I spoke with many interesting, smart people last week who are struggling with the whole social media, virtual networking thing. These people are small business owners, consultants, corporate citizens and people in “transition” (the new PC term for professionals currently between jobs). They are men and women, mostly over 40 who are trying to understand this new trend. Every one of them expressed uneasiness about social media. They keep hearing about it, they feel they’re behind somehow and yet they are also very, very wary. Can’t really blame them – social media is a big game changer and it can seem pretty overwhelming at first.

I’ve written about this before – virtual connectivity does level the playing field. It presents unprecedented opportunities to people who are really effective “connectors”. Interesting personalities attract attention. Think of the really charismatic people in your communities. They naturally collect a crowd and that crowd is open to their influence. Now think 450M+ Facebook users, 60+M LinkedIn business people, 1B+ YouTube content viewers – translate that to a business context and figure out the business possibilities for charismatic personalities or appealing brands with influence online. Not surprising that so many people are talking about it.

But I think the anxiety I am hearing isn’t about a lack of awareness or a lack of interest. Social media is pretty visible and lots of people are taking notice. I believe people’s concerns have more to do with how this new technology highlights our discomfort with networking in general. And while it is true that technology intimidates many people, we use it to mask the real issue – networking requires us to put ourselves out there and risk rejection. Uncomfortable? You bet!

People generally can manage one-to-one contact with someone they don’t know well, either face-to-face or online. But think about it, how much do you enjoy walking into a room of people you don’t know (at a conference, an event or even a cocktail party)? People are often overwhelmed by crowds. Now take it online where you have to do something uncomfortable (networking) with extremely large groups of people you can’t see, living in places you have never been and do things you don’t necessarily understand. Liberating or terrifying – take your pick.

I think women have a bit of an advantage in this new world right now. Women are natural social connectors and social media gives them a mechanism to go global and stay in touch with friends and family spread out all over the world. I suspect this is why the largest growing social network user demographic is women 50+. I realize this is a gross generalization; there are many women who struggle as much as men. I also realize this is changing a bit as a younger generation (women and men) grows up (literally) online. But as a general rule, women do talk more to other women, women do recommend things to each other all the time, women do turn to each other when they need to solve problems and that’s what social networking is currently all about.

Ironically, this “social connector” skill may pose a problem for women in the long run and return the advantage to the guys. Men are fundamentally better at using their networks for business, women, not so much. If men can get past some of their fears about working virtually and bring their business orientation to social networking venues, they may see better business results. Unless women leverage their natural strengths while they develop the business savvy to capitalize on these market opportunities, they may lose out in the long run. The social networking economy is forming and eventually it will mature. The people who learn how to successful navigate this new context will have an advantage. At the moment, it’s anyone’s game to win and it’s anyone’s game to lose.

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I read a disturbing article in the New York Times this weekend (http://nyti.ms/chinajustice) regarding the use of social networking to exact justice (or revenge?) on individuals. NPR’s On The Media also picked up the story (http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/03/05/04). Dubbed “human-flesh search engines” or “renrou sousuo yinqing”, these tools of vigilante justice are tacitly overlooked, perhaps even encouraged, by the Chinese government and, in my mind, are an indicator of the worst possibilities for social networking in the future.

I suppose it was inevitable. Given the power of community and the sheer size of the social networking user base, bad things were bound to happen. But when a power vacuum exits, something always shifts to fill it. Not surprising, there is a growing tension between naturally collaborative social media users and governmental authorities that are responsible for providing a legal framework for public protection. An overwhelming conundrum, how to “manage” this new world? In the absence of a clear operating framework, individual governments (for good and for ill) are making it up as they go along.

In the US, freedom of speech trumps privacy concerns at least for the moment. Our system allows disparate opinions to exist (no matter how abhorrent) as part of our constitutional right to free speech. The data privacy conscious EU is taking a different decision. The Italian government took a stand this Feb when they convicted 3 Google executives (http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/google-executive-convicted-in-italy-for-downs-video/). The German government is also examining the issue (http://lawpundit.blogspot.com/2010/03/paranoid-on-privacy-legitimate-law.html). Meanwhile, the founders of Google have an equally compelling position: the Italian verdict “poses a crucial question for the freedom on which the internet is built.” Who’s right?

One can argue that the Twitter coverage of the Iran protests last summer is a clear indicator of the power of the medium. (The Iranian government obviously thought so since they are working hard to keep their citizens under wraps.) And there is a compelling case for the good deeds accomplished through social networking for Haiti and Chile in the wake of the recent earthquakes. But uploading videos showing children bullying another child is also powerful – powerful and just plain evil. How do we balance these opposing forces in this new world?

As all of us develop active online profiles, we become more visible in a very specific and personal way. Our cell phones track our physical locations, what we buy creates personal consumer data, our socializing reveals who we know. What we read, where we recreate, what we watch, to whom we communicate, how we do business, what games we play, the list goes on and on and on. And no one really knows who owns this data. Now I am not paranoid by nature….but as someone committed to this online economy, I am clear that my choice creates risk for me. And if the untested nature of the social media “economy” gives me hope and opens possibilities, human-flesh search engines definitely give me the willies.

I had a conversation with one of my favorite three-year-olds this Saturday. He called me from his parents’ cell phone to ask me if I wanted to Skype with him to talk about my upcoming visit. He wanted to discuss his plans for my stay. Looks like I’m going to be watching a lot of cartoons on YouTube – a particular favorite – Puppy Dog Baseball http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgOOtKLlTMg. We also talked gummy worms, Christmas presents and Thomas the tank engine, but please! While I am a wee bit cheeky here, all of this really did occur and please take note: my little pal just turned three in November, 2009. The Sunday New York Times only made things worse – the article that sealed the deal – Old Fogies by Their 20’s http://bit.ly/old_fogies_20_year_olds. Brad Stone talks about his 2-year-old daughter referring to his kindle as “daddy’s book” – yikes! To everyone out there over the age of ten – welcome to the new normal.

When my contemporaries ask me why I am involved with social media and why I am so excited about the potential, I ask them how they are communicating with their kids. I am pretty blessed to have rich relationships with lots of younger people who text me, poke me on Facebook, invite me into their LinkedIn networks, share YouTube videos, email ecards, tweet event info and send me presents through Farmville. In turn, I talk to them about online identities, appropriate virtual behavior, respecting data privacy and ways to leverage online tools for real-life purposes – like looking for jobs in a tough economy. Much of this happens virtually. We watch out for each other, we know about our relationships, we hear when someone is having a bad day and we are present in each other’s lives. Because of this presence, we influence each other. They help me stay tuned to new trends; new ideas and I strive to provide caring, experienced advice when they hit a rough patch. Innovation with experience – this is one powerful combination.

This engagement has taught me the untapped potential that exists when the social media concept of “community” is used deliberately to maintain productive connections with a diverse group with seemingly little in common. It breaks down barriers that traditionally existed between these parties and allows people to get comfortable enough to say what they really think. The virtual world is the great leveler – young and old don’t matter as much as the ability and willingness to listen to each other with a certain authenticity. Read all the social media books – everyone says it – there has to be something genuine in any interaction or this simply won’t work. You must risk, show vulnerability and be present. Success requires calculated trust and a willingness to maintain objectivity when things don’t go your way. Compromise is a key component to any relationship as is a willingness to share – I have talked about this before, reciprocity is huge with emphasis on the give rather than the get.

Think of the business potential in this concept and you will understand my passion and excitement about the power of engagement. Seth Godin talks about this in his book, Tribes, http://www.sethgodin.com/sg/books.asp. Engaged employees bring more value to their organizations, engaged partners bring more value to collaboration, engaged businesses bring better value to their customers, engaged people create innovations that create our future world.

This is not just conceptual thinking; these are proven business strategies that work. The medium may be new, the methods may seem different, but the concepts are based in time-tested best business practices. These things will happen whether you choose to participate or not – they aren’t coming, they are here. And while older generations may be able to play ostrich for a bit, the smart leaders are getting ahead. They are looking for opportunities to stay in touch and remain vital as this new reality grows up. Don’t show your age by ignoring the possibility. If you are looking for business differentiators today, why not consider engagement as a first step. Don’t decide right now, think about it while I text my three-year-old friend and ask him what color gummy worms he likes best.

I listen to NPR all the time and one of my favorite shows is Marketplace Money .  These folks are smart, savvy and easy to understand – it’s a great place to catch up on my financial news and hear what’s up in the consumer market.  This weekend, they ran their normal “Getting Personal” segment and I was, once again, humbled by the new world order that any business with customers needs to understand – NOW.

During this segment of the show, listeners call in with questions that might be about business, finance, taxes, insurance, consumer issues, etc, etc.  This week’s segment caught my attention as the second caller was a high school student named Fiona from Sacramento, CA.  Fiona spoke with David Lazarus, a consumer columnist for the LA Times along with the show’s host, Tess Vigeland, about her dissatisfaction with Starbucks.  Seems Fiona has two Starbucks stores within a mile of each other near her house – one sells breakfast sandwiches and one does not – and Fiona wanted to know why.  She called the Starbucks customer service line and got the brush off, tried to contact market research, a non-starter.  Then David Lazarus got into the act and called corporate headquarters to find the answer for her.  Even he was unable to get a cogent response.

Predictably, you can guess what happened next.  If you are a business owner, a corporate executive, a customer service rep, a PR person or in marketing, are you wincing yet??  After discussing the lack of customer service on air for a good 5 minutes, David Lazarus suggested Fiona copy the link from the show once it was available online (Getting Personal) and send it to Starbucks to see if that got their attention – OUCH!  Tess Vigeland invited Fiona back to report the outcome – OUCH, OUCH!  I know we’ve all heard it before, the customer service story that makes news, goes viral and has direct business impact.  This is the stuff of business myth and legends.

Of course, this is nothing new; it’s been around since business began.  It used to be word of mouth (I tell ten friends, they tell ten friends, etc, etc – until the whole town knew about it).  But with the rise of social media and online communities – the volume level of customers is amplified exponentially in today’s virtual environment.  That amplification is explosive, reducing the potential time from consumer-service-hero to customer-service-shame to nanoseconds.  Couple this with customers that are more educated, more empowered and just plain louder and you have service opportunities that must be managed everywhere.

I believe Starbucks can certainly fix this very easily – contacting Fiona and the Marketplace Money folks ASAP with a big, sincere, well-publicized mea culpa is certainly a start.  Working to fix the internal communication problem wouldn’t hurt either.  Most reasonable people understand we all make mistakes. Most reasonable consumers are willing to forgive if someone comes clean and admits they blew it.  But in an age where things move at the speed of light and fickle consumer sentiment can change quickly, brand integrity is built or broken by bits and bytes.  And when there is no strategic plan for managing your online brand or if you try to ignore this venue, you miss huge opportunities and could find yourself in a virtual, yet avoidable, PR nightmare (just ask Tiger Woods).  What would you prefer – a proactive or reactive approach?  Here’s what I say: be the hero, Starbucks, call Fiona and invite her over for a breakfast sandwich – today.

I spend a lot of time speaking with business folks about change. Not surprising really given it’s my business and the general state of the world today is forcing everyone to contend with it. But under any circumstances, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, change is a constant. Convincing people to change (and make no mistake…you need buy-in if you wish a change effort to succeed) requires more listening than action. Listening is an under-utilized skill and when you are a change agent, you ignore it at your peril.

No one likes being told what to do. Can’t really blame them there – being ordered about is no fun. But to implement a change you have to motivate people to action, so how do you do it without creating resentment and silent saboteurs? A little deliberate planning and a few common sense steps go a long way.

1. Take time to get to know your audience. Seems like a no-brainer and yet when you don’t have much time it gets easy to skip this step. This is also perceived as such a “squishy” step that it gets pooh-poohed as unnecessary. Be assured, you will be sorry if you don’t. I once watched in awe as a pretty smart guy destroy his professional credibility and a major change effort because he neglected to take his audience’s perspective into account (the whole sad event lasted approximately 10 minutes and undermined months worth of work). Take the time at the beginning to think things through if you want to avoid that sorry fate. The effort and expense you save in the long run with repay your upfront effort exponentially. Do-over’s are costly (for a budget and an organization’s productivity) and change efforts that go badly have ripple effects that compound over time and can get pretty ugly.

2. Don’t under estimate the value of a well thought out strategy plan. I realize better than most that the word strategy is over used and often misunderstood. Also, the majority of people I work with are “doers”…they hate planning, they want to get right to action immediately. It’s the “shoot, ready, aim” theory. Shoot enough stuff and maybe something will hit the target. Mostly it wastes a lot of resources and generally makes the implementation team look pretty foolish. And the funny, sad thing is everyone can see it happening and they do it anyway. Planning doesn’t have to take a long time if you approach it deliberately and the benefits over the long run make it worth the effort.

3. Recruit an advanced guard to carry the message and give you the data you need. I was once involved with a major change effort during a merger. The two companies had diametrically opposed cultures and they hated each other (no exaggeration). It was my mandate to bring the teams closer so they could work together more effectively. I didn’t have a ton of time and while I had a budget, it wasn’t unlimited. I knew I had one shot since these guys were looking for ways to undermine any effort, so I recruited respected members of both groups brought them together for a “strategy summit” and asked for their help. I know this sounds simplistic, but giving them a voice and making them work together got them engaged. I chose carefully so these personalities were inclined to be pretty reasonable people. They went back home carrying a positive message to others. I also consulted them regularly so they gave me meaningful data on our progress and helpful suggestions that I implemented. In return, I made sure they were positively recognized by their managers and corporate executives – it was a productive win-win for everyone.

4. Listen, listen, listen, then listen some more. During any change effort, data is available all around you. Listening is an important skill; if you don’t do it all the time during a change effort you are really missing the boat. Check your ego at the door and be prepared to adjust your plan according to what the data tells you. Play ostrich at your own peril. No matter how bad the data looks, acknowledge it and adjust quickly before things get worse. I once had a standing nightly conference call with a friend and colleague of mine from Australia. We continued talking nightly for a full 6 months during a very difficult Oracle deployment. We gave each other lots and lots of data that helped us adjust according to the reaction of the end users of the system. This approach helped motivate the global finance team to adopt the new system with minimum disruption. That nightly call saved everyone a lot of headaches and the company lots of money. It also made my colleague and me lifelong friends (a very nice side benefit).

5. Don’t try to convert everyone. You don’t need to convert everyone, just a critical mass. Just like UTube videos that go viral, once an idea gains momentum, naysayers get drowned out. And even hard core dissenters get cautiously engaged when everyone is doing it. Also, at a certain point, if the majority has turned the corner, those stubborn hold outs become visible outliers – they start to look unreasonable and their local groups start to apply pressure to push them to conform.

People are never going to enjoy change. It’s uncomfortable and makes everyone’s life harder before benefit is realized. But most reasonable people can tolerate change if they understand it and it makes sense. Listening helps you gauge the level of discomfort and the level of willingness to adopt the changes proposed. If you don’t listen, you are flying blind – not a good formula for success by any measure.

Alright, I’ll admit it, I was never a gamer. I was too busy sailing or running or cooking or biking or doing most anything physical (I have a hard time sitting still). As I got a bit (dare I say it?) older, I was very busy with my job. I was so busy doing things that gaming was never part of my life the way it was for my nephews, Ben and Rich. These guys were hard core World of Warcraft dudes with sexy avatars and a language that appeared rather foreign to me. I watched them play their games with zeal and energy. They wore the t-shirts, bobbed to their i-pods and did battle while they texted and IM’ed each other from across the room. It was an illuminating moment for me when Rich, then 15, complained with great disdain that one of his friends was taking too long to answer him the “old fashioned” way (via email). Gave me pause – I thought to myself, am I that ancient? Can you imagine?

I absolutely adore my nephews – they are really great guys. As an aunt, I have had the privilege of their company long after they stopped hanging with other adults. Aunt-status makes me cooler longer I suppose. It also gives me sway with teenagers reluctant to be seen in public with other adults of a parental nature. My nephews have allowed me to accompany them to concerts (Ben and I spent one night in a mosh pit together), they have followed me up mountains, sailed out on blue water and on and on and on. I have made them eat weird foods, go to museums, travel to new places and try new stuff and in exchange they shared their world with me. But in the end, watching them game was different than participating and it’s the participation that helped them tremendously in so many ways. As a result, their relationship with computers and other technical gadgets, and their communication channels were much, much different – much more intimate and faster-paced – than mine.

You may be wondering why the confession, what does this have to do with collaboration and social media. And while I am not advocating for “gaming” vs. physical exercise per se (I think you need both for a healthy life), I see the clear fluency my nephews have acquired in the virtual space and I am glad for them. I’ve always loved technology. Computers have made my life easier and the potential business uses have always appealed to me. But much of my orientation has been business-based and more clinical. There was a clear separation between my business dealings and my personal stuff, an unspoken demarcation line between the two. That was my orientation and that’s where I played. And while I was fascinated with the cool new tools, I was still more comfortable “listening” on Twitter and Facebook. The privacy/transparency thing freaked me out a bit. It seemed too personal.

And I don’t think I’m unique among the 40+ set. I talk to friends, colleagues and business people and they struggle with the same concerns. Leaving a digital trace is associated with visibility aka vulnerability to unseen (naturally untrusted) sources. (What do you mean @DaronBabin is following me, who the heck is that guy???) They also associate these tools with the trivial because they can’t decipher the code or see the immediate value. What a nimble user sees as opportunity, an unschooled observer sees as a waste of time.

LinkedIn seems to be the exception for this group. Driven by high unemployment, a job-less recovery and the radical changes in the employment process, membership has grown exponentially (http://www.crunchbase.com/company/linkedin). LinkedIn, in financial trouble in 2007, is now a highly profitable service providing a vital, “bridge” to people of a “certain age”. The very formal, business-like nature of the tool provides a bit of a security blanket for a huge number of newbies to the social networking space. Of course, you can’t convert everyone. Even in this buttoned-up arena there are whole pools of people who still can’t make the leap; who deny invitations, close down their networks and refuse to play.

Ironically, as conservative as it is, in my view, LinkedIn is actually performing a more interesting function. It brings the business generations together and allows for a broader, more diverse conversation. It’s an unlikely leveler that seems more professional than Twitter. Even as younger, savvier social media folks pooh pooh LinkedIn, the access to business contacts is alluring and serious social media practitioners are smart to establish a presence. What’s the down side? And just as I have taught my nephews the importance of a good business handshake and how to be polite in public, I have also counseled them on the need to establish a professional digital footprint to prepare them for the work world they will join in the near future. We’ll be setting up their LinkedIn profiles very soon as I continue to chat with them on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, we still climb mountains and keep each other posted on the latest coolest trends and because I am always striving to maintain my “cool” aunt status, I am always willing to learn!

I attended a fascinating event in Foxboro, MA last week called the Inbound Marketing Summit. Hosted by a company called New Marketing Labs (http://newmarketinglabs.com/), a self-professed team of new media “evangelists” who are nimble, proficient users, this group hosts events around the country to educate business people on effective ways to use social media for profit.

Talk about content overload –70+ presenters, plus the vendor displays, plus the after hour get-togethers and the regular networking….turn on the fire hose and brace yourself….I confess, by the end I was really, really tired.

But this stuff is really exciting and it makes me pretty motivated to share. I broke it out into a few initial thoughts as I start to digest this mountain of data.
1. Here’s a venue that rewards business people who have the ability to build relationships of substance. There’s a lot of talk about” authenticity” here…the intangible, unjaded quality that indicates you are really interested in someone, that the relationship is fundamental and a positive business outcome is a bi-product of the trust that exists between us. It is the people who have this quality who should own and manage your social media efforts for your company, people who embody your brand and will present a genuinely caring face to your customer. Case in point – Paula Berg from Southwest Airlines and Jenny Cisney from Kodak have become the social media “face” for their brands – they are synonymous with a commitment to customer service that connects with their clientele on a deeply emotional level and builds a great deal of brand loyalty. You may not always feel good about a corporation, but Paula and Jenny are easy to trust because they are really nice people.
2. Building your personal brand so people trust you is worth a lot in social media. It’s really nothing new – people who trust you, listen to you. In this venue, personal recommendations and personal endorsements work the same way; however, everything here is on steroids – you can create celebrity status here and that translates to ”trusted” endorsement power connected to a potentially global audience . By creating a trusted “brand” presence you earn currency that you can use to move opinion, promote awareness, garner feedback, sell stuff; the possibilities are pretty compelling. Downside, trust takes lots of time and effort to build and is a very fragile thing to maintain (and must be done so with a great deal of vigilance). This is not a place to be entered into lightly…you definitely don’t want to be “that guy/gal” that everyone talks about for the wrong reasons. If you get a bad reputation by betraying trust, you’re screwed.
3. While the old rules are still relevant, you need to adjust them to fit the new context. A wise person once told me that nothing learned is ever wasted as long as you understand and adjust to suit the current context. Same thing with social media. Respecting people, acting with integrity, treating people well, having high standards, delivering quality – it all still applies, but now apply it to an anonymous, global audience with LOTS of opinions. This means your actions are always potentially on view – so applying these values, these tenets authentically all the time has to be who you are and how you operate naturally because someone will eventually catch you if you aren’t….
4. Traditional crisis management doesn’t work in this venue; you must have an established presence to play effectively. Dissuade yourself of the notion that you can ignore this whole thing until it goes away. It’s not going away. While social media is still young and will, no doubt, transform itself as it matures, there are too many compelling business reasons to stay out of the game If you are in business today and you want to increase your chances of viability in the future, you would be foolish not to learn about this now. If you do nothing more than listen and learn how things work, you are already ahead of your competition sitting on the sidelines. Also, if you are caught in a bad reputational slam, you can’t use this medium for instant spin. If you aren’t out there already and you try to leverage this platform for crisis control, you will come off looking foolish and you could make things even worse.
5. Trying to “game” the system? Watch out. This is a venue that requires consistent honesty. Watch yourself and stay humble, as even capable practitioners can have missteps. Case in point, Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, a savvy proponent of social media, took a hit when it leaked he tried to drive down the stock price of his smaller rival Wild Oats by leaving unflattering pseudononymous comments on online investor forums. This is the stuff of legends and Web 2.0 is pretty unforgiving – once it’s out there it never goes away.
6. The tools really don’t matter. Social media encompasses lots of different tools, but is really more about a new cultural framework for doing business. This medium has its own social norms, driven by an internet savvy generation that is quite comfortable with online sharing and extended privacy boundaries. While many of the old rules of social etiquette still apply and playing respectfully may eventually get you invited to the party, you still need to learn how to interact productively in this new world. Like any system, it has levers and drivers that can be utilized to create influence and as with all things, it takes patience and practice to get good at it. But learning about this framework is fascinating stuff and I for one, am ready to dive in and get to know it better.

Totally plugged in

October 5, 2009

Maintaining a social media presence or collaborating online takes a lot of work.  It is also very seductive.  If you hate being alone, this is the place for you – with a global user base of millions you are sure to find someone to talk to (or listen to) at any moment in time so you never have to be alone.  Now take out the social aspects and look at it through a business lens.   From a retail perspective, this translates to round the clock access to potential customers (better than late night TV) and for global businesses working with global teams, it translates to virtual work spaces where the productivity potential is endless.  The whole premise of offshoring and creating global companies was the power of the 24-hour clock and unlimited access to the world markets. These technologies provide the platform to help businesses leverage the potential for real business gain.

In today’s working world where speed is of the essence and everyone wants it now, leveraging this trend is a business necessity.  Virtual communities can be formed very quickly with very specific business objectives.  A business need can be addressed on an accelerated time schedule.  Want help innovating?  Form a specific community around your innovation topic and your pool of talent potential is endless.  Want to hear what your customers or your employees really think?  Form a virtual focus group and plug into people’s thoughts.  Pick your business “pain” point – sluggish sales, new product launches, new market penetration, new regulatory requirements, market metrics, changing business climate, poor employee morale, high turnover, and the list goes on and on and on….   And then there is the data collection.  For better or worse, when we committed to connect virtually, we committed to data sharing.  As everything done virtually leaves a data trail, many businesses are working hard to use the data for their business advantage.

But this new media world is also the world of entrepreneurs.  As is the history in the technology sector, everyone works to produce the next big thing.  This is a group with a pretty high risk tolerance historically, so it should surprise no one that many new businesses are sprouting up to support, develop and enhance these platforms.  Take a look at Scott Kirsner’s article on the types of businesses developing around Twitter (http://is.gd/3Xug5).  The same thing has happened with Microsoft’s SharePoint (MOSS) – I have many friends making their living building business solutions on this platform (http://www.jornata.com/ and http://www.sympraxisconsulting.com/default.aspx ).  These folks are literally writing the books (and blogs) on the best business uses for these tools.  They are pushing the functional limits for their own business gains.

In a market where traditional employment is pretty challenging, these new entrepreneurs are thriving and gathering together en mass.  Just last week, the Web Innovators Group met in Cambridge, MA attracting over 1,000 attendees.  Hosted by David Beisel of Venrock (a well-established venture capital firm) in partnership with Microsoft, this fascinating networking event allows all participants in this innovative market place to gather together and do business.  It is also an amazing place to learn about the business future and the practical maturation of social media and collaboration.  Check it out; the next sessions is scheduled on December 7th – but prepare yourself, bring lots of business cards and practice your pitch – virtual players are real here and face-to-face contact is a requirement!

P.S. If you would like to attend the next event, it’s not posted yet, but it’s coming soon – so keep an eye out at http://www.eventbrite.com/org/36534967?s=1273555

It’s really hard to listen to the news these days and maintain an optimistic outlook.  Times are really tough.  Fear is so de-motivating.  It sucks up your positive energy and can leave you feeling so helpless.  But I sustain myself by understanding that life’s trials can lead to triumphs.   If I maintain a view that the future is not yet written, so a positive outcome is possible.  This doesn’t make things better all the time, even the biggest optimists have bad moments.  So call me a “realistic” optimist or just plain pragmatic.  I know I will have bad days, but I chose to not dwell on them.  I know things are difficult right now, but I chose to see the possibilities.  It really is a conscious choice – one could say a leap of faith – to believe that there is always hope for the future.

So much of any situation is determined by the way we view it – the glass is half full or the glass is half empty.  That’s the strange little secret about consumer confidence, successful marketing and effective communications – if the vast majority believes things are good, they are good.  Witness the giddy euphoria that struck investors both in the US and abroad during the major market booms in the ‘80’s, 90’s and beyond.  We truly believed in the possibility of our own wealth even though it was built on an unsustainable foundation.  Conversely, if the vast majority believes things are bad, the downward spiral accelerates.  It’s so hard to know how much of the current crisis was impacted by falling consumer confidence.  It’s a chicken and the egg problem.  What comes first?   Too much consumer confidence and people feel invincible.  Too little confidence and people despair.  It’s schizophrenic – driving the economy way, way up and way, way down at lightning quick speed.

And it’s even more complicated than ever before. The world we live in today is so integrated that the majority is now a global majority.  America might be at the head of the line (at the moment) in setting the direction for the majority opinion, but that can certainly change as other countries gain confidence and continue to develop.  News gets around fast, information is everywhere and it moves at virtual speed.  Going forward collaboration, communication and business will continue to have a global, culturally diverse face.  Innovation, competitiveness, managing risk and adopting change will be done in a global arena and it’s going to happen rapidly.  It’s a fascinating business problem to manage and a huge opportunity for executive leaders who have good future vision.  Isolationist thinking, while somewhat understandable given the current market uncertainty, is an unsustainable business position unless we are willing to drastically reduce our market potential.

So what does the future hold?  It’s anyone’s guess at this point.  But Pandora’s Box is open wide and shutting down the flow of global information is hardly an option.  In fact, “clouds” are available to businesses everywhere.  Changes are definitely on the way.  Whatever they may be, ever the “realistic” optimist, I continue to hope for the future.

If you are struggling with the whole social media trend, you aren’t alone, but you might be dating yourself. While many people I talk to lament the passing of “old” ways of communicating (letter writing, the telephone call), others eat, breathe and speak all things virtual. For me, there is always a middle ground. Call me pragmatic or call me crazy, but I believe that business people (with very few exceptions) who wish to maintain their professional vitality long term need to keep an eye on social media. These on-line focus groups, opinion drivers, global connectors present amazing opportunities for creating fascinating networks that level the playing field for small and mid-size companies who don’t have the budget resources of larger corporations. Even large corporations seeking to speed up innovation can avoid the damages of “group-think” by utilizing a larger pool of talent (inside and outside their companies) to spur creativity and maintain their competitive edge.

The tricky challenge – some of the rules in this new space are pretty different than the current business protocol – you have to share things to get things. Transparency is a dirty word in business – it’s scary. With social media, privacy is re-defined and authenticity, collaboration, knowledge sharing are valued attributes – all reasons for business traditionalists to run for the hills and seek cover. But ironically, so much of this new place is built on age-old principles. Integrity is still integrity and betrayal is still betrayal even if it is virtual. In the end, it’s all about relationships. While it may have been professional organizations, rotary, a sporting event, a drink after work or lots and lots of lunches (all still in existence by the way), good networking has always kept business running. The social media space is no different. It’s still all about building meaningful connections with each other, but now you might choose to connect with someone who lives half way around the globe.

For some this new world seems less personal. I think it simply requires a bit of creativity and a sincere desire to connect. And there are still lots of opportunities to meet people and look them in the eye if that’s your choice. Of course, if you have trouble making friends face-to-face, if physical events intimidate you, you may find it less stressful to create a network virtually; less face time might be a good thing. But don’t be fooled, just because you choose to network virtually doesn’t mean it’s any less work.

Building relationship has always been a challenge – they require time and once they are established, proper care and feeding. They also work best when you maintain an open mind. Virtual networking is no different than traditional networking. You can’t neglect a relationship or treat someone poorly and expect things to flourish. It’s pretty hard to succeed all by yourself. But this is no different than it’s ever been; business is more productive if you have a good resource network. Social media simply offers you a larger talent pool. Or you could avoid the whole social media thing, but be prepared, someone younger than you will probably roll their eyes at you if you do.

I have a pretty high risk tolerance. For me, change is interesting and (dare I say it) fun. But in my years as a change agent and a skilled change management practitioner, I have come to appreciate each organization has a unique tolerance level that’s tied to its culture, its leadership and its history. Any wise business leader considering a major effort should examine their organization carefully and factor this reality into their planning process, particularly if they wish their efforts to be successful.

I thought about tolerance levels a lot this week. I am advising a non-profit considering a major organization re-design. And what started as full transformation has gradually re-shaped into an incremental staff development effort that is much more appropriate given the culture of this group. While this may seem like a bit less ambitious, in this case, even this incremental adjustment is monumental given the organization’s history. It also positions the organization for further meaningful changes in the future if the leadership chooses to continue.

Change has such ripple effects. Some of these ripples are quite small, but some may turn out to be unexpected show stoppers. Change a process, which changes someone’s job, which requires training, which requires a new tool, which needs new data, which comes from different sources and so on and so on. It’s quite exhausting and generally makes people pretty grumpy. And all you wanted to do was update a simple process to save money and make things easier for everyone. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the trouble and heartache.

Ultimately; however, nothing is forever – change is inevitable. Sometimes it’s forced, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always harder than you anticipate. If you need to make a change in your organization, do your business and your employees a favor – step back and think it through before you jump in headlong. Objectivity is a key component in good planning. And if you are too close to be objective, bring in a good change expert to help. Sometimes you may find that what you think you need may cost you more in time, morale and decreased productivity than you are willing to pay.

My father got my announcement about our new website the other day – http://www.sophiathinkconsulting.com and he immediately shot back a link
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/join-my-im-bitter-about-twitter-club-2009-07-29?siteid=nwtpm to indicate his opinion of social media. And while I appreciate the blog topic which contends that investing financially in Twitter at this time is risky business, I think my father is missing the point.

Tools aside, the social media industry’s overriding mission – to create mechanisms to build virtual communities of like-minded neighbors has legs. It’s here to stay. Anyone focused solely on the tools (be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or the myriad of other venues) is missing the point. I realize learning to navigate in this new arena can be daunting, but show me one smart executive that isn’t interested in cost-effective ways to connect with their market demographic.

Business leaders spend lots of time and money wracking their brains (and urging their employees) to seek effective methods to determine what their customers are thinking. Social media, for all its faults, provides a bird’s eye view into the thoughts of millions. The challenge for business leaders is pretty clear. They have to figure out how to listen to the participants by sifting through the ocean of data points so they get to the relevant messages. Not an easy task and particularly daunting in a venue that has proved impervious to short cuts….it takes time, consistency and authenticity (an elusive commodity) to cultivate a successful online presence.

Whether Twitter is a success story or goes the way of so many other technologies remains to be seen. But in a world enamored of the next big thing and addicted to spilling its guts with abandon, you can be sure there will be plenty of new options ready to step up and take its place.

I find the new social media world fascinating. But what I find even more fascinating is people’s reaction to it. There are a couple of things that are pretty clear about this new area.

  1. Its redefining the definition of personal (and in many cases, professional) privacy.
  2. There are lots of people leveraging it in today’s world for all sorts of purposes.

While the hardcore productivity and ROI statistics that the business world craves are pretty elusive and the general efficacies are still debatable, you can’t deny the tools are out there and they are definitely making headlines. Take it one step further – as traditional print media is under siege, social media and web news are also delivering the headlines.
For job seekers struggling with an extremely challenging job market, professional branding has become a necessity. And for many people who view technology with suspicion and who have long viewed tools like Face Book and MySpace as kid’s toys, this is a BIG adjustment. LinkedIn has certainly provided more of a grown-up meeting place for today’s professionals, but even this venue doesn’t reduce many people’s main concern – “who is looking at me?” The anonymous nature of this new world is just plain scary for many people.
The allure for businesses, non-profits and political groups is also intriguing. Most of these social media services are free and they have the potential to reach untold millions globally with seemingly minimal effort. That makes these tools attractive to even the biggest techno-phobs. Also, you hear about social media everywhere these days – even National Public Radio (NPR) uses Twitter.
This overwhelming onslaught of options at your finger tips gives you a frantic feeling that you are missing something, that you aren’t part of the mainstream if you aren’t participating. So not using these tools puts you at a disadvantage, right? Ironically, because the ROI statistics aren’t clear, no one is quite sure what that disadvantage means…
How do you balance? In some ways, this is not unlike proper etiquette at the office, professional presence at a business conference or judicious use of any media venue. Using commonsense helps and showing discretion, particularly as you get started, is smart. Choosing the right tools for your purpose is a necessity as it’s almost impossible to use all these tools to their full advantage without a huge time commitment. All these things require “care and feeding”; they aren’t a onetime affair. You can’t set them up and then walk away – you need a plan for maintaining them long term.
Over the next few weeks, I am working in collaboration with a few of my talented, social media-savvy friends to explore this topic from multiple angles. We hope you will join in the discussion as we probe the interesting new world of virtual branding through social media. Enjoy!

There are some days when I am not sure who has it worse….my friends who lost their jobs or my friends who have them. Don’t misunderstand me; losing your job is never any fun. But in this economy, survivor guilt and fear of job loss is such an overwhelming presence in the workplace that it is interfering with the basics and stressing employees to the max. “Keep the lights on”, today’s pervading business strategy, is driving people a bit crazy and taking a major toll on daily productivity. In this difficult economy when businesses are looking to create extreme efficiencies in their operations, the general malaise that has overtaken the average worker is surely slowing the overall economic recovery and that doesn’t help anyone.

With morale way down, business productivity is nonexistent and few companies are looking to the future in any meaningful way. This is a defensive position that creates highly reactionary work environments that are more about hunker down and wait for something to happen. Highly stressed employees adopt an apprehensive, highly suspicious “wait and see attitude”. They are very risk averse and very scared. Their focus is very basic – daily survival. This is the poorest platform for business growth and stability possible. Businesses that are focused short term may meet their immediate survival goals, but survival is hardly a desirable business strategy for the long term.

Now I know change is tough under the best of circumstances. However; are you willing to squander a once in a lifetime opportunity? As the current political administration has recognized, this is an historical moment when ambitious agendas and wholesale change are not only possible, but necessary. Everything must be examined, every option considered.

Without question, with every difficult situation, there is opportunity waiting for those smart enough to seize it. It certainly isn’t always easy nor is it without risk, but opportunities exist all the same. Smart business leaders who are missing this window to re-evaluate their businesses are missing an opportunity of a life time. I believe it is the bold leaders who dare to look forward and decide now what their businesses will be in the future, who plan well and position themselves thoughtfully now will prove themselves the successful leaders of the future.

What is it about routines that give us such comfort?  We eat the same foods, hang with the same people, wear the same clothes, and keep the same hair style.  We take comfort in the familiar, we use old habits to anchor ourselves and we delude ourselves into thinking this provides us with control.  Jokes on us folks, control is just an illusion.

Now that our routines are upside down and we are faced with undeniable changes ahead, how are you meeting the challenge?  Are you focused on identifying new opportunities or are you fighting hard to return to the “good old days”?

Many companies had it good before the crash; some of them are waiting for an opportunity to return to “normal”.   No change necessary, no self-examination, and no consideration of new opportunities; let us get back to our old ways of doing things as that’s what we know and that’s what is most comfortable.  Will these companies be able to compete in the new world that will emerge?  It’s a risky strategy that speaks to the inherent fear people have of change.  They are so change-averse that they are willing to return to the old ways rather than considering new ways of doing business.  (Does anyone remember the definition of insanity?)

Whether we like it or not, we are surrounded by unprecedented upheaval that is financial, cultural and technological (and very, very global).  There is small window as we wind our way through the next 12 to 18 months to seize the opportunity presented by this terrible circumstance to look at our world differently and develop new ways of doing business in the future.  As a business leader, what will you do with this once-in-a-lifetime chance?  Are you going to keep with your old ways or will you try something new?

Feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change these days?  Not surprising.  We’re surrounded by technology that drives our global economy and it is pretty overwhelming as the pace of innovation accelerates.  Add smart phones, netbooks, and iPads which detach us from our desks and keep us permanently connected 24-hours a day, 7-days a week.  Layer on social media and all its associated applications and you have all the conditions for a perfect storm designed to drown all but the most devoted techies.  No wonder so many employers are worried social media will impact work place productivity…it’s just one more thing to distract people from their assigned duties.  But we think this is a bit too simplistic a conclusion that actually misses an important point.

Technology is a tool, which should ultimately enable, not disable business.  We sometimes forget that we can choose the tools we use. And while no technology is perfect, many really can provide tangible benefits if leveraged correctly.  But when companies adopt technology without a clear strategy; when they don’t tie it to business objectives; when they don’t provide adequate user training; when there is no reporting structure; and when user policies are ill-defined or overly complicated everyone loses.  It’s true that new technology represents change and we all know change impacts productivity, but most rational people can adjust if they feel their lives are better for it….what drives people crazy is anything that makes their lives difficult.

Social media and all its associated applications are simply new tools.  They are very powerful. They can help your achieve higher levels of productive collaboration, greater team/client integration and increased workplace engagement.  They can provide salient, real-time client data; deliver useful business metrics; help you maintain contact with your network; and ultimate improve your productivity.  In addition, if you hire anyone 30 or younger, you already have employees that can help you achieve business value with the tools because this generation is so connected they don’t understand how to function without social media.  So not using their knowledge actually diminishes their value.  However, achieving ROI from any technology is highly unlikely without an operating model and a business plan.

Devising an operating model consistent with your business needs requires you objectively evaluate your organization and carefully review:

  • Legal and regulatory requirements pertinent to your industry
  • Your existing technology user guidelines
  • Your existing governance policies
  • Your  company’s current monitoring capabilities
  • Security requirements for any new tools under consideration
  • Specific risk considerations unique to your industry
  • Any certification requirements that impact your users
  • Business continuity considerations

This has to happen at the highest levels of the organization in order to provide consistency and a unified approach for everyone.  The best operating models are easy to execute, monitor and report upon.  They tend to rely heavily on basic, open-ended principles that require self-restraint on the part of your employees rather than complicated, dictatorial models that are hard to enforce.  They assume self-responsibility on the part of your users.  Operating models with user guidelines and governance policies that are unenforceable or for which compliance requires Herculean efforts lead to poor operating practice and breakdowns in operational productivity.

Business plans are equally important because they tie the tools directly to work.  This is an important concept – if a tool is to enable, it must be tied to a specific business objective so you can measure results.  You should be able to achieve the desired objectives, report on them and directly connect them with tangible business value.  If you can’t do this, consider an immediate re-assessment as poor tools can waste precious resources, alienate clients, and damage productivity over the long-term.  Good business plans help you hone your tool selection so you purchase tools that make it easier for your people to do their work.  Good planning, good training, and a common-sense operating model translate to better return on technology spend and higher over-all employee productivity.

The pace of innovation will not slow anytime soon as the demand for the next “shiny new thing” fuels ever more ambitious product development.   Rest assured new tools will continue to arrive in the market every day.  Developing a sound process for quickly assessing these tools so you can use them to your business advantage ensures whatever you spend brings you maximum return rather than wasting everyone’s time.

Networking is a necessary part of a professional career today. The data tells us that the majority of people searching for new jobs find the best positions through their network connections. It’s also how we learn about new opportunities, expand our world view, and see new possibilities. Networking is also the best way to get things done inside an organization. The most effective professionals develop key contacts willing to share their expertise and help us cut through red-tape. No one can know everything; we need others to successfully complete complicated projects and intricate research. Good networks help us identify key partners for innovative collaboration and productive team work.

Having trusted advisors and colleagues means we don’t have to go it alone and it increases our chances to establish relationships that can help us in ways we can’t possible anticipate. Networks help us develop as professionals, grow as people, and function more efficiently day-to-day. They help us learn, they help us grow, and they help us navigate life’s difficulties. Networks are a vital part of life and very often they can help us achieve our long-term goals. But if networks clearly provide value and are such an essential part of today’s complex world, why doesn’t everyone have one? Simple – it’s because building a vital, useful network and maintaining it long-term is really, really hard work.

Successful networking is all about building relationships – something that takes time, courage, and commitment. It requires you go out into the world, meet people, speak with people, listen to people and share yourself. It requires you take risks and open yourself up to new ideas; prepare yourself to respect difference; and position yourself to consider undiscovered possibility. Professional organizations, mentor programs, volunteering, team projects, work groups, discussion groups, book clubs, conferences, workshops are all viable options.

In addition, in today’s world there are multiple virtual options that allow you to connect with a global audience you may not meet in person. You can join on-line communities related to your interests, comment on blog posts, participate in online discussion groups, or seek advice on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or a myriad of other venues. Choose things that appeal to you, fit your lifestyle and your personality – try them out and if they don’t suit you; seek others that do. If you really can’t find something that works, you can always start something yourself. Write a blog, start a community, launch a discussion group, or form a dinner club. There are so many options.

Getting start can seem intimidating if this sort of thing is new to you. Here are a few steps that have helped us get organized:

1. Determine what you want from your networking efforts – while networks can serve multiple purposes overtime, it’s best to identify your main objective to give you focus.
2. Do a bit of research – don’t let this become such a distraction that it prevents you from getting out there, but identifying potential networking venues inside and outside your organization is helpful.
3. Ask your friends and your colleagues – they share your interests; know you as a person; and you trust them. It’s a natural place to start.
4. Jump in and try it – don’t over think it, attend with an open mind and give it a fair chance. Don’t go just once, go at least 3 times. You need data to make an informed decision and no one feels comfortable the very first time they attend something.
5. Go prepared – bring business cards and establish a goal (e.g. I will meet two new people before I leave tonight).
6. Keep an open mind – don’t judge until you have the facts to make an informed decision.
7. Don’t expect too much – relationships take time, don’t expect to accelerate the process, be realistic.
8. Participate – ask questions, show an interest, partake in the discussion, and raise your hand.
9. Converse with the intent to get to know someone – exchange conversation with the objective of getting to know someone a bit. When you see them a second time, be sure to pick up where you left off.
10. Don’t ask for things right away – it’s impolite to ask someone you barely know to help you find a new job. You can let everyone know you are looking, but let them decide if they want to offer help.
11. Be prepared to help – people are more inclined to help you if you have shown your willingness to help them. Be the first one to offer help and it is a lot easier to ask for help later.
12. Follow-up – after the event, send LinkedIn invitations to new contacts (if you had a conversation and you exchanged business cards this is perfectly appropriate).
13. Technology can help, but it is not a substitute for a relationship – whether you are connecting with people face-to-face or connecting online, trusted relationships are the key to productive networks.

Creating a connection with people using technology is possible, but it does pose interesting challenges. Our experience tells us that any relationship develops over time. Following a blog or a discussion group and commenting often (in a substantive way), starting discussions yourself and connecting with people who comment helps you to establish your reputation as a serious professional. Offering help, connecting through LinkedIn, commented on someone’s status updates are natural moments that strengthen relationships. Having a picture on your LinkedIn profile also helps – it humanizes you.

Finally, networks work best when you start building them before you are in crisis. It’s easier to look for a job when you have one; apply the same principle to networking. Build it before you need it so you can leverage it when you do. Establishing a robust network inside and outside your organization is smart and professionally necessary. Maintaining it even when everything is going great is even smarter so you are fully prepared for the life changes that are sure to come tomorrow.