Social media, serendipity and the power of trivia

For most of us – and certainly anyone reading this blog – social media plays a significant role in our lives. We keep track of our friends’ lives through Facebook updates, message them on Twitter, see what they’re up to on Foursquare, and ‘like’ their photos on Instagram. I do this more than most, since social media is a big part of my job; my friend Richard commented that he doesn’t need to ring me anymore as he can find out exactly what I’m doing, thinking and feeling by looking at my various updates online.

A couple of weeks back my colleague Keith wrote an interesting blogpost, wondering if this stream of minutiae is bad for us, akin to obesity for the mind. He asked “is it possible that we have filled our brains with information, images, adverts, arguments, thoughts, news, features, blogs and opinions, to the extent that our brains aren’t functioning as they used to?”

The stream of updates about unimportant things, from lunchtime burritos to Daily Mail click-bait, are thought by many to be distracting us from the reading of improving books or forging of real-life relationships.

thinking man

Keith certainly isn’t the first person to ask if the sharing of trivia is affecting the way that we think. Plato argued the technology of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember. 17th century lecturers complained that their students spent too much time in coffee shops catching up on news and gossip. Even the walls of Pompeii featured graffiti from Roman Jamie Olivers exclaiming ‘I baked bread today’.

As Tom Standage argues wonderfully, the sharing of tidbits of information in a peer-to-peer way is by no means a 21st century development, and nor either is the suggestion that this has a negative impact on wellbeing.

I’m an internet optimist. Sure, the internet gives us plenty to be worried about, from privacy worries to the impact on older industries and the economy. But in my lifetime the 20th century model –  in which mass-produced media were piped at us, to be passively consumed at a set time via a small number of TV or radio channels – has been completely transformed. The 21st century has seen a diversification in media in which has given us access to a wider array of information sources than we’ve ever had before.

While some may argue that this overwhelms people, I’d argue that on balance being informed via a wider range of sources is a good thing. The web gives us access to more information than we even knew existed, as well as the power to publish ourselves. Yet far from overwhelming us with a torrent of news, the amount of time younger people spend consuming news has gone down. It’s been suggested that we’re simply becoming more efficient, able to learn more in less time.

Yet it’s also wrong to say the web hasn’t had an impact on the way we think. When I’m talking to a friend or colleague and we’re not sure of a specific point, one or other of us will reach for our smartphone and settle the argument immediately. I don’t remember; I research.

On the one hand there’s a large body of evidence which suggests that the increasing complexity of the media we consume is leading to increased cognitive capacity and rising IQ scores. But there’s also a healthy academic debate taking place over how our behaviours are adapting to the changing information environment.

Just as printing put paid to the one-valued skill of memorising entire books, communications technology is changing what we choose to commit to memory.  For example, studies have shown that regular users of GPS devices begin to lose some of their innate sense of direction. It would seem we’re putting our faith in external storage, and reallocating our mental energy.

This is the same phenomenon Socrates described, in which writing will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

What’s different is the ease of access to these external marks, such that it’s available to anyone with a smartphone in seconds. The question is whether this reliance on external storage and recall (‘exomemory’) is such a bad thing. What Socrates failed to see was the incredible opportunity created by access to knowledge greater than that our own heads can hold. As Amanda Palmer noted, we can only connect the dots we can collect. The out-housing of our collective intellectual capital has exponentially grown those collections of dots.

Having a network of information sources creates greater opportunities for serendipity. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned in recent years are bits of digital lint in my browser’s belly button.

Euan Semple made an interesting comment on Facebook today about location updates. Seen by many as a social media irritant, the ambient knowledge of knowing when someone’s in town also facilitates the arranging on real-life meetings. Similarly. the answering of questions about where to find lunch creates bridging capital, which helps us to establish trust in others.

The internet’s not going away; it’s speeding up, and growing at frightening speed. With the web being the gateway to our collective hive-mind, the ability to access and analyse information from the sources it provides has become an essential skill.

It’s said that in the West our environment is obesogenic – that food is so readily available that it encourages overeating. But just as you don’t have to eat everything, you don’t need to read everything you see either. The problem is not that we have too much information at our fingertips, but that we haven’t fully developed the tools and behaviours to help us manage it effectively.

Yet it’s the very technologies that cause the problem – search engines and social networks – that are also the solution.  Through knowing and using a wide range of sources, effective searchers are quickly able to sort the wheat from the chaff in our exomemory.  By establishing a network of trusted sources, I can quickly find a person or organisation who can give me the answer I need. By sharing and reading just the right amount of trivia, we create trusted connections – and learn what to scroll past.

Socrates argued that, exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing”.

The harsh light of history has shown this to be wrong. The human mind is a wonderful thing; by freeing up those synapic connections that might previously have been used to remember bus timetables or phone numbers, or discuss the 1989 first division football scores, we can put them to better use creating or connecting in ways that open up new possibilities for us all.

In praise of web anonymity

The Twitter rape threat row shows no signs of abating, as many users pledge to take a one-day break from the site this Sunday, August 4th. Author and columnist Caitlin Moran says she’s taking a 24-hour ‘trolliday’ from the site “because it will focus minds at Twitter to come up with their own solution to the abuses  of their private company”.

Twitter have already caved in to demands for a ‘report abuse’ button – which, as I argued earlier this week, is likely to cause as many problems as it solves. But many commentators claim this doesn’t go far enough, and are calling for an end to anonymous accounts on social network sites like Twitter.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins claims that the internet has become a masked ball, “whose concealed dancers may be corporations or governments, paedophiles or rapists, weirdos or fools”, demanding that “it must be regulated”.

Jenkins echoes the online disinhibition effect, “a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet”. Anonymity, it’s suggested, is itself the cause of so much anti-social behaviour online.

Although I would certainly never condone the type of abuse that Moran describes, we need to be wary of losing the enormous benefits that anonymity on the web brings all of us.

Anonymity can be a wonderful thing. Many of those commenting on blogs and forums are doing so from beneath a pseudonym, so they can speak freely on the issues that concern them without it being part of their Google footprint, drawing scorn from real-life friends and family.


Anonymity can be a powerful force for good online

Anonymity allows us to practice having different points of view; we can be a more conservative or liberal version of ourselves in online discussions, which helps us to form our own opinions and arguments.

And it’s there where the spectrum of trolling begins. At one end you have someone taking a contrary opinion in order to get a rise out of someone. This kind of anonymous trolling can be a noble art, and we saw a fine example of such this week, when Pukkah Punjabi trolled the ‘racist van’.

At the other end of the spectrum you have people shouting vile abuse at strangers. This is clearly wrong, and rightly illegal. What one woman might be willing to ignore, or consider a joke, another might find scary and threatening, especially when received as frequently as some high-profile women do.

Where trolling ends and abuse begins is difficult to define, but we should exercise caution so we don’t lose the benefits of anonymity in our rush to rid the web of abuse.

MIT academic Sherry Turkle has written extensively about the value of the anonymous web in allowing people to experiment with different facets of their personality and opinions, in order to develop our sense of self and identity. In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Turkle talks about how the internet allows us to engage in new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, politics, sex, and the self.

As an example, someone who is coming to terms with their sexuality might participate in online discussions in LGBT forums. Being able to do so without risk of disapproval from friends or families can prove a vital lifeline for a young person to develop their identity and sexuality.

Anonymity can bring benefits in everyday situations. For example, when I was last looking for advice on finding a new job, I was much more comfortable doing so in the knowledge that my boss at the time couldn’t look it up.

But anonymity can equally be an issue of personal safety. I have one friend who will only comment online under a pseudonym as they have been a victim of real-life stalking.

For others, anonymity is a matter of life and death. Twitter is widely thought to have played a key role in galvanising the Arab Spring, but that was only possible because people felt they could use it anonymously, without fear of reprisals.  We should be very mindful of the implications of ending web anonymity in those parts of the world where speaking publicly can have serious consequences.

Padraig Reidy, blogging in response to Caitlin Moran, hit the nail squarely on the head:

“The web is wonderful, and possibly the greatest manifestation of the free speech space we’ve ever had, but it’s also susceptible to control. Governments such as those in China and Iran spend massive resources on controlling the web, and do quite a good job of it. Other states simply slow the connection, making the web a frustrating rather than liberating experience. Some governments simply pull the plug. The whole of YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan for almost a year now, because something had to be done about blasphemous videos.”

The web is far less anonymous than it used to be. When I first started using it, everyone was anonymous, all the time. Then, as now, there were a handful of idiots who would abuse that anonymity in order to get attention.

In the two decades since, the web has opened up communication and ideas in ways few dreamed possible. As a tool which enables people to speak freely with others all over the world, putting thousands of information sources at our fingertips, the web has fueled revolutions and overthrown governments.  But through providing anonymity, it’s also been revolutionary for individuals, allowing people to discover their sense of self, to find a partner, to form and change opinions, and much else besides.

While more can be done to streamline the process of reporting and preventing abuse, we should all be very wary of losing the real and valuable benefits anonymity can bring in a knee-jerk reaction to a small but vocal group of idiots.

(Photo credit: Stian Eikeland on Flickr)

A ‘report abuse’ button on Twitter will create more problems than it solves

Twitter today responded to calls to make it easier for people to report abusive messages received through its service, pledging to introduce a ‘report abuse’ button.

This follows a weekend of controversy for the platform as feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez faced a deluge of hundreds of vile tweets, including threats to rape and kill her, after she successfully campaigned for a woman’s picture to be put on a new banknote.

Criado-Perez refused to be silenced and took to both traditional and digital media to name and shame those who’d made the threats. Twitter drew criticism from politicians on all sides. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described their response as “weak” and “inadequate”, while the Police’s social media lead called for the company to make further changes to the platform to prevent abuse.

In the past three days, over 50,000 people have signed the petition calling for the introduction of a ‘report abuse’ button. These tens of thousands will no doubt be pleased to hear Twitter has heeded their demands, and included this functionality in the latest release of their iPhone app, with other apps and sites to follow.

But we should be careful what we wish for. A button will not, alone, rid Twitter (or the wider world) of mysogyny and abuse. These are complex issues that will take more than a button to resolve. But ‘report abuse’ buttons have been known to be widely abused on other networks, an introducing this to Twitter will create new and complex problems for individuals and brands online.

Abuse buttons are easily abused

Back in 2010 I wrote about the case of a magazine which disapppeared from Facebook after falling victim to misuse of the report button. They found their page – and the personal accounts of all the admins – disappeared overnight, with no recourse to appeal.

After writing that piece, I heard similar stories from social media specialists of pages shut down and valuable content lost through malicious reporting, commercial rivalry, or simply mischief-making. Community managers and social media managers have found disappearing content to be a depressingly regular occurrence. It only takes a handful of reports to have content removed automatically – putting campaigns and content at risk of malicious removal, and putting the personal accounts of the admins at risk of deletion.

Facebook has long since made it simple to report different kinds of abuse, from breaches of terms of service to copyright violation, but provides no means by which brands and organisations can appeal when this is misused.


More recently Facebook introduced the concept of ‘protected accounts’, where pages are protected from automatic shut-down – but this isn’t a service they publicise, and is largely only available to paying advertisers.

Introduction of a similar mechanism on Twitter ironically creates a whole new means by which trolls can abuse those they disagree with. The report abuse button could be used to silence campaigners, like Criado-Perez, by taking advantage of the automatic blocking and account closure such a feature typically offers. In that way, it could end up putting greater power in the trolls’ hands.

A report feature could also be used by campaign groups to ‘bring down’ brands or high-profile individuals (such as MPs) through co-ordinated mass reporting.

The abuse button will do little to prevent abusive messages

It’s not at all clear that an abuse button will do much to prevent the use of abusive and threatening language on Twitter, either.

Unlike Facebook – which these days makes it quite difficult to register a new account, and in storing so much of your life history creates implicit incentives toward good behaviour as users truly fear having accounts deleted – the barriers to entry on Twitter are low. All you need to create a Twitter account is an email address; you can be up and running in under a minute. If users are blocked or banned for abuse, they can – and will – simply create new IDs and keep on going.

The introduction of a report button could simply create a tedious game of cat and mouse in which the immature and misogynistic simply treat being reported and banned as a wind-up to be ignored.

Button-pushing mechanisms rarely create real change

To create real change, and really tackle the issue of abuse on Twitter (and indeed, mysogyny in the wider world) we have to recognise it’s s complex problem which can’t be resolved by giving people a button to press and make it go away.

Abuse is sometimes clear-cut, but often it’s subjective. What someone may regard as a joke or sarcasm, others could see as abuse and threatening language – as the Twitter Joke Trial proved all too well.

Threats of violence and rape are, rightly, against the law (the Malicious Communications Act 2003 outlaws electronic communications which are “grossly offensive” or threatening). Writing for the Guardian, feminist writer Jane Rae argues more could be achieved by applying these existing laws.

It’s encouraging to see the UK police have already made one arrest over the threats against Criado-Perez, because seeing people being prosecuted for what is a serious crime sends a far stronger message to trolls than having their Twitter account blocked. I, for one, hope the police take action against more of those who have threatened violence.

A report button is an ineffectual knee-jerk response to the issue. But that it’s been introduced in a hurry – leaving no time to ensure it’s properly thought through, resourced, or supported by processes created through discussion with law enforcement agencies – means this is a move that’s likely to do little to tackle abuse on Twitter, but rather create new ways for people and brands to be abused.

UPDATE: Several bloggers have expressed reservations about this too, thinking more about some of the problems with trying to automate the process of identifying and tackling abuse. Here are some posts worth reading:

The future of business is now

Following on from my talk on mobility and connectedness at Intranatverk last week, I’ve pulled together this quick blog post for Business Reimagined on how technology is changing the way we work, making predictions about new ways of working a reality for more and more people.

The business of reimagining business is nothing new. Popular narrative from the middle of the last century painted the new millennium as an age of domestic automation, jetpacks and interplanetary travel – and all turned out to be some way off the mark.

More prescient, though, was Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, who in 1950 was asked to predict what work would be like in the year 2000. He wrote:“…offices will be relocated in small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and  more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis, the great metropolitan centers of today.”

Granted, he was wrong about quite a few things (not least that  the 20-hour work week would become standard) and in the year 2000 most of us were firmly chained to our desks.  But in the thirteen years since, the digital workplace – the ecosystem of communication tools, social platforms and business systems within the enterprise – has succeeded in making Huxley’s prediction something closer to a reality for a growing number of workers.

The revolution in technology since the turn of the 21st century has been accompanied by a seismic shift in working cultures that has seen the commute and the 9-5 workplace become a thing of the past.

The arrival of the digital workplace has led businesses to completely rethink the way they work. By moving the tools people need to do their jobs online, businesses have made it possible for their employees to work from anywhere – so that work becomes what you do, not where you go.

Already one in ten office workers in Western Europe are mobile, working all or part of the time from home, and this is growing by 6% a year.

Mobility, supported by a good digital workplace, has a raft of well-documented benefits, including improved productivity and reduced costs, as well as making employees happier and healthier. Businesses are quickly realising that mobility isn’t a nice to have; in a world where competitive advantage is everything, becoming more responsive and productive is essential.

But while technology is a central component of the digital workplace, making a success of it means focussing instead on people – not designing mobile websites, but designing policies, places and online services for people who are mobile.

For example, the digital workplace allows smart companies to change the way their use physical space; instead of banks of desks used from 9-5, they give people well-designed space to think, work alone, or to collaborate. Not simplyless space, but the right space and place for the task at hand – whether that’s at home, on the road, or in the office.

Design matters. If the primary way those who work for you experience the organisation is online, the online experience can’t be a bad one. Successful mobile organisations recognise the importance of brand, design and user experience in the digital workplace.

Enterprise mobility is a decentralising force, but this shift can lead employees to feel disconnected from their colleagues. Successful organisations work to establish community through social intranets so that remote workers can communicate with – and feel connected to – their colleagues, wherever they’re working.

By making it possible to work whenever and wherever we choose, the digital workplace is ending the tyranny of the daily commute. And all while making our businesses more productive, and more profitable.

Today’s technology enables us to do business the way we’ve been reimagining it for decades; enabling people to work more flexibly in ways that benefit employees, and the bottom line.

My half marathon experiment

The Pebble watch

This weekend I am running the Reading Half Marathon for the second time.

Last year I did it in a relatively respectable 2:07, and this year – three kilos heavier but with a year’s more running experience under my belt and some helpful advice from my friend and colleague Keith – I’m aiming to get around in under two hours.

It’s not going to be easy – can you help me out with your words of encouragement and your dodgy taste in music?

Yes, I need your help. I recently received my long-awaited Pebble Smartwatch (pictured above). While the Runkeeper app isn’t yet available, this does mean I can control my music and read your tweets, right from my wrist.

So, in a possibly foolhardy move, I’ve set up a collaborative Spotify playlist, and I’m asking you – the people of the internets – to pick my running tunes for me. I need some good running tunes that will motivate me to keep up the pace. What can you suggest?

The rules:

  1. I won’t look at the playlist before I start – I want it to be a surprise
  2. You have until 8am on Sunday to add your tunes – that’s when I’m downloading the tracks from Spotify (in case of streaming problems while running – I’ll ask someone else to do this to maintain the surprise element)
  3. I can skip if I’ve heard a tune before (henceforth known as the Rickroll Rule)
  4. If there’s a tune that doesn’t help me pick up/keep up the pace, or which I really hate (or both), I can skip past that too (the Hawkwind rule)

I also want your encouragement while I run. Tweet me/mock me @sharonodea and I’ll (hopefully) see it on my Pebble. I’ll start running at shortly after 10am on Sunday 17 March, and all being well will be over the finish line by 12.15.

Thanks! I’m still undecided about live-tweeting as I run (as I did for the Ealing Half), but I’ll let you know how it goes after the event.

Hack yourself: the quantified self and social New Year’s resolutions

It’s January, and like a lot of people I overindulged during the festive season (and, if I’m honest, the rest of the year too). As 2012 drew to a close, I resolved to shape up in the year ahead – just like I do every year.

But research regularly shows New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time; research for the Journal of Clinical Psychology found just 8% of people who make resolutions stick with them.

So how can we do this differently? Taking inspiration from my day job, I’ve turned to metrics – because you can only manage what you can measure, right? Like a growing number of people, I’ve been tracking my weight, food intake and exercise using a range of apps and sites in a bid to become fitter and healthier.

Organisations have long since recognised the power of data to effect change; as well as the obvious balance sheet and bottom line, data helps business to understand their resources and marketing, while the government is (selectively) pushing for greater scrutiny of spending and outcomes through the release of open data.

But while the impenetrability of (and lack of interest in) spending data means Eric Pickles’ army of armchair auditors is likely to remain small, understanding and analysing metrics about ourselves has fast become mainstream. Growing numbers of people are tracking their food, moods, exercise, their alcohol intake, how well they sleep, and much else besides, in order to make lifestyle changes – an approach known as self quantifying.

Recording personal data on nutrition and the like used to be difficult, which is why only those with a serious interest in doing so would bother. But smartphones have been a game-changer; they’ve bought the tools used to measure, monitor and analyse in business and science into the palms of our hands – and into the private sphere.

As people become more aware of the amount of data that organisations gather about them, they’re becoming more aware of the potential to use data themselves. By marrying technology and life improvement , and tapping into the stream of data we generate, we can find new ways to improve our quality of life.

Growing numbers of people are doing just that, using self-tracking tools and methods to gain knowledge about themselves, others and the world around them. Some of the things self-trackers at the London Self-Quantifiers Meetup Group measure include: self-experimentation, behaviour monitoring, lifelogging, location tracking, digitizing body info, biometric data, psychological self-assessments (mood tracking), medical self-diagnostics and even personal genome sequencing.

People with long-term illnesses are using self-tracking or quantifying to understand their own patterns of illness, and in particular lifestyle triggers, which helps them better manage their illnesses.

Over the past two years, my iPhone and apps have helped me understand my sleep patterns, keep track of my food intake, monitor my weight and train for two half-marathons.


Self-quantifying is being taken seriously by start-ups, with a wide range of companies launching new devices and software aimed at self-trackers – most notably the Nike FuelBand and the FitBit, which uses an accelerometer and altimeter to measure activity levels and sleep patterns.

The public sector has been quick to get in on the game; the NHS has developed a range of self-quantifying apps which help people measure (and so reduce) their alcohol intake and quit smoking. The cost of developing these will recouped if just a handful of people avoided a serious illness such as cancer by improving their lifestyle.

Insurers are looking at self-quantification, too, creating apps which help people to record their driving, and rewarding safer drivers with cheaper insurance.  It’s been suggested these apps provide a glimpse of the future of health care, in which a greater emphasis is placed on monitoring, to prevent disease and reduce medical costs (or, more cynically, to more efficiently calculate actuarial risk).

But ultimately, this is about outcomes, not outputs; it doesn’t matter how many calories I consumed or burned off today, what I really want to know is whether I can fit into those skinny jeans. So as with all open data exercises, the data isn’t enough; it’s what you do with the data that’s important.

And this is where the secondary function of Quantified Self apps kicks into play; using the power of group dynamics and feedback. The weight loss industry has long since employed group feedback (positive and negative) within programmes such as Weightwatchers. Some self-trackers are using social networks to share their progress data, gain feedback and receive positive reinforcement that helps them reach their personal goals. This augments the already diverse range of health, fitness and weightloss forums out there with further opportunities for goal-setting and peer motivation.

A growing number of apps encourage self-tracking through gamification — using game mechanics to encourage participation and competition with friends. Android app Boozerlyzer, helps people track their drinking and uses simple games to help them measure the effect of alcohol on co-ordination, reaction times, memory and emotions.

Data from the Boozerlyzer app is anonymised and aggregated to investigate the variation in people’s response to alcohol – just one of many ways in which self-tracking is producing useful scientific data.

Users of the Zeo headband, which tracks sleep quantity and quality by measuring brainwave activity, have already generated the largest-ever database on sleep stages, which revealed differences between genders in REM-sleep quantity, and has vastly improved understanding of sleep disorders.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of patients are sharing data on symptoms, treatments and triggers for their illnesses on websites such as CureTogether.

With a growing number of self-tracking apps and gadgets on the market, the scope for data collection widens, enabling users to analyse their own behaviour (to make lifestyle changes) and aggregate their data with others (to further understanding). As the usability of tracking apps improves, we’re seeing a surprising growth in data nerds – auditing not the government, but themselves, often with very positive results.

For more on self-quantifying, see Gary Wolf’s Quantified Self blog.

Developing trust in the digital workplace

Here’s a little something I wrote for CMS Wire, as part of their series on intranets and the digital workplace this month.

In offices the world over, a quiet revolution is underway. The costs of technology have fallen, the quality of social platforms vastly improved, and senior management attitudes have changed; after many years when it was simply an aspiration, or a buzzword, the digital workplace is fast becoming a reality.

Using social and collaborative tools, more and more of us are breaking free of the office and working flexibly for all or part of the time – so that work is an activity, not a place.

While secure, reliable and usable tools are an important element of a successful digital workplace, technology is not itself a panacea; to make it work you need the right policies and processes in place too – and the people involved need to trust one another.

A recent survey by Microsoft found 82% of businesses now support flexible working. But while seven in ten managers say they trust their employees to be productive when working from home, employees are far more cynical about one another: only 52% trust their colleagues to be productive when working away from the office.

This presents a barrier to continued growth in online working; teams cannot deliver unless they trust each other. But to build trust in virtual teams – when often the members have never even met each other – employers need to ensure the right factors are in place to enable it.

So just how can organisations develop employee trust in their digital workplace?

First, realise that trust doesn’t just happen. Too many organisations introduce collaboration technologies, and simply expect silos to disappear, with productive, cross-functional teams emerging in their place. Often, silos exist for reason – because the people in them know each other, and understand their own role. Successful digital workplaces recognise that virtual teams need time, space and tools to develop solid working relationships.

Conversely, virtual teams often have a honeymoon period, a brief time when people are willing to give them a shot. Under pressure to perform, groups quickly develop what’s termed swift trust – a kind of benefit of the doubt. This tends to decay quickly, but it can provide the glue that keeps teams together until more lasting trust has developed.

Developing deeper bonds in the digital workplace requires us to use our tools in less obvious ways. Often digital workplace strategy focuses on facilitating work tasks, but not on how to reproduce the experience of a being a member of a workforce in order to reduce feelings of isolation and increase engagement.

Ambient awareness

Lee Bryant of Dachis Group champions the importance of ambient awareness – the office chatter which gives people a greater understanding of their organisation’s work – as something which “oils the wheels” of digital workforces. While some argue social activity streams are an unwelcome distraction from ‘real work’, in replicating those overheard office conversations they keep people in the loop and can ultimately lead to improved productivity.

Successful digital workplace launches have found tools have had wider adoption – and achieved greater success – when they can be used for social as well as more obviously work-related activity, for instance by including interest-based social communities. Allowing people to talk about both their personal and professional lives builds empathy and interpersonal trust between people who may not have met face-to-face.

Provide tools, not rules

This connective tissue is stronger when it’s able to develop organically, with employers providing the tools but not prescribing precisely how and when they can be used. There are parallels here between physical and online spaces; when a business creates a meeting room, it defines the rules for the room (how you book it, when it’s available), and sets up the space, but never defines precisely how the room must be used. Social spaces are like meeting rooms.

In German there’s even a word for this: Nutzungoffenheit, which – loosely translated – means the potential of technologies only manifests itself when people have made sense of them and incorporated them into their own routines.

This phenomenon means it’s difficult to predict precisely what impact digital workplace tools will have on the workforce until they have been introduced. Corporate culture also impacts heavily on the degree to which collaboration will be embraced.

Lead from the middle

However, in all but the smallest organisations the introduction of enterprise social marks a significant shift from top-down to peer-to-peer communication. While a move away from old ‘command and control’ management contributes to networked productivity, it moves the balance of power away from managers and leaders as gatekeepers of information.

One unintended consequence is that this – combined with the decreased visibility that comes with flexible working – can further undermine trust in leadership. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer found trust in CEOs fell by 12% in the last year alone. With teams increasingly working virtually, senior execs need to find new ways to connect with their workforces to gain and maintain trust in their leadership.

Senior leaders need to ‘walk the talk’, using enterprise social tools and blogs just as others might ‘walk the floor’ in a more traditional organisation, while recognising that in a digital workplace a command and control style of leadership is often less effective than modelling desired behaviours.

Jonathan Phillips suggests leaders should be highly visible on the intranet, and not just in news stories and CEO blogs: “They should ask questions, participate in online debate, solicit personal feedback, seek input to key initiatives. They should comment on other employee blogs.”

Leaders must demonstrate that they believe enterprise social is work and not work avoidance; by using social tools themselves, leaders give employees permission to do the same, and in turn let employees know they are trusted to deliver.

Successful organisations will trust their own employees to work effectively without command and control, and provide them with tools and time to establish social bonds with their peers in order to work effectively in virtual teams. Such organisations recognise that trust is a reciprocal relationship between employer and employee, where trust is repaid with greater flexibility, engagement and performance on both sides.

Declining trust defines new role for intranets


The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer, published last week, finds a deepening sense of distrust in governments, businesses and institutions. The annual global study, which questioned 30,000 people in 25 countries, reveals a dramatic shift in the value people place in information sources – which, in turn, has some interesting implications for communicators and intranet managers.

Across the globe, blame for the financial and political chaos of 2011 landed at the doorstep of government, as trust in that institution fell nine points to 43 per cent. In seventeen of the 25 countries surveyed, government is now trusted by less than half to do what is right. In twelve, it trails business, media and non-governmental organizations as the least trusted institution.

The private sector fared slightly better: trust in business fell from 56 percent to 53 percent, with countries like France and Germany, in the heart of the Eurozone economic crisis, experiencing double-digit decreases.

“Business is now better placed than government to lead the way out of the trust crisis,” said CEO Richard Edelman. “But the balance must change so that business is seen both as a force for good and an engine for profit.”

One of the biggest changes over the past year is the decline in trust in CEOs, which fell by 12 points. Faith in government officials fell like a stone too this year, down 14 points to just 29 per cent. It’s not unreasonable to assume this is reflected inside organisations too, so many will want to look again at CEO blogs as a means of increasing visability and trust in senior leadership. Over on Intranetizen, Jonathan gives some sterling advice on making executive blogs work.

Employee advocacy could be one way out of the mire. The survey found that credibility in average employees rose dramatically this year, so they are now the most trusted resource within an organisation. To capitalise on this, organisations must work harder to ensure their employees are informed and engaged – and then trust them to talk on the company’s behalf. This approach – what Edelman call radical transparancy – empowers employees to drive the conversation amongst their peers.

But to do this, organisations and leaders need to trust their employees first; companies which block access to social networks are preventing their employees from advocating on their behalf, and so missing a huge opportunity to engage with customers.

The barometer found people need to hear the same information about a company three to five times before they will believe it. This emphasises the importance of a proper communciations strategy which mixes on and offline channels to ensure the message gets out there. 

At the same time, trust in social networks as sources of information grew  by 75 per cent over the past year. Smart companies, then, will take advantage of this and embrace the value of conversations (by employees and the public) as a means of establishing identity and trust.

One corollary of this is that the growth in use of social networks, both internally and externally, means news travels fast. Employees can easily find information about their own company online, and all too often will hear (and believe) news from external sources before they do from their own manager.

This has huge implications for company transparency; corporate communciations structures need to keep pace with the changes. A good, social intranet – and improved access to these from a range of devices – gives organisations the means by which they can get their message to staff before they hear it from elsewhere. But this isn’t just a case of building it – leadership buy-in, and changes to the way corporate comms work with social intranets are essential to make it work.

Edelman’s report sets out long- and short-term approaches to rebuilding trust. In the short term, trust in a business is firmly tied to the bottom line. But future trust is more strongly linked to softer, societally-focused factors such as business ethics, placing customers ahead of profits and treating employees well. In the current environment, informed, engaged employees are best placed to communicate that message to the public – and intranets have a vital role to play in building that engagement.

Photo credit: Thorinside on Flickr

Will 2012 be the end of email?

end of email

2012 begins with a slew of predictions that this year will see the back of email. Back in November, multibillionaire foetus Mark Zuckerberg declared “email is dead”.

It must be true, I read it on Twitter. However, Zuckerberg is hardly an impartial observer; he’s got his Facebook Messenger to flog (a system which, ironically, has a user experience akin to using Yahoo webmail in the late 90s).

ATOS boss Thierry Breton is taking the whole business more seriously; he’s making it his personal mission to end the use of internal email by 2014, arguing that 85% of his staff’s time spent on email is unproductive.

Breton noted that his new graduate hires didn’t use email; they’d grown up on social tools such as Facebook. It was only on starting work, he claims, that this cohort were introduced to mail – and found it wanting.

Research by ComScore reckons younger people don’t use email, eschewing it in favour of IM and social networks which provide “instant gratification”. This is precisely the kind of meaningless statistic regularly used to prop up claims that email is on the way out (usually peddled by people with a messaging system of their own to promote). Until I joined the workforce I’d never participated in a meeting, made a round of tea, or heard the word Action used as a verb. Yet all of these things are still going strong in the most digital of workplaces. That people don’t adopt common workplace practices until they join the workforce should hardly come as a surprise.

Let’s get this straight right now: Facebook messenger, Twitter and Yammer aren’t about to see off a communication medium which has been going strong since 1972. Not now, and probably not for a long time.

Claims that one type of new technology will swiftly usurp established practice are nothing new; Plato claimed that the spread of writing would destroy humans’ ability to remember.

The ComScore research found visits to mail sites such as Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo fell by 6% in the past year. Crucially, however, it doesn’t find that that volume of email received and sent has actually fallen. And as more and more if us are using smartphone and tablet clients to manage our personal emails, it kind of follows that this should impact on the number of visits to webmail sites.

In the workplace, things are different. People are attached to their Outlook. This has long been a source of bafflement to intranet managers and others working in enterprise tech. Outlook, as we all know, is rubbish.

Well, it is; it’s particularly rubbish at the things it wasn’t supposed to be used for, like collaboration and archiving. But this is like moaning that a hammer is crap at cutting a piece of wood in two.

What Outlook is mostly quite good for is emailing. As a program for reading and writing emails, facilitating communication between two or more people, it’s really not bad at all. It integrates with Office. It has folders and a calendar, and if you’re very clever you can add voting buttons, which at least half of the recipients will miss.

And the fact is, people like email. They know what to do with it. They can attach stuff to it. Crucially, at some future date they can retrieve their email from the bowels of their Personal Folders in order to cover their own back. Granted, it does mean that disk space is optimally used, or that versions aren’t ordered, or that they’ll definitely be able to find what they’re looking for, but for most this is a small price to pay.

The times, however, are a-changin’. Attached though users are to Outlook, the fact is that IT teams are not. If 2012 is anything, it looks set to be the year of the cloud. Usability and functionality of cloud-based office apps has now improved to the point where they present a genuine alternative, while at the same time budgets are being squeezed. For many IT departments, switching to cloud based email is fast becoming a no-brainer.

It’s this, together with the increasing use of smartphones as the primary means of reading emails, which may finally break the office’s addiction to Outlook.

And that, my intranet-loving friends, is an opportunity. If people are – for other reasons – going to change their workplace tech habits, then for the first time ever they might be genuinely interested in your collaboration platforms and document management solutions.

If your organisation is aiming to move to cloud-based mail this year, then now is the time to get planning.  While we know the benefits of a social, collaborative intranet, in most organisations they haven’t yet taken off; 72% of employees use internal social functionality less than once a month.

This isn’t because they don’t know how. The same group of users will happily update Facebook daily. No: it’s because they haven’t figured out the point yet, and find your collaboration platform fiddly.

So what can you do about this?

First, make your internal social network better. Find out what people want and need and give it to them. What do they want to communicate about, and with who? What features do they need? File sharing, task management? These are all things people do (badly) in Outlook. For your internal social network to take off, it needs to be genuinely useful and help people to do their jobs better.

User experience is a vital component of this. Facebook has the traction it does because it’s intuitive and easy to use. Internal networks need to watch and learn. People won’t put up with a clunky interface simply because they’re being paid to be there.

Many will claim to have already cracked step 1. Good. Then why aren’t people using it? Perhaps they don’t know it’s there, or don’t understand the benefits of using it.

Employees need to understand how internal social can improve their productivity, or they won’t see the point in using it. Make sure the benefits of using the system are clearly spelled out. As well as marketing the product, you need to cultivate the network.  Like any social network, internal ones need to reach a tipping point – a critical mass of users and a decent range of content – before they really become interesting and useful.

Here, 2012 provides another opportunity; with many being asked to work from home during the Olympics to reduce demand on the transport network, people are actively looking for solutions to support home and flexible working.  These newly homeworking employees could provide a valuable case study, demonstrating how intranet 2.0 can improve communication and collaboration, leading to more innovation, better knowledge-sharing and ultimately increased revenue.

Start talking to these people now and ensure they have the right tools in place by the time the Games come around. If the tools work for them, they’ll have an incentive to keep on using them after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Email isn’t dying. If anything, it’s suffering from growing pains. But with the changes to workplace technology in the pipeline for 2012, this is the time to develop and promote the alternatives in order to make your organisation work more effectively. Your workforce needs you.