My daughter has just spent a weekend organising a big social event that will be at the heart of her University’s “Rag Week”, along with half a dozen other students. I have to say that I was highly impressed with her commitment, her practical approach, and the amount of attention to detail that has gone into the event. If her customers – the other students who will attend the event – don’t enjoy it, it won’t be for lack of effort by the organising committee.
This project – and make no mistake, it is a reasonably sized project for a bunch of students to manage – has been run almost entirely using social media to share ideas, let each other know about progress, ask (and answer) questions, and generally make sure that everything is going as it should. There have been no communication breakdowns, no lost documents, and no gaps in the information flow. And very few phone calls, and even fewer meetings. Yet everything is being done, and the leader of the group knows exactly what stage everything has reached, what the financial picture looks like, and is confident that the deadline will be met. Let’s face it, there’s no point in being a day late with the words that will be projected onto the walls for the singalong numbers…!
I have been involved in project management for a lot of years, and I have seldom seen a better run project. There are a few reasons for this, not least of which is the fact the entire teams wants to be part of the project. However, one of the key contributing factors has been their creation of a Facebook group that they use for pretty well everything to do with the project. No matter where they are, they can be in touch through the group, using their laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. No-one else has access to the group, and they can – and do – access it at any time. Most companies would bite your hand off if you could offer them the level of commitment and effectiveness that my daughter and her friends have achieved. But what stops them? Well, I would say that one factor is that companies don’t make it easy for their employees to interact. When in the office, there may be collaboration tools and communication facilities, but no-one wants to have to log into a company’s secure area to pass on an idea that occurred to you during News at Ten. Far better to be able to use the tools that you were already using to discuss the football scores with your non-work mates, and just flip between pages on screen. And there’s the rub.
Until companies can be convinced that social media is sufficiently secure, they won’t allow employees to use these systems. And even if they can be convinced about the security, there is still the matter of trust. They need to trust their employees to use the facilities responsibly, without wasting their working time chatting with their leisure-time friends and relations. And employees, in return, need to be prepared to commit to acting responsibly, and to avoid abusing the freedom that they are being granted – and that’s not going to be a given for everyone. So there are big issues to be overcome to let most companies benefit from the facilities that already exist “out there” in consumer-land.
I have seen the way that a bunch of students, children of the communications age, have used social media, in ways that I would not have envisaged even a couple of years ago. They do it instinctively, and even then they are probably only scratching the surface of what is possible. The key, as I see it, is that they are able to work and play using the same tools, without having to really think about which they are doing at any given time. Those of us who are a little older should take a lesson from these kids, and find ways to make it possible for them to work in their unstructured, collaborative, innovative ways as they move out of student life and into working life. Because if we don’t, our competitors will, and that’s where the talent will migrate to. Clever people have been saying this for a while now, but I have now seen the future, and it is nearly here.
Iain Millar, 12 February 2012