from skeptic to evangelist

I started this blog less than a year ago as an experiment. I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about around blogging, facebook, youtube - and certainly not twitter. What difference would any of this make and why should I care?

Well, was I wrong.

Not only have we elected a new President - thanks largely to these social media tools - but my communications consulting practice has taken off! Suddenly, through sheer experimentation and sense of adventure, I now know more about the power of these tools to incite real change. I find myself pulled into all kinds of interesting and meaty projects that are transforming opaque, inefficient bureaucracies mired in resistance and inertia. Cool!

Come full circle yesterday. In a book arts listserv, I incited a little riot by suggesting that twitter et al. might be useful artist tools for researching topical content, running an informal survey to generate content related to a book art project, taking the pulse of a certain "target audience," or increasing awareness for one's work simply by showing up in select conversations. Several folks soooo didn't get it.

Kind of like the naysayers in my day job. I don't think this is an either/or thing - and that it's still evolving. For me, these tools are only as powerful as the choices people make to engage offline as well. Maybe that's why I cherish the book arts - and indeed, my work as an agent of change inside messy organizations. I relish the low-tech, hands-on grounding both give me in an otherwise info-saturated, too-often disconnected world.

For anyone who is interested:

How the Arts are rocking it out through Social Media

Business Week: Why Twitter Matters

letting go to connect

I'm struck once again by the power of letting go. Okay, it was my smart friend, Mandy, who called this to my attention earlier this week on another topic - but the notion is apt here. We went to last week's Internal Branding Conference together to investigate what the super stars (IBM, AON, Genentech, Mayo Clinic, American Eagle) are doing to engage employees as ambassadors for their brands.

Wow, there are a lot of impressive, major-budget initiatives - beautifully messaged and packaged, slick, expensive. I keep wondering how much all of this really resonates with employees?

It boils down to letting go. It's not about hierarchies, perfect "messaging ladders," leadership authority, fancy branding or change management models. It's about asking people to step into a conversation and listening, and then taking action. Whether they use cutting edge Web 2.0 social media tools or in-person focus groups, successful leaders are letting go of the need to have all the answers. Rather, they're having the courage to ask employees to step up with some answers of their own, and staying out the way while the ride gets a little wild, a little scary...but in the end, produces much more credible answers because the people who work there figured it out, not their marketing or HR folks.

Sure, top leadership (and marketing and HR) must have the vision to tap into the paradigm shift underway here. But none of this is rocket science. This is not about jazz hands and sparkle ponies. It's about emergent collaboration. It means we all need to stop worrying and relinquish control.

Calm, grounded detachment is something I remind myself to embrace often, especially during a week like this. I've got a client that I'm trying to help who is fearfully clinging to her last illusory threads of control. She's making everyone around her nuts, including me. She's a very senior person in a large organization, so she's able to inflict a lot of damage. As much for her as for myself, I'm reminded of an idea that I attribute to Margaret Wheatley (although I can't verify this - if you know the source, please share it with me). I guess this one's for both of us:

Show up and listen fully, speak the gentle truth, let go of the outcome.

jazz hands and sparkle ponies

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At this week's ALI 22nd Internal Branding Conference, I was temporarily seduced, impressed, intimidated by and envious of the parade of gorgeous initiatives that were trotted out before us. Big budgets, slick messaging, award-winning packaging. All this talk about "brand ambassadors" was making me very uneasy...I felt my feet leave the ground, as I floated up into the heady stuff these marketing super stars were promoting.

And then Chris Thornton from Pfizer took the stage and brought me back to earth. He told how they built trust and credibility without all the chitchat or big production. In Chris' words, it wasn't about jazz hands and sparkle ponies, but about coming clean and passing the sniff test.

In other words, having the courage to tell the truth without spin, have real conversations with employees, and do a few things that really matter vs. too many things that have no impact. Some ideas worth trying (some jazzier than others):

American Eagle uses digital recorders to "get the voice" of employees in action, then uses employee News Agents to blog about what's happening throughout the company.

IBM uses video-taped interviews with employees around the world to ask them what they need to evangelize IBM with friends and family, then creates story-telling tools based on this input.

Pfizer stripped its employee development intranet of really boring academic, HR-y, process-driven content, replacing it with a "life event" approach to accessing tools ("Help! I'm a new manager - now what?").

Several employers use audio branding to ignite a little excitement on intranets, at events, around the office. I've been grooving on Kaiser Permanente's Thrive CD mix in my car all week.

I do think a smart marriage between cool marketing and strategic HR can happen. In fact, they need each other - on their own, they each miss a crucial side of the story. What makes me nervous is that it's already too tempting to gloss over the tough decisions and fierce conversations that most employers would rather avoid. Throw a few sparkle ponies at the problem, and you won't have to deal with all that jazz, right?

can we handle the truth?

At last month's Social Media for Government conference, a major take-away for me was the disruptive power of Web 2.0 tools to bureaucracy. Many government communicators, CTOs, and program managers squirmed as a parade of case studies revealed the leveling effect that unfettered access to information and transparency can unleash. It's the chaos of user-generated information and questioning of the "truth" that's most fascinating to me. Even if senior leaders of any organization (public, private, for/non-profit) wanted to stem the tide of input (and challenge to authority) from everyperson, it's too late. The cat's out of the bag.

The digital natives (a.k.a. Gen Y employees) who will soon enough be running these organizations don't seem to be afraid to question everything. During one poignant exchange, that the New York Times is a font of credible knowledge (as asserted by a senior PBA officer) was quickly dismissed by a young agency communicator: "The first thing I do is Google a headline to see what else is being said on the topic!" The PBA guy sat in stunned silence.

What excites me is the social experiment that's unfolding. This technology appears to be self-leveling - so no matter what crazy rumors (or officially spun messages) get started in the virtual grapevine, a critical mass of contributors will ultimately flush out the real story. Maybe. On the other hand, if the questioners aren't questioning their own rhetoric, does the truth have a chance to emerge? Last Sunday's Washington Post article, Truth: Can You Handle It?, takes a closer look - as do the slew of comments posted in response.

thanks for sharing?

TMI (too much information) is the risk of all this technology, I suppose. Where are the boundaries? In today's Washington Post, there's an article, Friends Indeed, about the backlash of putting too much of your life out there for the world to see. The particular tools in question are Facebook and MySpace - what I don't get is how you can have 3,000 "friends," as does one person they profiled. I have a hard enough time staying authentically connected to a small handful of friends in my life.

As I embark on this experiment into Web 2.0, I am already uneasy about boundaries. This exact topic came up recently in a project I'm involved in with a small group of women. Most of us know each other only through a few conference calls, although my best friend and a client are also in this group. The goal of the project is to publish a book in which 100 women tell their personal story of overcoming adversity. To experience this for ourselves before we asked others to contribute, we decided to tell our own stories to each other. Powerful, intimate stuff emerged. A little bit of chaos ensued.

I suspect it was TMI for some, who bowed out. For those of us left standing, we're trying to figure it out. Using Tuckman's stages of group development, it feels like we zoomed from forming to storming and are now struggling to norm. For me, it's stirred up questions around trust, premature intimacy and vulnerability. How do we make it safe for women around the world to share their stories, when those of us leading this project are confronted by the dynamics this exercise has stirred up?

And yet this is exactly why I'm engaged in this experiment. Because I want to know, firsthand, what these tools are capable of (for better or worse)...to become an informed and experienced user of them, as I wade into recommending them for clients and using them in my own work.

At last week's Social Media Conference, I met a woman from the State Department who introduced me to the term "digital immigrant." Kids who grew up with this stuff are digital natives; the rest of us are immigrants. I'm simultaneously fascinated by and respectful of the power of this new world I've entered.

My current stance is that, as with any form of communication (written or spoken), responsible and conscious use of a medium lies at the heart of the response my "content" creates. I remind myself to be mindful of what shows up here and what my motivations might be for sharing something. And that not everything needs to be shared - at least not here.

cool tools

Spent two days last week immersed in learning about Web 2.0 social media tools. Now that I've recovered from having my mind blown at what people are doing to change the world through these technologies, I'm intrigued by the possibilities.

Actually, this makes perfect sense. I've been looking for a way to integrate the increasingly aligned pieces of my life: book arts, archetypes, acupuncture, more interesting client work, yoga, our new dog, a new-ish marriage, our new home. As disparate as all these things sound, there's a lot of synergy happening for me these days.

So the geek in me loves that there are a bunch of tools to connect all this stuff together.