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.

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.

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.

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.

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.