The value of social media and enterprise social networking is all about the community, it’s people that drive mass collaboration, not technology. I was thinking about this as the BlueLightCamp unconference in Manchester was kicking off.
Here I was in the middle of the UK, on a Sunday morning, in a small conference room filled with passionate people clicking away on their mobiles and computers. For many this was their first unconference, for others it was their first dive into the world of social media. What they all had in common – the desire to learn more and go beyond the current communication capabilities of their industries.
Right before the event started you could easily see how most people were holding back and waiting for others to take the lead. The seats towards the back were the first to fill up. All of a sudden the presenter’s booming voice asked everyone to move forward and fill the seats up front. “I’m not going to start until all these seats up here are filled”, he stated with a cheeky smirk. There were a few nervous laughs and unsteady glances as people slowly got out of their seats and began moving to the front. They were no longer looking into the screens of their mobiles and laptops but instead began introducing and talking to each other as they were encouraged to move out of their comfort zones and sit beside strangers. This is the true value of community. A few passionate people involved in emergency services raised awareness of how social media can be a transformative tool in their industry. They raised awareness with social media but once we were all sitting in the same room social media got out of the way and the community mass collaboration was in full swing.
This is not to say that people did not tweet or post throughout the event, many did, but what was most memorable and powerful was the connections that people were making in the real world. These were the kind of relationships that will never be able to be replaced by any kind of technology.
This was made apparent in one of my first sessions where we were discussing ways to embed social media in organisations. The discussion started as a set of technical/marketing questions, asking which social media sites were the best for what, and how to create a compelling Twitter or Facebook page. Then people began speaking up and voicing their confusion. Most of them thought this session would revolve around people and culture, not technology. For them the word embed meant convincing their organisations to use social media in the first place. A few passionate individuals were already using social media in their work, but for the grand majority this was not the case. Everyone agreed that social media could not be successful without the community and cultural aspect. Before you address the technical side of things you need to address the minds and habits of your organisation. How are you going to help them adapt?
As the sessions carried on during the day it quickly became clear that there were two major schools of thought at the event. There were those who were using social media and championed its capabilities and potential, and those who were not familiar with it and saw more pitfalls than advantages. To my great surprise there was a session where forums and intranets were being recommended instead of using social technologies to improve communications. You can imagine how someone working in a social networking company felt!
BlueLightCamp raised many questions and at times fierce debates. Many people left with more questions than answers (good thing for next year!), but at the same time there was a recognition that was shared by almost all present: our industries, our organisations, and our working lives need to become more collaborative and engaging, and with social media we might just be onto something brilliant that will make it happen!