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 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

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.

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.