Online Information 2010: harnessing the social web

The social web offers great opportunities for organisations to engage with customers, partners and its workforce but is not without its challenges

The social web offers great opportunities for organisations to engage with the customers, partners and the workforce.   The challenge is that the infrastructure of most enterprises is not very ‘web like' and this can create a barrier to the effective use of social web tools. 

Dion Hinchcliffe's conference keynote outlined the implications of technological and behavioural change.  The majority of devices that will be sold in 2011 will be mobile.   This increased ‘mobility' is changing the way that people communicate and organisations must address this fact. 

In this vast new information landscape, how can we extract actionable meaning?   Like Clay Shirkey, Hinchcliffe believes the issue is one of ‘filter failure' rather than information overload.   As yet, no ‘Google of social analytics' has emerged, but rather it is the ‘smaller' players who, in open source environments, are leading the way - and some useful tools are already emerging.    These tools will help take us beyond the ‘what' of information behaviour to the ‘why'.  Meanwhile the information professional continues to be vital to act as the human filter.

This theme of ‘filtering and creating' was picked up by Euan Semple in the ‘Harnessing the Social Web' track.  He highlighted the importance of differentiating between ‘signal' and noise in the social environment.  His presentation had some memorable analogies.   (He likened many CEO-authored blogs as the communication equivalent of watching your dad dance at a wedding!) He spoke about how he has built his own trusted network, the members of which feed and filter information as he does for them in return.  How can organisations replicate the development of trust based networks, when so many organisations are ‘designed' rather than evolved and nurtured?  The value in an organisation may reside where homogeneity doesn't, Euan suggested, and organisations should nurture ‘difference'.

Lee Bryant of Headshift, spoke about communication game changers.  He reminded us how quickly things move.  Not long ago all the communications models were divided - think ‘internal communications' as opposed to ‘external communications'.  These models are no longer relevant.

It is perverse not to be holding conversations with our customers. Why would we spend time and money on advertising to tell people they want what we have?  We could be designing what they really want with them. Traditionally the bridges that link those outside an organisation with those within have been very narrow and ‘owned' by just a few people (think of a call centre - if you can bear to!).  It's the equivalent of talking to an organisation through a narrow gap in a wall.   Social media must take us beyond this and should not be the corporate equivalent of putting shiny baubles on an old wall!  Many of the e-government initiatives were like this - the underlying processes were never redesigned despite web-based accessibility. 

How can we use the outside to change the inside of an organisation and vice versa?

Bryant believes we must change our corporate mindset to a default of ‘all information should be open' - unless there's a very good reason for it not to be!

Brian Kelly was fascinating about how the organisational and the personal has blurred.  In some instances this has led to the loss or abandonment of valuable resources, such as blogs, as the people who created them have moved on to new roles.   Other institutional concerns about social media, include worries about legality etc and inappropriateness.  Brian believes that many concerns can be easily addressed by the use of both institutional and individual guidelines and procedures.  Train people and give them simple social media guidelines and, as Phil Bradley discussed in his own presentation later in the day, just ‘do it' and don't worry too much about what ‘could' go wrong!

Unsurprisingly the flipside of open data and a culture of openness was also discussed during the day.  Many sessions included questions or comments on the current Wikileaks controversy.  Would the fear of exposure stop us from sharing and recording information?  Or would it simply make organisations, and the individuals within them, realise that social media is changing the rules?   What is certainly true is that social media makes it very hard indeed to tell two different stories to two different audiences.  You will be found out, even if it is in a less spectacular fashion than a Wikileaks expose!