Interview: Enterprise social media needs to transcend IT, says Euan Semple

Social media expert Euan Semple warns against enterprise social media being suckered into an IT project

At the turn of the millennium, Euan Semple was one of a constellation of speakers on the knowledge management conference circuit, along with IBM’s Dave Snowden, Demos founder Charlie Leadbeater, and Gerry McGovern, from Nua, in Ireland, among others.

Semple would not use the term ‘knowledge management’ himself, these days, but the former BBC knowledge sharing advocate draws lessons from the partial eclipse of Knowledge Management (KM) in the early 2000s.

“It was a first wave. And we're still heading somewhere good. I was attracted to the commonsense ideas behind knowledge management, sharing information and collaborating. Unfortunately it morphed into being about IT systems of record, consultancy and document management.

“There is the same sort of risk with big data: that it becomes about ‘busyness’. But KM events still exist, and it is enjoying a renaissance. I don't use it as a term, but many do”.Semple is speaking, as a keynote, at the IRM UK conference next week in London, on Enterprise Data and Business Intelligence. His talk, ‘Big Data and Social - a Match Made in Heaven or Hell?’ will also draw on his post-BBC experience at Nokia, The World Bank and NATO, and will address, he said, in an interview in advance of the conference, openness and trust, the power of networks, and the ideology of algorithms.

“The ideology of algorithms captures the fact that our lives are steered by what we get to see by virtue of say Google’s search algorithm, Facebook's news feeds and so on. Those algorithms are not neutral. People will become more aware of how it works and why it matters.” he said. “You need to think about the trust issues with the algorithms you write; it’s not just a technological issue”.

Semple comes back to this latter point as a touchstone. There is now a school of thought, it was suggested to him, that says we now have the tools to realise the promise of knowledge management, especially with social media and mobile technology combining.

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“I don't think it is a technological problem. The biggest risk of deploying an enterprise social network is getting suckered into an IT project. Resist”.

He reflected on the recent Scottish Referendum, which “made a lot of people think. It is not just the Scots who are feeling disaffected. There are more people who are living a more connected and more thoughtful life outside of work, online. The Scottish referendum's been a good example of that”.

But he does not advocate a techno-utopian vision, like those common in Silicon Valley. “Disruption is not necessarily a good thing. European attitudes and senses of civic responsibility have something to offer internet culture, with its teenage American enthusiasm. This is especially true of Britain. The Bishop of Buckinghamshire [Alan Wilson]  is very active online, for instance. That whole ‘Women’s Institute, Church of England’ fabric has a real strength in England”.

Social media is more often associated with so-called Generation Y or the even younger ‘millennials’, who have never known a world innocent of mobile phones and the internet. But Semple will not countenance this common wisdom. “No. I've seen teenagers brought onstage and regarded as if they were part of an anthropological experiment. I think is more about outlook. There is a generational facility with the technologies, true, but that’s all”.

Social media analytics could miss the mark

He said that a certain technology fetish blinds business and society over and over again. “Big data and the cloud are the next lot of technological jargon. Using big data to know more about your customers? Well if you're not part of the networks that are generating that data you won't understand what it means. Where's your leverage to do something with it?

Social media analytics technology is in danger of missing the point. It does give companies something, but they may misinterpret if they don't understand, say, flame wars and trolls. There are a lot of digital agencies helping companies now. But they don’t necessarily get it either, often thinking their own comfort zones of channels and targets”.

And he argues that big data is often misconstrued: “The idea is big data is about big corporations but actually it's our data! I'm very interested in the whole optimised self idea  -- Fitbit stats, and so on. The company that I would trust that could do something valuable with that data would do well”.

Corporate IT departments are often, in Semple’s analysis, part of the problem. “We do still have command and control structures in corporate organisations, backed up by IT systems. In that context a lot of this [collaborative] stuff looks peripheral. But look at the time wasted on bureaucratic procedures. People will spend days writing a 40 page report that no one will read.

“But IT projects, many of which never deliver, have at least made people sit down and think about what it is they are trying to do in the first place. I think it is all about thinking harder about what we are trying to do rather than getting busy or being seduced by the latest technology”.

He said IT underestimates the animosity coming from the business. “Although these are smart people, they are smart in a certain way, and are not the world's best listeners. Nor do I think they are opportunistic or entrepreneurial. They do want to fix things. And they do feel hurt [when rejected]. And there is a naïveté [as a user] doing everything on your iPad”.

For corporate organisations, embracing digital change has to be a matter of balance, he contends. “There is always a spectrum of people who are more confident living in the future and those who are not -- who are charged with keeping the status quo stable, in organisations”.

But traditional firms do need to strive for agility to survive. It is as important as that, he said. “Take accounting firms – they are at risk from internet competition, as are lawyers. Conventional knowledge jobs are at risk of automation. If you are a below-average copywriter I can get an algorithm to do it better. The more you are wedded to one business model or set of products the more at risk you are”.

He cited one of his own former organisations as an example of where more conservative forces can prevail too much. “At the BBC, some of us were banging on about the potential of the internet ten years ago, but a certain blindness to doing things differently within the corporation frustrated that. Many good people just gave up and moved on”.

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