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 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 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 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.