Author Archives: b0bryan

Information Society

Do you remember this band from the 80’s?  There’s no real relation between this and the article, Privacy, Trust and Disclosure Online” by Schofield and Johnson. but they included the following quote, so I couldn’t resist:

 

 

At no time have privacy issues taken on greater significance than in recent years, as technological developments have led to the emvergence of an “information society” capable of gathering, storing and disseminating increasing amounts of data about individuals. (p.16)

The focus of the article is on personal privacy and all the various aspects of that, such as psychological, physical, and interactional (p. 14), but one area that really impacts us is organizational privacy.  By that I mean, the ability of the employees of our customers to retrie ve and share information without exposing it to our other customers (their competitors).  We would love to implement the kind of communication that social media provides, but our customers are very concerned about keeping their proprietary information away from their competitors.  Even just letting other customers see the kinds of questions they are asking could give away some key competitive details.

It is hard enough to really understand the difference between your actual privacy and perceived privacy as an individual, but I think it is probably even harder for people to make decisions in this area when they are making them on behalf of their employer. This might be the single biggest obstacle to implementing social media in business to business (B2B) communication.

Resistance is Futile

We are the Borg. Resistance as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.

– The Borg

At work my employee computer ID is QA4268.  If someone logs into our CMS and wants to search for something that I have created, they can’t use my name, they have to know that QA4268 is me–or that I’m QA4268.  Hmmm . . . now that I think about it, that is a teeny bit disturbing, which brings me to the article, Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations, by Steven Katz and Vicki Rhodes.  In it they state, “Have you ever noticed how some systems or procedures at work–say, a time tracking system, registration process, or evaluation procedure–are more adapted to themselves, more focused on their own efficiency and operation, than on the human being who is the ostensible object or user?” (p. 235)

They even follow this quote up with a specific mention to most CMSs and how they are often guilty of this–the one where I work is no exception.  The software has all the technical capability that we require and is capable of fully delivering on everything we ask of it, but in many ways it ignores the requirements and limitations of the people that need to use it.  For example, almost all the information about how information is related to each other is presented in lists or tabular reports.  While this does provide all the detail, people are visual beings that work best when they can visualize relationships.  The CMS asks us to bend people to the machine rather than bending the machine to the people.

The problem, as Katz and Rhodes, describe it is that you can’t separate people and technology when defining processes, procedures and tools.  More and more we are merging with our technology (both literally and figuratively) to become some sort of hybrid.  Katz and Rhodes point to examples like automatic spell-checkers and Bluetooth headsets as examples (p. 240).  The point, as I see it, is that we need to view the relationship between people and technology more holistically.  When we say that we want to implement a CMS, we can’t just select a tool and then throw people at it.  Instead of a CMS we should be implementing a CME (Content Management Ecosystem).  To get the most out of these technical relations, we need to make sure that the technology complements our people and that our human skills fully exploit the capabilities of our technology.

Culture Clash: Being Everything to Everyone

Once you have fully investigated your audience and considered their various cultural needs and preferences, you can fully comprehend how screwed you are and how utterly futile your attempts to please them will be.  Given that most if not all technical information is delivered via the internet now, you just can’t presume to know where your audience is coming from–literally or figuratively (Blakeslee, p. 2o1).   And, even if you could narrow down the geographic location, your quest could be further hampered by differences in gender or the device used to retrieve your content, as Kenichi Ishii describes in his article, Implications of Mobility: The uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life.

All the authors that we read this week–Blakeslee, Ishii, and Thatcher–talk about how important it is it understand the differences between your audience segments, but unless you have a lot of time or a lot of writers, you have to make compromises.  In fact, unless you know for sure that your audience is from a Particularist or a Universalist culture (Thatcher, p. 177) you are going to make some people unhappy.

According to Thatcher, a universalist approach, “. . . the default approach is to establish rule that define what is good and right regardless of the social standing of the individual” (p. 176).  While in a particularist approach, “. . . the default approach is to apply rule and decisions depending on relations and context” (p. 177).  So, as a technical communicator I can either choose an approach that treats everyone with respect regardless of their standing in society or a company, or I can try to write 12 versions of the content to reflect where each individual sits in the pecking order.  Thank you very much, but I’m writing it once.

I like the idea of respecting cultural differences, but the internet is dominated by the universalist, western cultures that created it.  The world understand the voice of the internet and has come to accept it.  I would even venture to guess that that universalist voice has started to change the cultures of the people that use it.  Perhaps that is why some governments (China, Iran, (formerly) Egypt) fear it so much and seek to control it.  Maybe people that are addressed with respect regardless of their standing start to demand that from others within their society.

Here’s another problem I have with the idea of bending our writing style to suit the expected audience:

  • We don’t often know the audience for certain.
  • The audience often exists in many countries.
  • What if we add another customer later that comes from another culture?
  • If we use different styles for what we write, how do we reuse content to single-source new deliverables?

It surprises me that some of the articles mention that more and more content is delivered on the internet which means that we have no idea how or where it will be used, but they still advocate spending a lot of time investigating the audience.  How are we supposed to do this exactly?  The internet may not be a culture in and of itself, but it does have a voice and set expectations.  How about we just go with that and spend more time creating better content.

I liked how Blakeslee described looking at the roles the audience members play to ensure that content meets the needs of that  ROLE.  I am 100% behind performing task analysis to create role-based content.  I think that makes way more sense than trying to figure out how you should write a procedure differently for someone in Mexico as opposed to someone in Germany.  If we can’t understand the user, we should focus on the use.

LinkedIn: Leveling the Playing Field for Workers

I think I like LinkedIn even more than FaceBook.  From 9 to 5, there is no site that is more useful than LinkedIn.  I think that what a lot of people miss is that LinkedIn isn’t just a job search site.  Yes, you can create a resume-like profile and actively search for work, but it is more than that.

As Maureen Crawford-Hentz stated in Erik Qualman’s book Socialnomics, “Social networking technology is absolutely the best thing to happen to recruiting–ever” (p. 228).  I’m not a big job hopper, but I like to keep my options open so I used to load my resume to the usual job sites.  Occasionally, I would get an email from a recruiter, or I might check the listings on the site, but that is just about all I ever got out of it.  I checked those site maybe two or three times a year.

On LinkedIn, however, I check it two or three times a week.  Not because I’m looking for a job, but because I want to check-in on old colleagues, or see stories that are related to my skills and interests, or post a question to one of the groups that I’m a part of.  It doesn’t just connect recruiters and job seekers, it connects like-minded professionals with each other.  And, the recruiters get the benefit of seeing all that interaction and can use LinkedIn members to help them to recruit the right person.

A couple of months ago I got a message from a recruiter about a job that wasn’t really right for me, but I knew someone that was a perfect fit so I talked to her and gave her my friend’s info.  She called him, and within a week he had an interview.  He was actively looking for a job the “old-fashioned” way and never saw this lead, I wasn’t looking at all and it found me, and I found him for the recruiter.

Also, as Qualman points out, job seekers also have the power now to get inside information about potential employers.  If I don’t know someone that works for a company, there’s a pretty good chance that I know someone that knows someone.

For the important relationships in our lives–family and friends–social media could be responsible for decreasing the depth of our relationships, but it actually increases the depth of most professional relationships.  In the past I would have had zero relationship with most of the people that left the company I work for, so any connection is an improvement.

As we have all probably noticed, there isn’t much in the way of corporate loyalty.  Layoffs are a regular occurrence and sites like LinkedIn can help to level the playing field for employees.  If companies can walk away from their employees  at a moment’s notice, it’s only fair that employees should have the same freedom.

The Key to Content Management

Content management and Content Management Systems (CMS) have been around for a pretty long time.   The group I work in has been trying to make it work–with mixed results–for more than a decade.  It is a really big change and old habits die hard in technical communication.  Part of the reason that it has taken so long for CM to take hold has to to with usability and complexity of the CMS products, but part of it might also be that it really requires social media to make it work.

Geoffrey Moore provides a bit of an explanation when he says, “What will enable this transformation are Systems of Engagement that will overlay and complement our deep investments in systems of record. Systems of engagement begin with a focus on communications” (p. 4).  The traditional CMS products that have been deployed over the last ten or more years are absolutely “systems of record”.  They cost a fortune and lack the simplicity and ease-of-use that we have all come to expect from the consumer products that we use–iPads Google, Xbox, and smart phones.

Rather than bending the technology to meet the needs of the people that were supposed to use it, we just spent a lot of time and money bending our people with training and detailed processes.  It didn’t work out very well.  And once our workforce started shrinking and the amount of outsourcing increased, it worked even worse, since no one wanted to spend a lot of money training people in India.   Also, bad internet connections to our remote locations made the systems a nightmare to use.  It was so slow that some people would check-out and download all their content and then work off of their laptop, which  totally defeats the point of a CMS.

Hart-Davidson points to improvements in networking technology and the internationalization of technical communication as trends that have lead to the emergence of CM (p. 129).  I think maybe those two things are not unrelated.  In “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, he points to the huge investments in the late 90’s that were made to stretch fiber-optic cables across the ocean.  This high-speed internet connection made it possible for this internationalization in the first place.

While all of this history is interesting, I think the most exciting thing for technical communicators is that while all of this is a threat to the traditional role of TC people as writers (Hard-Davidson p. 129), it has created the opportunity for us to expand into the field of Information Architecture.  As the content we used to write becomes a commodity that is broken down into chunks and stuffed into a CMS, we have the opportunity to design the information experience for our customers and assemble those chunks into new deliverables with new contexts.  Salvo and Rosinski describe this new role pretty well, “Applying a mapping metaphor to the act of designing, or creating sitemaps of documents and virtual spaces, encourages practitioners to ask complex questions about their audiences needs and their communication purposes” (p 115).

I think that social media can help act as a catalyst for this change by making it easier and more natural to use these brutally unnatural CMS’s.  If you haven’t read the article by Steven Whittemore that was referenced by Hart-Davidson, it absolutely nails all the reasons why today’s CM products are so ineffective (I used it in another paper).  Current systems meet the technical requirements to store and manage content, but they completely ignore the human requirements to find and make sense of that information.  Maybe social media can be the key that unlocks all this potential.

A Relationship?

I’m not sure that the word “relationship” means what it used to mean.  If I’m interpreting things correctly, young people shun traditional romantic relationships–they just “hook-up”.  However, according to Qualman, “Consumers today, in particular Millennials, and Generation Zers don’t want to be shouted at, they’d rather have conversations and steady ongoing relationships with companies” (p. 141).  So, we don’t want to have relationships with people, but we do want to have a relationship with our muffler shop?

I have a couple problems with this. First, when in the entire history of humanity have people preferred to be shouted at.  Just because social media offers an alternative to traditional in-your-face advertising doesn’t mean it wasn’t always obnoxious.  Second,  do people really want ongoing relationships with the companies that make the products they use?  I don’t want to treat companies as if they were friends: It demeans the whole concept of friendship.  When I contact a company it is either because it is broken or because I can’t figure something out.  I want to locate the information I need (wherever that is) and get on with my life.

Qualman does a very good job of explaining the technological possibilities of social media, but I think that Sherry Turkle does a much better job of evaluating the moral implications in her book Alone Together.  For example, I like the examples Qualman provides about the Fantasy Football Today podcast.  The producers of the podcast integrated advertising into the content rather than just using a plain commercial.  And they also used the “Tom Sawyer Approach” to leverage their audiences’ desire to participate to provide them with free content (p. 143).   He also makes a very good point when he says that, “Users generally want to be communicated with through the medium in which you met to begin with” (p. 172).

I don’t expect him to explore the moral issues around the move to social media (it isn’t the point of his book), but he never hints at the potentially negative aspects and consistently argues for the benefits.  Yes, there are some really cool possibilities with these new media, but there are limitations and trade-offs with every media and I think it hurts his credibility a little bit when he fails to mention them. Qualman even makes this point when he says, “By pointing out your flaws, people will give more credence when you point out your strengths” (p. 138).

Obama’s Blackberry

I had almost forgotten that there was a controversy about whether or not President Obama could keep his Blackberry until Qualman mentioned it.  According to Qualman the reason they were going to take it away was that all his messages would become part of the public record, “The reason for the discussion about whether Obama would need to relinquish his BlackBerry did not center on overuse. Rather, it revolved around the fact that his text messaging, tweets, status updates, and e-mails would be part of the public record” (p. 77).

But that isn’t the whole truth I think.  This is a little off subject, but Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of the BlackBerry, has a proprietary email service that runs on servers located in Canada.  Every single BlackBerry message flows through these servers.  That’s why when they go down it takes down the service of every single BlackBerry.  As I remember it, the bigger concern was the security issues around having the private messages of the President of the United States being sent to servers in another country and the fear that some hacker would be able to tap into it.

I don’t think that people were afraid that he’d text a mistress (cough, cough, Tiger Woods).  I think everyone believes that he is savvy enough to use a BlackBerry (or other device) intelligently, but it wasn’t as simple as Qualman made it sound.  Even with GPS turned off on your phone, the cellular provider can still determine roughly where you are based on which cell sites your device is connected to–a potentially bad thing for the President of the United States.

Ok, rant over.  Other than that, I think that Qualman made a lot of valid points about how social media really propelled Obama into the White House.  The way he was able to connect in a personal and direct way with voters energized people in a way that robo-calls and junk mail can’t.  Also, I think he is the first President to really understand and leverage the power of the internet to gather analytical data about what people are thinking about at a specific moment in time.  Why conduct polls to find out what people are saying they think, when you can go to the internet and see what they are ACTUALLY thinking and doing by analyzing search phrases and page hits?

Qualman used the flu to illustrate his point, “Comparing the CDC data to Google’s data showed that Google’s insight was roughly two weeks ahead of the CDC” (p. 71).  If Google can get a two week jump on the CDC, then how much of a jump did the Obama campaign have on McCain?

Symbolic-Analytic Work

About four or five years ago I remember having a cup of coffee with a lady I used to work with.  She had a PhD in English and was working in our group as a Writer/Editor.  We were discussing the current state of Technical Communication and where we thought things were headed.  She had spent her entire career in academia and had recently joined our company.  We had already started to go through a lot of layoffs and she wanted my thoughts on which jobs were the safest.

I told her that I thought she would be safer if she moved away from editing and took on more writing.  I told her that I thought management would start to cut anything that was not directly related to pushing manuals out the door.  She burst into tears.  She loved the English language and I think it kind of broke her heart that editors would be seen as non-essential.

She left our group and within a year we had no editors–we still don’t.  And now even the writing is going away to places like India or Poland.  I think that the group I’m a part of has shrunk by about 75% since 2000.  Two weeks ago the guy that hired me 15 years ago and the writer that mentored me both left the company.  Whatever TC was when I started, it is no more.  As Stanley Dicks explains:

Writing or editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators.  However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored.  (p. 54)

According to Dicks we need to find ways to do more “symbolic-analytic work” that has more strategic value to the companies we work for (p. 53).  This could be the old standby of doing more with less, but I think that most companies have gone about as far as they can with that.  If it can be outsourced, it pretty much has been

So what’s left then?  Where I work, there are still some people that write manuals, but they probably also lead a team of people in India that write most of the content.  These writers may also develop e-learning and flash-based tutorials.  I think that just about everyone else is dedicated to figuring out how we can use new tools and technologies to communicate to customers more effectively (and, of course, more cheaply).

That means figuring out how to make single-sourcing and content reuse work using DITA and a CMS.   For more than a year now I have been leading a team within our organization to move from a book/course based model to a topic-based model.  This includes things like:

  • Change management – How do you get people to buy-in to making such a huge change?
  • Development process – What happens to the process when we stop assigning book/course and start assigning topics or lessons?
  • Graphics – If people are reusing graphic content, how do we make sure it has a consistent visual language?
  • Metadata – How do we tag the content that goes into the CMS so people can find it, manage it, and reuse it?
  • Templates and Usage – What kinds of authoring templates and guidelines need to be created to ensure that content authoring is consistent?
  • Curriculum – What training needs to be created to bring people up-to-speed on this new way of working and all the new tools?
  • Content Structure – How do we organize all this information within a CMS so that it makes sense?
  • Pilot Project – What projects do we want to put choose for the initial testing of these new tools and processes and how do we use the findings to adjust our approach?

All of this is stuff that is strategic and that can’t be outsourced.  Doing this right could mean huge improvements for the customer as well as huge efficiency gains for the company.  Before this, I used to write books and my life was predictable, but I was so bored.  This is really scary and stressful, but it is exciting and meaningful in a way that my old job wasn’t.

I think that is what Dicks was getting at with his article.  Even though technical communication has gotten a lot smaller as a profession, for those that remain the work is going to be more challenging and more meaningful.  The club is a lot more exclusive than it used to be, but the upside is that TC will get more respect as we add more value.

Encyclopedia Titanica (Qualman Ch 1)

“Internet dead ahead!”  The thing that interests me most when I look over the carnage that the internet has left in its wake is at what point did these industries–encyclopedias, newspapers, record labels, magazines and book publishers–realize that they were doomed.  Was it something specific like the papers piling up at the end of all their neighbors driveways or their kids getting busted using Napster, or did/will they live in denial all the way to the bitter end?

The publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica probably never thought that it would be possible for unpaid and unvetted people to equal the quality of the articles produced by paid professionals, but recent studies have shown that Wikipedia is at least the equal of Britannica.  Is Wikipedia the first real example of large-scale crowd sourcing?

In chapter one of Socialnomics by Erik Qualman, he summarizes how technology and human nature conspired to overthrow industries that have existed for hundreds of years.  For example, Encyclopedia Britannica began publication in 1768 (I looked that up in Wikipedia ironically).  The big surprise to me–and maybe to these industries–isn’t that they disappeared, but the fact that it all happened so fast.  As Qualman points out, social media has only been around for a few years, but it is so perfectly aligned with our basic human need for connectedness that it is like the internet on steroids.  I mean, it has surpassed porn as the most popular activity on the internet (p 1).  I never thought I’d see the day when porn was overthrown on the internet.

According to Qualman, “As human beings we have the dichotomous psychological need to be our own individual, yet we also want to feel that we belong to and are accepted by a much larger social set.” (p. 2) Why have an editor of a newspaper that doesn’t even know me decide what I see in the newspaper when I can have my friends and colleagues on LinkedIn and Facebook recommend stories based on a personal/professional relationship?

Newspapers aren’t doing themselves any favors by moving to a subscription model for internet content locking it behind a firewall.  That only works if you have a product that can’t be obtained elsewhere.  News and commentary are available from tons of sources for free, and, as Wikipedia has demonstrated, just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s bad.  Qualman’s scenario about the Idaho-senators blogger (p. 14 – 21) did a good job capturing the futility of the old business model.

There was really only one area where I question Qualman’s argument.  He contends that the time that appears to be a waste on Facebook, actually makes us more productive since we gain access to potentially critical information much faster.  I’ll admit that that can be the case, but sometimes it’s like drinking from a fire hose of  Zynga requests, political status updates, and funny cat pictures to find the kind of useful tidbits that Qualman uses in his example.  Have you ever had your boss walk by while you had Facebook open?  Did they think you were being productive?  Did you?

It ain’t what it used to be: Digital Literacy (ch1)

I don’t think I have ever really met anyone famous, so I never get to name drop.  But, the foreword to Digital Literacy  was written by JoAnn Hackos, whom I’ve talked to many times–I even got to interview her once.  In technical communication circles she’s about as famous as it gets, but that doesn’t really help me with my friends outside of work.

Ok, back to the task at hand.  The thing that stuck with me in JoAnn’s foreword is summed up in this quote:

The authors argue throughout that the roles and responsibilities of technical communicators are changing rapidly–in some cases for the worse.  The focus on producing “books” by individual authors working independently is rapidly coming to an end. (p. ix)

If you have worked in TC during the last decade or so, then you know this to be true.  The dot com bust followed by waves of cost reductions and outsourcing have really demolished a lot of training and documentation groups.  The jobs that remain require different skills and a lot of flexibility.

Part of that change is due to the death of the book-based authoring model that Hackos mentions at the end of the quote above.  The rise of XML, DITA, and CMSs is destroying the technical communication profession in the same way that the internet has wrecked the newspaper industry.  And that is actually a GOOD thing.

Yes, if it is your goal to go out and get a job writing a technical manual you are going to be disappointed.  But, if you are a curious person that likes to explore all the possible modes for communicating technical information to people in a way they can understand, then you are in luck.  Technology–including social media–has done such a thorough job destroying the old tech comms model that you can get in on the ground floor of defining what it means to be a technical communicator in the future.  Most of the Introduction  of the book was spent driving this point home, for example, “[Technical communicators] need to define their own opportunities and them move boldly forward.  In short, it’s time to adapt or move over.” (Myers p. 2)

I think the hardest part for a lot of people that I have worked with is that the new model (whatever it turns out to be) will require us to be a lot more social.  It might mean creating interactive training, or holding webinars, or interacting online with real customers.  You might need to have video or audio production skills–I talked to a guy at Microsoft that rewrote job descriptions so he could hire people from CNN and Lucas Film rather than typical tech writers.

Pretty much the whole chapter was a trip down memory lane for me and I think that Carliner was dead-on about everything in there.  Being in tech comms isn’t about locking yourself away in the corner and writing your book anymore.  It’s about leveraging all the cool new tools, including social media, to more effectively communicate with our audience.

Keeping up with the Jones’s Status Updates

There were a couple of things that really stood out for me in chapter 3 of Socialnomics, by Erik Qualman.  First, email is dead, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And, second, if our friends have better status updates than us, we will get off the coach and run a 5k just to one-up them.

First let’s start with the horse-and-buggy that email has become.  Qualman provides the following quote from a director of Apple iTunes . . .

At Apple, we generally hire early adopters.  That being said, I was still blown away when we recently hired a 22-year-old and he had literally never sent an e-mail.  Via his iPhone he had always communicated with his friends either by instant messenger, text, phone call, or comments within Facebook.  I believe he is not alone and this is a trend we will continue to see with the next generation. (p. 47)

I’m almost twice as old as this kid–so maybe it is because I’m old–but I still use email at work all the time.  That said, when I think about my life outside of work, I’m not that much different than Apple-boy.  I text my family and friends, or post to their FB page, and I send private messages to their FB page if it needs to be private.  So, I can kind of see how a young person today could get through life without email, but what about work?   I think maybe work needs the formal structure the email provides.  If not, what is holding back the spread of social media inside of companies.  I bet that 22-year-old learned how to use email after he got hired.

The second phenomenon that Qualman described was about how constantly commenting (and reading others comments) on life causes us to live more meaningful lives.  He describes the case of an 83 year old man named Bill Tily who consciously examines all of his status posts (p. 51).  Then when he finds that he is wasting his time, he redirects himself to do more fulfilling activities.

I’ve thought about this myself, though not to the same degree as Bill.  More commonly, I see that my friends are doing something cool while I’m watching Wipe Out and I take stock and try to make some changes.  I’ll be honest, I have a couple of friends that are hard-core athletes: one runs triathlons and the other travels the planet riding in and writing about bike races.  While I admire their drive, I often find their posts incredibly annoying.  Things like, “Just completed a seven-mile run to 7-Eleven for a bottle of YooHoo”  or, “Sipping wine in Tuscany after a long ride.”   It just makes my life seem kinda dull.

But again, it does somehow motivate me to ask myself if I’m really making the most of my life.  Wasn’t it Socrates that said that, “The unexamined life is not worth living” ?   Could social media really be what causes us to shut off Farmville and live better lives?

SNS = Social Network Sites (not Super Nintendo System) Boyd and Ellison

I’m guessing that most Americans understanding of the history of Social Network Sites (SNS) comes from the movie The Social Network, myself included.  Based on that, I assumed that there was MySpace and Friendster and then Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook smote them.  Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison, however, clear that all up in their article Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.  I think the thing that surprised me the most about the history part of this article is how quickly the members of the various social networks abandoned them when they got annoyed.

When Friendster got more popular, the network performance suffered and then as more and more people joined it became less cool, “. . . exponential growth meant a collapse in social contexts: Users had to face their bosses and former classmates alongside their close friends.”  If FB messes up bigtime could they fold up too?  I can’t remember where I read this, but I have heard that many young people are abandoning FB (or are at least downplaying it) in favor of Twitter since their Mom and Dad haven’t joined Twitter yet and they can still say what they want.

Now Facebook has been pretty stable in terms of performance, but it definitely seems to be declining in the coolness area.  Maybe it is just me, but the more people I add to my “Friends” the less I post to FB.  Yes, there are privacy settings, but figuring them out is like doing one of those logic puzzles.  You know, “Jane likes bananas and grapes, but only on Sundays.  Bill hates grapes and likes bananas, but will only eat them in the morning.  What kind of fruit can Jane and Bill eat on Tuesday afternoon.”  Is there anyone out there that hasn’t been burned by a status update that somehow made it to someone that it shouldn’t have?

And now our employers are busy implementing their own internal SNSs, “This growth has prompted many corporations to invest time and money in creating, purchasing, promoting, and advertising SNSs.”  It’s one thing to post something that annoys your Sister-in-Law, it is something else entirely to offend the Director of Marketing (or some other muckety-muck).  I have no evidence of this, but I suspect that this is a significant reason why most corporate social networks are lame: no one wants to offend anyone so no one challenges anything–no matter how stupid.

In our private life we can choose our friends and we stand a chance in understanding our audience, “In listing user motivations for Friending, boyd (2006a) points out that “Friends” on SNSs are not the same as “friends” in the everyday sense; instead, Friends provide context by offering users an imagined audience to guide behavioral norms.”  But corporate SNSs are guided by org charts and not personal relationships.  Without having this guide, how can companies leverage the power of social networking for collaboration and sharing without triggering all the bad aspects–misunderstanding and mistrust?  And add cultural differences to the list and it starts to look a little hopeless.

But Boyd and Ellison do offer a little hope, I think, when they say, “Although exceptions exist, the available research suggests that most SNSs primarily support pre-existing social relations. Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe (2007) suggest that Facebook is used to maintain existing offline relationships or solidify offline connections, as opposed to meeting new people.”  Maybe rather that dictating to people who their “friends” should be inside a company, they should allow people to share comments with colleagues of their choosing. It seems counterintuitive, but maybe we need less connections to get more sharing.

Do Corporations Really Get Blogging?

I’m currently (informally) leading a team of people that reside in: England, Germany, Italy, China, Brazil, America, and Finland. None of the typical communication tools (email, webex, IM) could do what I needed them to do.  So, I set up a SharePoint community site for the team that has a blog.  I wanted to create a less formal environment for people to get comfortable with each other and loosen up.

The project that we’re working on requires people to be creative and take risks and that just doesn’t happen unless people feel safe.  Sharing new ideas–especially in a corporate environment with many cultures–is scary.  And, while all the corporate messages say that we need to be more innovative, we don’t really reward people for taking chances or slowing down to think about the future.  I guess it is one thing to say you value creativity and another thing to demonstrate that.

It reminds me of the Ken Robinson TED video that Alex Reid referred to in his article, Why Blog? Searching for Writing on the Web.  Robinson believes that while our schools are trying to maximize students’ potential, they are really killing creativity and valuing the wrong things.

I know that he is talking about schools, but I think it’s true in companies too.  It is in mine.  Maybe our schools have been so successful in quashing the creativity out of us that we can’t innovate to save our lives.

My hope was that blogging would help foster the right environment and rekindle that creativity, but I think I’m just doing it wrong.  I want to keep it loose, but somehow my posts end up reading like legal disclaimers.  I just don’t know what will fly.  Blogs are informal, but companies are not.  What is the right tone?