It would be hard not to have noticed just how many information technology stories have been in the news lately – Wikileaks, the use of Facebook and Twitter by protesters throughout the Middle East, The Social Network being nominated for best picture in both the US and the UK, Mark Zuckerberg named Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’, rumors of multi-billion-dollar IPOs, the recent triumph of IBM’s Watson on the TV quiz show Jeopardy, and a series of thoughtful articles about the meaning of all this in high-brow publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic and even Foreign Affairs.
During these bubbles of mass media attention (which also occurred in the early years of both the PC and dot.com eras), the challenge for all of us in the IT pundit class is simply to stay ahead of our mainstream counterparts. This isn’t always easy, and I would recommend all of the articles cited above, especially the two in The New Yorker. For our part, the LEF has two ongoing projects that we think can shed additional light on what is happening: 1) Assessing the way social media technologies will require changes in individual and group behavior; and 2) Developing strategies for determining an optimal level of business transparency.
To see why today’s challenges are different from those of previous IT eras, let’s look back at the emergence of the personal computer. In many ways, PCs tended to appeal to those of us with more introverted personalities, people willing (or even keen) to get lost in the depths of their spreadsheets, documents and presentation graphics. Value, productivity and status were often rooted in individual skills and capabilities. Information wasn’t so much transparent as locked into our own machines and files. Even the early years of the web (‘Web 1.0’) were mostly about individuals using web sites, often in an anonymous, one-to-many, broadcast mode. During both the PC and Web 1.0 eras, businesses often worried that some employees were spending too much time staring at screens, and others too little.
Social media usage has the opposite characteristics in several important dimensions. Whether it is the number of friends we have on Facebook, connections on LinkedIn or followers on Twitter, we all face growing personal exposure and transparency requirements that really haven’t previously been part of the IT industry and culture. We are being asked to decide how we want to appear (or not appear) online, how we want to integrate or not integrate our work and non-work lives, and to what extent we want to explicitly promote ourselves and cultivate our online image. Once again, companies are noticing that some employees are enthusiastic and others hesitant, but this time the help people might need is much less like PC technical training and much more like speech/presentation coaching.
I have noticed this quite a bit myself. As someone who has generally been an early adopter of various information technologies over many years – answering machines, fax machines, word processors, PCs, email, the internet and mobility – I find the extension into social media noticeably less natural. Mixing work and personal spaces, inviting and ‘friending’ close and distant acquaintances, and broadcasting personal thoughts and activities are all much more awkward activities than learning how to use a new machine or software program. Even as the world clearly moves toward social media, I still don’t find spending time on Facebook or Twitter particularly productive or fun. (LinkedIn is much more routinely useful.)
Businesses are facing similar transparency challenges. To what extent is it in your firm’s interest to reveal much more about itself than is legally required? Being transparent about research activities, product plans, market estimates, source code, customer satisfaction levels, individual employee activities, and even your business’ needs and shortcomings, all have potentially positive and negative effects. But once again this behaviour does not feel natural. Locking up information in the corporate equivalent of the individual PC typically feels safe and is often the de facto company position, but in an increasingly open environment, how do you know if this is the right business strategy? Over time, it increasingly won’t be. Like many individuals, many businesses will have to learn to embrace this heightened level of exposure.