The Social Media Battleground

By Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D.
Founder, Innovation Focus Inc.

Social media, mobile communication and back to personal computing, and yes, even the phone, each new work tool, in turn, offered a tremendous productivity opportunity and a challenge that caused fear in the bureaucratic heart. It is important to know a bit of information sciences history as we think about social media as an innovation tool. A phone on every desk was believed to be a distraction from real work by many managers. PCs, a threat to data quality and mobile phones/smart phones, 30 years after broad adoption, are still being debated. The truth is tools are tools. And a good craftsman carefully selects tools and applies them with subtlety.
Social media is not a single tool. It is a whole tool kit. Innovation is not a single activity. It is an array of jobs that need to be completed. In Research Technology Management’s 2011 review, the 54th edition’s authors point out, “Managers can tend to focus on installing the technology, rather than on designing a socio-technical system that can meet the organization’s goals and foster authentic participation.” If we want to use social media in innovation, let’s start by asking what job we want innovation to do for us, select the level of tool we need and, finally, experiment with the appropriate technology.

Level Zero- Open Social Sites
The greatest gift any manager can receive is brutal truth as perceived by their worst critics. It requires emotional stability to hear what is said on open social sites. You become aware of both information and disinformation. Love-speak and hate-speak tumble over one another. Information can be exchanged, disinformation challenged, catharsis can occur and, every now and again, a gem can pop out. Usually, this gem is in the form of a potential storm cloud on your horizon.
Note: Level Zero exists whether you want it to or not. In the social world without rules, there is one rule… “Be cool, don’t try to control, allow it to flow around you”.

Level One – By Invitation
Moderated communities of interest on public sites (blogs) are easy to set up and can lead to a solid exchange of ideas. They can be very public or very private. At this level, think about them as a gathering of internal experts and external lead users (customers). It may be a great place for participants to seek insight and perspective about the “level zero” storm cloud. Ideas can be quickly expressed and developed.
Consider using easily accessible popular social sites as a platform. Your participants can move seamlessly between their personal and professional conversations. This easy efficiency can yield the benefit of broader participation. Your priority is simplicity not security. Gently and continuously remind participants that there is no such thing as real privacy online and they should make their comments accordingly.

Level Two – Level One with Personalized Security
What is Security?
It is something only your organization can define. This is a conversation that should include the appropriate legal and technical professionals. Most of these will suggest a stronger or more secure option. Be cautious, innovation generally benefits from simplicity, inclusivity and openness. Don’t buy more security than you need. If you want to use your social media tool to do something, like build own-able intellectual property, you will need to make a diligent effort.

Level Three – Secured and Recruited For the Diverse Co-Creation Conversation
The Participants have agreed to participate and are committed to the goals of the group. The conversations these groups have can be short or long term. Participants can be paid or unpaid. These can have binding non-disclosure agreements. They should have a published purpose and code of conduct. The output has the benefit of being solid fact-based thinking with a diverse perspective; great for problem clarification and generating ideas.
When putting together this group, each member has a role and knows they will be missed if they do not participate. Consider including decision makers, implementers, relevant and diverse experts and end users (lead users).

Level Four – Social Media for Active Working Teams
Imagine that you are planning a wedding and there are a few to a dozen organizers from the bride to the band leader. At this level, social media is “parallel work”. Often this is just document and calendar sharing, but it can be the equivalent of the “Daily Planet” news room, with Lois Lane, Clark Kent and Jimmy Olson jumping in and out of the conversation. Ideas tumble over each other, are accepted and rejected. Nevertheless decisions are always made, communicated and work is accomplished. Failure to keep an eye on the conversation may mean that you are out of sync with your work group and performance will suffer. There is a benefit to being able to time-shift your communications that can rival the power of co-location. It works best when it becomes a primary tool, is goal-directed and time compressed.
There are levels in between these levels. And of course you can invent your own. Just remember that social media is a tool…Just a tool. It is not good or bad. It is up to you to use it well. This will come with experience.
Here are a couple of articles to check out:
Dahl, A., Lawrence, J., & Pierce, J. (2011). BUILDING AN INNOVATION COMMUNITY. Research Technology Management, 54(5).

The Revolution Will Be Shared: Social Media and Innovation. (2011). Research Technology Management, 54(1), 64.


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