick Lambe and Doug Cornelius to my earlier posts, Knowledge Management Made Easier and Knowledge Management Made Mandatory. Also see Doug’s post, Making Blogging Mandatory for Knowledge Management.) And, I’m not without sympathy. Nonetheless, I feel strangely compelled to play devil’s advocate a little longer.

We’re already seeing the mandatory use of social media tools within enterprises. For example, project leaders have begun insisting that team members provide project status reports via a wiki. Members of their project team don’t have a choice — they have to use the wiki to record the pertinent information. Similarly, there have been determined efforts to replace most e-mail communication within a group by the mandatory use of a wiki.

This is the thin edge of the wedge. Social media provides useful tools and businesses are going to want to promote the use of these tools for the sake of efficiency within the organization. And, given the nature of bureaucracies within most organizations, if the social media tools are being used for mission critical purposes, that use will be mandatory rather than optional. This is where business use parts company with the extra-curricular use of social media tools.

While it would be lovely to have the use of these tools be perfectly voluntary, how do you get the level of participation you need to meet business goals? What if you’re dealing with a mission critical matter? Are you willing to rely solely on the input of volunteers? What if the folks with the relevant information aren’t inclined to participate?

Years ago, the Doonesbury cartoon strip portrayed President George H.W. Bush as an ineffectual invisible entity who had an active “evil twin” named Skippy. It may well be that the purely voluntary form of social media also has an “evil twin” (at least as far as social computing purists are concerned), and that twin is the particular form of social media deployed within enterprises. We may not like all the ways that businesses put these tools to work, but at least they are beginning to use the tools. And, if they get anxious enough about their investment in these tools they will make use of the tools mandatory. This is how it ever has been and ever will be.

There, I think I’ve nearly exhausted my compulsion to play devil’s advocate on this topic.

So now, let me end by observing that when this conversation started heating up in the blogosphere, I was under the impression that my major crime was that I had unwittingly gored a sacred cow. What I seemed to be hearing at the outset was that while the mandatory use of wikis within an organization was acceptable, the mandatory use of blogs was not. This puzzled me. Was it just that bloggers were extra protective of their particular social media tool?

As the conversation evolved, however, it became clearer that the better basis for objecting was not the mandatory use of these tools per se, but rather the placement of these tools outside the regular work flow. (For an extremely helpful explanation of this concept, see Mark Gould‘s post, Going with the flow, and the accompanying comments.) So, to riff on Tim Leberecht’s proposal, if blogs were used by a project team to capture written conversations among themselves on a specific theme in an organized fashion, most of the blogging naysayers should concede that this is an acceptable form of mandatory blogging because it is “in-the-flow.” However, if blogs were used as diaries to be filled out at the end of each day, for example, this would be an unacceptable form of mandatory blogging because it is “above-the-flow” and is, therefore, an added burden that does violence to social computing principles.

For knowledge managers, the key is to deploy these tools initially so that they are in-the-flow. This should allow a rich repository of information to grow organically without any additional effort on the part of the knowledge workers. However, the contrarian in me says that there is still a place for social media tools above-the-flow. As Mark Gould observed, that’s where users step back from their day-to-day tasks to reflect and codify what they have learned. With that reflection comes an even richer source of information that is so valuable within a KM system.

Social media nirvana is one where each of us is free to choose our respective level of engagement. That type of freedom rarely exists within any organized structures. Why did we think it would be different when social media entered the workplace?

4 thoughts on “Unsociable Uses of Social Media

  1. Very astute Mary. It’s often worth pushing back at shoot from the hip responses just to get that deeper insight.I think the “in the flow” uses (eg blogs as project journals/records) are perfectly fine – mandatory seems to hard a word even here though, it’s just the way the job is done. (It does sound a little harsh to tell someone who routinely files reports as part of their job that it’s “mandatory”. It’s just their job.)But the push back, I think is not just from the fact that keeping a personal reflection and learning journal is “above the flow”. It’s also the suggestion that this can/should be used as a mandatory device to capture tacit knowledge. Personal reflection and learning journals are just that – personal. Some people blog their personal journals publicly, most don’t. The voluntarism of it is where the value lies – as Dave Snowden says, knowledge cannot be conscripted it can only be volunteered. To make this kind of blogging mandatory destroys the value because it’s no longer a spontaneous act of giving arising out of personal interest and insight – it’s a “required” activity which will be judged on external criteria (these come with making something mandatory), and which will very probably be gamed in order to meet those criteria, losing in most cases a connection with the real person underneath.Let’s say all managers are told “you will blog every day”. I know from personal experience that blogging frequencies and rhythms differ widely from person to person. Sometimes you need a dry period to be able to resume fruitful blogging. Sometimes you just don’t have anything to say, in which case it is far better to stay silent. Individual sharing characteristics in mode, medium, frequency vary enormously simply militate against a standard that is applied to all.So this isn’t just a question of the integration of work. It’s also an important question of power, autonomy and the space to share voluntarily.

  2. Mary -Playing a devil’s advocate trying to achieve social media nirvana. That is a tough task.In-the-flow blogging is good and can be mandatory. I whole heatedly encourage that change in process. (Although wikis are a common alternative for those in-the-flow tasks.)Out of the flow blogging is also good, but should not be mandatory. (Encouraged? yes!!)One of the reasons I continue to blog is to spend some time each day thinking about my job and writing about what I do or want to do. But not everyone wants to do that. If you make it mandatory, how do you enforce the rule. I see the rise of blogging police stalking the ivy-covered walls in the black uniforms, wielding truncheons, and badgering those who have not externalized their thoughts.

  3. Doug and Patrick – A common theme seems to be emerging here: there’s a willingness to support an employer who requires the use of social media tools for in-the-flow activities, but not for above-the-flow activities. Those must be entirely voluntary and may not be mandated by the employer.Here’s my question: given that everyone agrees that the reflection and analysis that occurs in the above-the-flow activities is incredibly valuable, why shouldn’t an employer strongly encourage or even require employees to participate? It might be the incentive some folks need to stop sleepwalking through life.- Mary

  4. I’m fine with strong encouragement. As soon as you require it, the vailidity, richness, authenticity of the content all come into question, and there is no way to authenticate whether it’s the real deal. This is because knowledge sharing can be faked. The best (not absolute) guarantee of authenticity and value in this type of communication is its voluntary nature.Dan Ariely’s recent book “Predictably Irrational” surveys some of the social psychology research about what happens when you make voluntary acts transactional.

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