Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

On the Need to Tolerate Communication Diversity

By Dennis D. McDonald

IBM’s Luis Suarez’ blog post Social Media at Work presents basic arguments for why organizations, not just individuals, need to adopt social media as a normal part of their communication infrastructure. He suggests that organizations need to adopt social media because their employees and their customers are using social media.

He points out that organizations that resist using social media for internal and external communications will be left behind. Also “left behind” will be organizations that attempt to let individual departments such as marketing and communications “control” the use of social media by their employees.

While I agree with much of what he says and have spent much of my consulting energies since 2005 on supporting such transitions, I did supply one comment:

Something not really addressed here is the need to accommodate communication diversity. I’m not convinced that everyone wants to share and that it’s just a question of time before everyone lives openly and transparently on the social web. Somehow we need to accommodate a variety of styles.

In the real world not everyone adopts new ways of communicating and collaborating at the same rate. People are different. Often there’s more going on than just waiting for “old folks” to retire so that “new blood” comfortable with new technologies takes over and runs the show.  

Many people need to be shown how to use new systems, technologies, and processes. For example, if you want to move an organization away from relying inefficiently on email and attachments to support certain types of document-focused collaboration, you need to to show people how to make the transition. If you want to reduce the number of nonproductive meetings with targeted intranet sites that support discussion and realtime chat before, during, and after meetings, you have to show people how to make the transition. And your have to be willing to measure how well the process is proceeding.

Change often happens in waves. The first wave of adopting a popular technology may occur quickly. Evangelists and early adopters like Robert Scoble like their shiny new toys, they create echo chambers of enthusiasm, and gradually the word ripples out till folks like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, and President Obama use tools like Twitter as a normal part of communicating and, to some extent, engaging. 

Things get a bit more complex in large organizations which is why I recommend making distinctions based on diversity of audience and process requirements. People adopt new ways at different rates. Different business processes may require different types of support or integration with new media such as social networking based systems for sharing knowledge. It’s one thing to implement an internal social networking tool to emulate informal water-cooler type conversations for chatting and sharing news. It’s quite another when the process you need to support involves complex sequences of processes and decisions that have significant regulatory, legal, or financial implications.

Even though the same set of socially-oriented technologies may be relevant to supporting both situations, there may be much less room for tolerating diversity in the second type when so much is at stake. But diversity often exists and you may find that it takes time and energy to get critical stakeholders on board. That’s just a fact of life and you have to learn to live with that fact no matter how dedicated you are to adopting new communication and collaboration technologies within the organization.

Some folks will jump on Google+ the minute it’s available, some will insist on using a desktop computer to check in on a corporate website to search for what’s new — and some will want to see a printed glossy newsletter while they sit down with a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

No matter how dedicated you are to new social media and collaboration technologies, you need to decide whether it’s safe to ignore any of these groups.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis D. McDonald. For a list of Dennis’ other “collaboration” posts go here.

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