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Cultural inertia is the biggest problem for tech adoption

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Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, told the Better World conference at the end of April that the main barrier to technical change is cultural inertia:

Don't gauge the rate at which you will be an instant success by how quickly you can develop the technology," he told would-be entrepreneurs. "I would gauge how long it takes the collective culture--any culture--to give up something, even if they are frustrated or unhappy with it, and accept something different. The rate of emotional, intellectual, cultural, and regulatory inertia of the world is very high. It used to be much lower in this country, but even that is changing.

Whilst Kamen was talking more about hardware, exactly the same problem befalls software and webs services.

This is, in part, because of the cognitive biases that we all suffer from. Joshua Porter discussed some of these at dConstruct in 2008. He explained that we value things we own "approximately three times more than is rational" - that's ownership bias. But entrepreneurs "overvalue software that they're offering by about three times" - that's optimism bias.

But the net effect is that there's a nine-times disparity between the person who is the potential user of the software and the person who's offering the software. So there's this huge gulf between the desire of the potential user and desire of the person offering the software.

[...]

The initial product adoption is one of the largest problems facing almost every web-design team in this day and age. So, I think, looking at it from this standpoint, at least we know what we're kind of dealing with. It's a huge barrier.

So it's not cultural inertia in the sense of people just being too lazy to think about how they can improve their experience, but a much more ingrained behaviour controlled by a set of psychological short-cuts that our brain takes without us realising.

In short: Adoption is hard and we have to think very careful about how we can overcome these barriers.

Further thoughts on the effects of air travel disruption

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A couple of weeks ago I surmised that the travel disruption caused by the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull might force businesses to rethink how they manage their long-distance relationships. It might, I posited, force businesses to be more open to teleworking, teleconferencing and the use of social media for geographically dispersed teams.

Eyjafjallajökull is showing no signs of stopping. A reduced ash plume combined with favourable winds and a change in the aviation industry's policy towards acceptable ash levels allowed air travel to restart, but the last couple of days have seen Ireland and Scotland forced to close airports due to renewed ash threat. The volcano became "more explosive" with a higher, denser ash column that was swept towards Ireland and Scotland by a southeasterly wind.

I think it's reasonable to say that we may see further disruption in the UK and across Europe as this eruption continues, so it seems like a good time to remake the point: Start planning now for your business to be affected by further flight bans, especially as the holiday season creeps towards us, increasing the risk that staff may be able to get out of the country but unable to get home. Start introducing collaborative technology now. Don't wait for disaster to strike, but get your staff up to speed with new tools whilst you still have the luxury of not being in the middle of a crisis.

Harold Jarche points out that working online is different, and it takes some getting used to:

[I]t's not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide.

And Ethan Zuckerman makes a great point that we don't notice how much we rely on our infrastructure until it has gone. I like Ethan's definition of 'infrastructure':

Infrastructure is the stuff we ignore until it breaks. Then it's the stuff we're stunned to discover we're dependent on.

He then goes on to point out how ridiculous our dependence on air travel has become, to the point where we expect to be able to fly in, do a 20 minute conference presentation and fly home again. I've even done that in one single day, and it's not fun. But, Ethan says:

It's possible that Eyjafjallajökull could change this. If a 24 hour trip to London has a significant risk of becoming a 5 day trip to London, the calculus changes. As much as frequent travellers gripe about delays and cancellations, they're pretty infrequent, and mass delays like the ones currently being experienced are downright rare. If they become commonplace, I personally would expect to say no to travel lots more often and do a lot more appearances via Skype and videoconferencing.

From meetings to conferences to team-building events, unreliable air travel changes how we think about long-distance travel. It should also change how we think about working over long distances, and, thence, how we work with the people who sit right next to us.

And for anyone who thinks that this is all a big fuss over nothing, here are a couple of thoughts:

Firstly, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in December 1821, she did so in fits and starts, with two weeks of activity followed by nothing until June 1822 when she erupted again. Ash fell intermittently for months and activity continued into 1823. In June of 1823, Katla, her neighbour, erupts for four weeks. We are likely to see lulls in activity from Eyjafjallajökull, but we shouldn't interpret that to mean that the threat is over.

Secondly, by implementing social media, encouraging collaboration and discouraging unnecessary travel your business will become more efficient, more effective and will waste less money on travel. Even if Eyjafjallajökull stops erupting, you'll still be better off for having prioritised better collaboration practices.

Enterprise 2.0 Beta

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Via Anthony Mayfield, I discovered this video from KS12:

Anthony pulls two ideas out of the video: How our need to assign and take the credit for ideas can mess things up; and how sometimes information should just fade from view as it gets older, rather than being always perfectly preserved.

I pulled out another: That releasing software in beta is an important statement about the underlying attitudes towards innovation and development, and sets the scene psychologically for change and progression. In the Web 2.0 community, the 'release early, release often' ethos is well known and frequently used. Start-ups release the most basic version of their software, gather user feedback, watch for emergent behaviour and then develop the next release accordingly. Users are primed by the word 'beta' to expect problems - so they are less upset when they occur - and also to expect change. The process doesn't always go smoothly, but it is a cost-effective way of developing software and web services quickly.

Enterprise really needs to embrace the idea of beta, not just in software development but in their project planning too. The idea that everything has to be perfect at launch, that launch is an end instead of a beginning, and that addressing bugs and flaws after launch is somehow a sign of weakness is an anachronism. I can't count the number of projects where all the effort has gone into a final deadline and the results of all our hard work withered on the vine because no one thought about what to do with the work we had produced.

This is especially true of social software and social media projects where the tools are evolving faster than even the professionals can keep up. Social media projects of whatever stripe should be be seen as an ongoing process of change as the tools, ideas and culture all slowly mature. It's much more like cheese that ripens slowly than a souffle that flops if not consumed immediately.

Why I'm a fan of small talk in business

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Derek Sivers reminds us that on the other end of our keyboard there lies a real person, someone who has real feelings, who will have real reactions to what we say.

When we yell at our car or coffee machine, it's fine because they're just mechanical appliances.

So when we yell at a website or company, using our computer or phone appliance, we forget it's not an appliance, but a person that's affected.

It's dehumanizing to have thousands of people passing through our computer screens, so we do things we'd never do if they were sitting next to us.

He's right. I've recently had an experience with someone suffering a total empathy failure, who didn't seem able to put himself in my shoes and ask himself, "So, how would I feel about this situation?" It wasn't very pleasant. This chap seemed to have entirely forgotten that their was another human being, with real feelings, who was being directly affected by his poor behaviour.

But I think we can do something about the dehumanising aspect of device-mediated interactions, and that something is to use more social media, particularly the tools that encourage small talk and phatic communication. In 2004, David Weinberger said in his JOHO newsletter:

[...] Art expresses something big in something small. (If it expresses something small in something big, you leave during the intermission.) Likewise, in small talk, we express ourselves in the details of what we talk about, the words we use, the ones we don't, how far we lean forward, how tentatively or aggressively we probe for shared ground. Because all of this is implicitly presented, it tends to give a more accurate picture of who we are and what we care about than big, explicit conversations.

[...] I'm more of a constructivist than an archaeologist when it comes to social relationships. My aim isn't to expose my buried self to you. It's to build a conversation and then a relationship that eventually is so deep that we can't disentangle the roots. For that, we need lots and lots of ambiguity.

He is still spot on. I responded to him in a post on Headshift's blog, where I was writing at the time, and said:

What are the best aspects of conferences? The bits inbetween the panels and Q&A sessions where we get to chat with our peers. What is the best bit of the working day? Those watercooler conversations or lunch down the pub. Why do smokers have an advantage in the workplace? Because they take regular smoke breaks where they get the opportunities to chat and exchange scraps of information that become important later on.

Small talk is part of the 'social grooming' that is required to create and maintain social bonds. Through small talk, people reveal contextual information that they couldn't otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It's around the coffee machine that you're most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in a meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed - the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps keep the team working together instead of fostering mistrust and other destructive emotions.

Yet small talk is often despised, particularly in a work environment where one 'should' be concentrating on the task in hand, not chatting. But without small talk, without those bonds and the trust that they engender, teams fragment and become inefficient. The strong work ethic that has become prevalent since the industrial revolution has lessened tolerance for the social grooming activities upon which a sense of community depends, yet some companies spend a lot of money on team-building exercises which are really nothing more than formalised (and therefore often ineffective) opportunities for small talk.

The demise of the communal teabreak in offices has probably done more harm that good. The habit in many offices is that people work through their breaks, including lunch, and the idea of taking a short break mid-morning and mid-afternoon is very much frowned upon. People also have a tendency not to take breaks communally anymore except for the odd lunch or drinks after work. These trends decrease the opportunity for face-to-face small talk in the workplace.

Instead, people use email, instant messaging programme or external blogs or bulletin boards in order to get their fix of chitchat. The social requirement for small talk hasn't gone away, it's just moved online.

At the Social Tools for Enterprise Symposium, Euan Semple talked about his experiences implementing social software internally at the BBC. He found that a significant fraction of posts on the bulletin boards were not overtly to do with work, but either passing on experiences gained outside of work or the sort of small talk that glues communities together. But, as Euan says, "People get to trust each other through small talk, and I actively defend it against those who say it is not work related."

It's as true now as it was then.

Relevance

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A good (but too brief!) post by Mahendra about the importance of relevance. Mahendra is spot on to say that relevance is more important than big numbers and way more important than real-time. This is true not just in public-facing social media applications - it's not just Facebook that wins because it's relevant - but in Enterprise 2.0 too. Slapping up some social tools because it seems like a good idea will not get you as much traction as providing people with tools and information relevant to their needs. If I juggle a lot of incoming information on a day to day basis, I need help filtering that information and so something like social bookmarking becomes relevant. If I'm organising meetings, I need something that can help me cut down on repetitive tedious tasks like agenda writing like a wiki.

Relevance. It should underpin every social media project we do.

If you want innovation, let people do it on their own

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Mitch Anthony links to a post form PsyBlog about how groups redefine 'creativity' as 'behaviour that conforms to group norms':

When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.

Afterwards when they judged each others' work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the 'words' group rated posters with more words as more creative and the 'images' group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.

In another part of the same experiment these results were reversed when people's individuality rather than their group membership was emphasised. Creativity became all about being different from others and being inconsistent with group norms. When freed from the almost invisible shackles of the group, then, people suddenly remembered the dictionary definition of creativity: to transcend the orthodox.

If you want people to innovate, you need to give them the room to work things out for themselves. I have always thought that innovation works better when the innovator is tackling a problem that affects them on a regular basis, an itch that they just have to scratch. Certainly in web innovation it seems to work best that way.

How do we best enable individuals to innovate? Simply being able to think through their problems and propose solutions might be a good starting point. Innovation isn't, after all, about massive step changes - although they do happen they are really quite rare - but about incremental improvements. If one person saves his or her department of 12 people just half an hour a week, that's still going to add up: to 44.5 person-days per year, to be precise. Now, if you extend that to a company of 10,000 people, each saving just half an hour a week, that's 37,000+ person-days per year.

Social media can probably achieve that simply by shifting some types of email to more appropriate platforms. Think of a what a concerted drive to help people make life easier - aka innovate - for themselves in their day to day life might achieve.

The Blogger/Evangelist Lifecycle

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For years I've been talking about the Blogger Lifecycle - the way in which business bloggers react to the act of business blogging. Last week this topic featured in a workshop I was running so I finally drew the graph that has been in my head for the last several years.

Blogger/Evangelist lifecycle

Based loosely on the Gartner Hype Cycle, it tracks the emotional response of business bloggers and social media evangelists as they develop their online presence. In reality, people's response to the act of blogging (or other social media activity) varies depending on a number of factors, including:

  • The evangelist's personality
  • Amount and quality of reader feedback they get, e.g. comments
  • Quality of feedback from peers/managers
  • Time pressure
  • Success of venture as they perceive it

In my experience, evangelists tend to start at either:

1. Scepticism/Uncertainty: They are unsure of themselves and/or of the value of social media.

or

2. Enthusiasm: They are keen to engage with social media.

As the social media project progresses, the novelty wears off and the evangelist is faced with the reality that:

  • Social media takes time and effort
  • It can be hard to get comments and feedback
  • It can be hard to become a part of the wider community
  • Enthusiasm doesn't always result in action

That last point is a broad one: It's not just the enthusiasm of the blogger we're talking about, but of their readers, colleagues and managers too. Although the blogger might be getting enthusiastic responses from readers, if those responses don't result in an action, e.g. discussion in the comments or even sales calls, it can still be demoralising. And if enthusiasm by colleagues and managers isn't matched by relevant actions on their part, e.g. helping promote the blog, that can also damage the blogger's sense of how things are going.

Lack of comments/feedback can make the evangelist feel isolated and unappreciated, undermining their enthusiasm. Even as an experienced blogger, I still suffer from this. Starting a new blog these days is really very hard and if you get no feedback or, worse, negative comments it's easy to feel disillusioned. And at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment is when a blogger or social media evangelist is most likely to quit.

This is the point at which the good social media manager steps in and supports the blogger/evangelist, encouraging them to carry on, helping them refine their blogging style and giving them tips on how to promote it. Evangelists whose work is appreciated internally, who are supported by peers and management, and who feel that they are producing something of value are more likely to persist with their social media work during these difficult periods.

Evangelists are subject to the same time pressures as anyone else and if they are are not completely committed to their social media work they will find it too easy to sideline it. Successful evangelists find ways to embed their social media activities into their work day and create new habits that support those activities.

If I were running an evangelist programme, I'd create internal communities of practice and encourage evangelists to support one another, share best practice, and sense-check each other's reactions to difficult situations. This kind of peer support has proved very helpful in some of the projects I've worked on, and often it's so useful that it springs up all by itself as the evangelists naturally start to help each other. Giving them a place to talk right from the beginning jumpstarts that process.

Now, you might wonder why all this matters. So what if someone starts a blog or a LinkedIn Group and doesn't carry it on? Blogs die all the time... Well, frankly, I think that abandoned blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn or Facebook Groups do not reflect well on the company. If I turn up at a Twittter page or a blog and see that it's hasn't been updated in months, it tells me that the company just doesn't care about communicating with its customers, which I interpret to mean that it's not going to care about me either.

Even in a professional context, using social media is an experience that involves human emotions. It's easy to lapse into the 'we're all professionals here, emotions are irrelevant' attitude, but that's clearly nonsense. Business is made of people and people are emotional. Pretending we aren't doesn't get us anywhere useful. Acknowledging that we all have ups and downs, that social media is a long term investment requiring long term emotional investment, and supporting that investment are essential to the ultimate success of any social media project. Company ignore the emotional at their peril.

Social media gives people a voice

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I have laryngitis. Whilst yesterday I sounded a bit like Ferdy (Ricky Gervais) in Stardust after his voice has been turned into that of a seagull, but today I have nary a squeak. Yet because the vast majority of my daily interactions are via social tools such as Twitter, IM, wikis and blogs, most people won't even realise that I have no voice.

That's a good reminder that social media gives voice to the voiceless, sometimes quite literally. It enables conversations that couldn't otherwise happen and builds relationships and trust between colleagues and strangers alike. Sometimes these technologies may seem frivolous, but they can also be incredibly powerful and empowering. It's important we not lose sight of that bigger picture in our search for ROI, metrics and business cases.

What does a social media consultant do anyway?

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Quite a while ago I stumbled on this blog post, I am not a social media guru, by Jon Swanson. I think I know what Jon is trying to say, that it's a mistake to focus on social tools rather than the goals you want to use social tools to achieve. But I think there's a thread of misunderstanding rippling through the post that I'd like to unpick. Jon says:

[...] I am not a social media guru.

I'm not talking about the self-identified kind, the person who is selling themselves by proclaiming their expertise while not using technology. No, I'm talking about people who have made a discipline of knowing how to use social media effectively regardless of the message. I love them. I read them. But I'm not one of them.

When it comes to social media, I'm a social media chaplain. When I'm doing what I love to do, social media is a tool, not a subject. It's the method, not the goal.

Genuine social media experts do not focus on the tools but on what the tools can achieve. When someone comes to me and says, "I want Facebook for my intranet", my first question is always, "What are you trying to achieve?" Hopefully, that will lead us into an interesting conversation wherein I unpick what they need from what they want. That involves understanding where they are right now, where they want to be and whether social tools can help them get there.

Only after they have answered these questions to my satisfaction will I tell them Facebook-for-their-intranet is not what they actually need and we'll start discussing more sensible possibilities. But every discussion about tools has to be preceded by a conversation about goals.

(This leads me to an aside: As a social media consultant, my job is not to know how every last little bit of social software works, or each and every last little bit of functionality that's available. If I tried to amass that sort of knowledge with the vast array of tools - and versions of tools - currently available I'd go mad pretty quickly. Tools change faster than I can keep up, and it's more important that I know that the best-of-breed blogging platform is Wordpress, rather than the name of every last plug-in available on Wordpress. That's what Google is for.)

Knowing how to use social media effectively means understanding how to use the tools to achieve goals, it doesn't mean focusing only on the tools. There are valuable conversations to be had about the tools, of course. With clients, once we've discussed goals we'll discuss strategy, which includes which tools to use and when. Then we need to think about how we're going to implement that strategy so that's when we'll talk in real depth about tools and how best to use them.

With other social media people, the conversation about tools is more about learning from other people's experiences, trying to keep abreast of what's new and good, what works, what problems we've faced and how we've solved them (if we've solved them!). So the conversation between social media people can on occasion get quite tools-y, when it's not being strategy-y of course!

This division of conversation, this talking differently to clients than to colleagues, is no different in social media than any other profession. When you're talking to other practitioners, you geek out a little bit.

But I think that there's an underlying tension to Jon's post that ripples through the comments and which I have seen in the wider social media world for years. Social media is supposed to be about egalitarianism. We are all equal, we all have an equal voice and our opinions are all equally valid. Under this model of social media, the guru or expert, is stepping outside of the egalitarian frame and taking on the mantle of superiority which is not supposed to exist.

The truth is that some people do know more than others. Specialisation is a fundamental aspect of human community, enabled by agriculture and now essential to a functioning society. The fact that I have spent six years working as a social media consultant and eight years blogging gives me an edge over people who've been doing this for six months. We accept this in every other walk of life, yet for some reason it makes people queasy when such separations being to emerge in social media.

We should not do people down because they have learnt more than others about a particular topic. Equally, we should not engage in false modesty by denying our expertise in social media. Experts are useful and being - or becoming - an expert in something is a laudable thing, not a mark of shame.

Do you have space for incubators?

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Robert Biswas-Diener, who studies the psychology of happiness, writes on CNN.com about the difference between people who procrastinate and those who incubate:

Procrastinators may have a habit of putting off important work. They may not ever get to projects or leave projects half finished. Importantly, when they do complete projects, the quality might be mediocre as a result of their lack of engagement or inability to work well under pressure.

[...]

In a pilot study with 184 undergraduate university students, we were able to isolate specific items that distinguished incubators from the rest of the pack. Incubators were the only students who had superior-quality work but who also worked at the last moment, under pressure, motivated by a looming deadline.

This set them apart from the classic "good students," the planners who strategically start working long before assignments are due, and from the procrastinators, who wait until the last minute but then hand in shoddy work or hand it in late.

I can certainly relate to the concept of the incubator. Whilst I like to have a long run up on important projects, they almost always end up left until the last minute.

This is problematic in a business context, where the slow-and-steady approach is the assumed default. Most project planning, for example, assumes that people will hit intermediary deadlines regularly throughout a project. Yet sometimes, particularly in areas where the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet such as in tech, this can be a really bad thing because work done and decisions made early in the project can be out of date by the end of the project, ensuring the final deliverables are themselves obsolete as soon as completed.

I do think that social media can help with this, letting incubators share their thoughts, their incubation process with their team and manager without having to hit artificial deadlines that ultimately have a negative impact on the final result. I did this myself with a big report that I wrote last year. We agreed that I would not provide a "first draft", but would instead put each section up on a wiki for the team to look at as it was completed. That meant that, come the "let's assess your progress" meeting, I didn't have anything much to show, but my final draft was something I was very proud of.

The major issue with that experience was that I was quite happy with the approach, it being one I am used to taking, but the people I was working with did not always seem to wrap their heads around it. Such an approach changes how the project should be managed, with ongoing communications the norm instead of sporadic, milestone-based catch-ups. If managers struggle with this different style, then they are unlikely to get the best out of incubator-type personalities.

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