As the personal computer replaced typewriters and the Internet evolved into common use, more critics began to panic that we, as a society, would lose our human touch. After all, just how personal can interaction be through computer screens? One wonders if they thought the same of the telephone. Even a man I greatly admire, James A. Autry, a thought leader on servant leadership and remarkably successful business man, devoted an entire section in one of his books to the theme that technology negatively impacts the ability for personal interaction (and servant leadership) to be successful. James and many of these critics were right in their observations given the state of technologies at that time – the late 80’s and early 90’s. Before social technology hit rev 2.0, everything was static, there was limited conversation and nobody saw the Internet as a place for friends to connect. Instead, you had a mess of static webpages. The closest thing to a personal touch from these early websites was a bunch of personal data that was broadcast to anyone at all. The problem was, only a select network of individuals wanted to read these individual’s broadcasts but there was no easily defined audience or targeting mechanism. That was then, this is now.
Before Social Technology evolved into common place, in times that predate digital social networks, we had direct personal relationships based primarily on physical interactions. Those you knew living close to you, working in your office or family that visited semi-regularly were all in the know about your life’s events. Even your closest friends from high school or college – the select few who kept you updated in Christmas letters or shared their updated contact information with each subsequent move. These individuals all provided “warm fuzzies” when you heard an update every couple of months.
If there were major life events, such as weddings, funerals or even the occasional reunion, you would even travel far to see those closest to you. You’d reconnect briefly, be amazed at how much had changed over the years and regret that you had not stayed in “closer contact”. You’d promise to “do better this time” and maybe you would, for a couple of months at least, before the status quo returned and you’d meet up again at the next major life event….
And so it went for most of us. Sure, there were exceptions, those who were friends for life, those that didn’t move far from home and made sure to visit everyone when they returned to visit, perhaps even the occasional high school “clique” that never ended. But as a whole, I suspect most of us experienced something like the above – only maintaining even semi-regular contact with a very small subset of friends and colleagues. However, modern evolutions in social technology have changed all this and flipped the coin completely. We now have the opportunity, through the technical empowerment of social technology, to make and maintain our relationships on a more personal level than ever before.
It is easier than ever to stay connected or reconnect with friends and colleagues. A quick Google of someone’s name is likely to identify a Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Ning, Naymz or similar networking reference. Physical vicinity is almost irrelevant. When you meet at the life event, you exchange your preferred profile space, go home, link up and now you’re getting daily one-liner updates from Twitter or a similar service. You suddenly realize that their child is the same age as yours or slightly ahead and, trusting them from the common bonds of your youth, may rely on them for advice. How did they get that thumb-sucking under control?
Perhaps you discover that your old college roommate went back for his law degree. As luck would have it, you needed someone to go over that new contract before you sign. Again, the common bond of trust is pre-existing and new business is drawn up with old friends. In the end, it becomes easier and easier to make ties with your personal life and professional roles. For some this may not be what they seek. Many people prefer a work-life balance, vs. a work-life alignment. But even if for purely personal reasons, the daily status updates, photo sharing and routine communication with friends becomes more simplistic and readily accessible.
Still Room For Improvement
Of course, social technology solutions are still far from perfect. Many of the social technology services are awkward on mobile devices. The proliferation of these technologies is still relatively limited and standards have not yet matured. In fact, the lack of connectivity for a majority of mobile devices or even decent user interfaces for many of those that are connected, limit the adoption rate of mobile social technology. Meanwhile, the elders of our society, the age group most unlikely to adopt new technologies, remain virtually untouched by social technology. However, as we mature as a society and more youth become adults and adults become elders, all familiar with these systems and solutions, the adoption rate will naturally expand accordingly. Finally, there remains too many competitors and redundant solutions. As competitors battle for market share (user base) and systems settle into niches, these standards will pan out as they do for all technologies. Before long, all these roadblocks will become speed bumps and social technology adoption and proliferation will complete.
How Do We, As Technology Leaders, Respond?
Great, so we recognize that social technology is making relationships more personal than ever before. We understand this brings a human touch back to the office that may have been lacking in the last decade. In fact, we may even see our friends and colleagues are more connected than ever. So what does that mean for you, as a technology leader? It means first and foremost that this is not a battle, it means that we need to leverage these resources ourselves and it means we need to align our business plans with the social technology present and future.
Not a Battle
How are you structuring your policies and security around social networking? Are you completely blocking Facebook and Myspace? What about LinkedIn and the more generally considered “professional sites”? How do you handle Ning, which consists of a mix of both personal and professionaly-focused networks? Sadly, the reality is there may be some increased security threats from these sites and so proper precautions should be taken. But if you think that your staff could only possibly use social networking and media sites for purely personal reasons, think again. Whether you immediately open up access to these resources for your employees or you plan for it in the future, only you can decide. One thing is certain though, social technology is not going away and it is an excellent resource for your employees – both personally and professionally. Consider shifting your policies from one of absolute opposition, to one of moderated temperance. Of course, excessive personal use that abuses corporate assets should always be addressed, but the line between personal and professional networking is a very gray one and difficult to define. Otherwise, employees that are completely blocked from such resources, intending to use it for professional networking purposes will feel stifled, lacking the tools they need to complete their job effectively and not empowered to perform their best.
Leverage These Resources Ourselves
Are you connected with social technology? How many friends do you have online? When was the last time you connected with your old colleagues? You know that position that you’ve been trying to fill for months? Having a solid network on LinkedIn, empowering you to query your most trusted advisers and former employees sure would be helpful. Imagine, with one message you could immediately ping most of your former colleagues and know immediately how any referrals you receive are connected to you.
Aligning Business Plans with Social Technology
Does the marketing plan at your company encompass how they plan to leverage social technology? If not, why not? Social Technology should be considered as regularly, if not more so, than print, television, email and web alone. Viral marketing is best and most cost effective online, something everyone wants to hear nowadays. Leveraging YouTube, product watch sites and email campaigns that don’t stink of force-fed ads are all low cost solutions to their traditional counterparts. What about your hiring strategy? Be sure to know what the discussion boards say about you as a manager (check eBossWatch for example) and as an employer (what do the hiring site discussions say?). Are you polling your own network online for hiring? In every new major initiative, within your own department and beyond, consider how social technology can help (or even hurt, if not properly addressed) your plans.
Yes, not so long ago, the Internet was evil, out to destroy our society by disconnecting us from the human touch. As the underlying technology evolves, adoption rates grow and interfaces become more familiar though, it is clear that social technology solutions have made our relationships more personal than ever before. There remains opportunities for improvement, but the fears of the past are fading and the promise of the future for both personal and professional opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues is immense. As a technology leader in your organization, it is up to you to ensure your teams realize this wave and help make it work for you.