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Social Spackle December 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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It’s been a social media week for some reason, with many opportunities to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of all this new stuff with lots of folks.  Despite the attention that social media gets, and the adoption of the tools by some demographic groups, there is still a long way to go for some people to start using this stuff.

There’s a common refrain that permeates a lot of these discussions: “It might be useful for others, but I just don’t think it’s for me. Who cares what I’m doing or thinking?” I have a simple answer for that: “I do.”  And lots of other people as well.

The concept of social media is not new.  Years and years ago, social media went by different names.  We used to call it “talking,” or “writing a letter,” or “making a social call.” As technology advanced, it became “sending a telegram” and “making a phone call.” Now we call it “updating my status” or “sending a tweet.” Technology changes, but the goal remains the same.

The point is to keep in touch with people you care about, and for them to keep in touch with you.  These simple interactions with others build a rich fabric that connects you and keeps you close. While some people belittle the trivial information that often gets shared, it is that information, in fact, that makes the whole exercise worthwhile.

In today’s world, we rarely cross paths with people and engage them in person.  When we do, we often spend time catching up: “Where have you been? What have you been doing?” We do it because we care, and the more we know about a person, the more we can connect and share.

Social media lets you share those little bits about yourself all the time.  Interested people can absorb them and keep up with you.  I call this information “social spackle.”  It is the stuff that fills in the cracks in our relationships and keep them strong. When you do finally meet someone, you are already up to speed on their life; you can have a richer and more valuable moment together.

Consider a simple example: an acquaintance tweets as he goes on a trip to visit his daughter and see his grandchildren.  Trivial data, he thinks; who would care about that?  But those who know him are glad to know it, and file it all away.  When we next meet, we have excited questions: How was your trip?  How are those grandkids? That little bit of social spackle strengthened our bond and made for a nicer moment.

Reluctant to try social media?  Don’t do it for you.  Do it for those who care about you.  Find ways to spread some social spackle and see what happens.  You will be surprised at the change in the richness and quality of your relationships, both with people you’ve known and the people you will meet.  What do you have to lose?

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Got A Card? November 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Networking, Technology.
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At any industry event, the impact of social media is evident.  People are tweeting as the event transpires. Bloggers c0ver keynote addresses live.  Vendors stream video from their booths, letting you watch presentations as you browse the show floor.

It is now common to see people run into folks they know but have never actually met.  Relationships built on Twitter or Facebook come alive when people actually meet face to face.  Closing the loop with a physical connection is now the last component of a rich relationship; it used to be the first.

In spite of all this connectedness and mobile technology, one thing has remained absolutely unchanged throughout the lifetime of the internet: the business card.  How can it be, with all this technology at our disposal, that the single most important way to gather important data about a person is a little card? Even people who have built a strong relationship electronically will still exchange cards when they meet for the first time.

Why?  What is missing from the new media that this old solution provides?

The problem has two sources.  First, people still need to exchange some basic data to complete a connection: name, phone number, email address.  Physical address is becoming much less important; other items (like your Twitter or Facebook name) are becoming more prominent.  Even so, the basic way to reach most people is by phone or email.

Secondly, there is no simple way to exchange this information.  I have used many electronic devices over the years, from a Casio Zoomer to various Palm devices to all sorts of phones.  Each of this gadgets has had some way to create a business card and send it to someone else, either by infrared or Bluetooth.  It was always very cool, seemed to work like magic, and never got used more than once or twice.  After you had shown off your geek skills to admiring neighbors, you then exchanged business cards and went on your way.

I don’t know that this will ever change.  There is no cross-platform standard for exchanging virtual business cards that actually works.  I know all about Bluetooth Object Exchange, but it’s just too hard to set up and actually use in real life.

Even if you could establish such a standard, it would take years for everyone to acquire a device that used it.  In the meantime, you’d still be handing out business cards.  And you’d still need cards for people without a device, not to mention needing cards to throw into drawings and such at industry events.

It’s actually kind of quaint that such an old practice simply will not succumb to modern technology.  Even as more and more people  tweet and blog and post and stream, you still cannot avoid asking that age-old question: “May I have your card?”

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Why Blog? October 26, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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In a recent article, Andrew Keen opined that CIOs have no business blogging.  His intentionally provocative piece was in response to an opposing view by John Suffolk, who is both a blogger and the UK government CIO.  I’ll presume that Mr. Keen was doing a bit of trolling and forgive him his somewhat grating approach, but he has touched on a question I get asked fairly frequently: “Why do you blog?”

The glib response, of course, is “why not?”  But now that this blog is approaching it’s second birthday, it’s worth a moment of reflection to understand why there might be value in executive (and not just CIO) blogging.

I started blogging as an attempt to informally share my thoughts on IT leadership.  I believe that teaching is an important aspect of leadership.  Rather than subject my team to periodic lectures on effective IT strategy and management, I began capturing my thoughts as blog entries.  Those on my team that were interested could read them; those who were not could ignore them.  While I do get occasional feedback from coworkers, I have no idea as to who reads this blog, or how often. That’s OK with me; if even one person finds value, then the exercise is worth it.

I also thought it was important to experience the technology first-hand.  Since I believe that CIOs should test and evaluate things, I wanted to see what it would be like to produce a blog on a regular basis.  Given the constant discussions of the value (or lack thereof) of social media technology in a corporate environment, having direct exposure makes me a more informed participant in the conversation.

In the course of writing, however, I discovered that there are many other side benefits to blogging:

  • You meet all sorts of interesting people. This is a huge, unexpected, pleasant occurrence. Many people have taken the time to either comment or email me about something I wrote and always teach me something new.
  • It can be clarifying. It really helps to write things down.  Many of my blog postings have allowed me to explore things in unexpected ways and given me insight into issues that I am dealing with.  I’ve found that writing enhances thinking; the opposite is not always the case.
  • It makes you a better writer. Writing is like public speaking: the more you do it, the easier it gets.  You also become very appreciative of those who write well.  Dashing off 500 words is not easy.  Dashing them off on a regular basis can be daunting, but the discipline required to do it builds character.

In the end, perhaps the best reason for blogging is that I enjoy doing it.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and I certainly love my job.  Combining the two seems like a natural fit.  It isn’t for everyone, of course; there seem to be fewer than two dozen blogging CIOs in the world.  That said, if you are at all inclined to write, I suggest you give blogging a try, regardless of your position in the world.  Mr. Keen’s opinions aside, anyone who has something to share should share it.

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I Can’t Recommend This August 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I like LinkedIn.  I’ve used it for many years, well before the term “social media” came into vogue, and value what it does well: keeping me abreast of the career changes within my professional network.  Although the powers-that-be at LinkedIn have added other features over the years, the core value of network awareness hasn’t changed. Many of those new features provide little value, at least to me. And there is one feature that needs to go immediately: recommendations.

In theory, recommendations seem to make a lot of sense.  If you feel strongly about a person to whom you are connected, you can write a recommendation of that person.  The recommendation, once approved by the recipient, is placed on their profile for all the world to see.  LinkedIn thinks this is such a good feature that your profile is not considered complete until you have accumulated three recommendations.

In reality, the LinkedIn recommendation system is useless.  Here’s why:

  • Recommendations are universally positive. No one in their right mind would permit a negative recommendation to appear on their profile.  Self-selected recommendations tell me nothing about you, except that you can apparently convince others to laud you in public.  I suspect this is a quid pro quo practice anyway, so even that skill is suspect.
  • Recommendations are usually solicited. Who hasn’t gotten a request for a recommendation?  How many of us have written one, if only to avoid an awkward refusal?  Not to upset anyone, but if I really thought highly of you, I’d write a recommendation without prompting.
  • Honest recommendations are tainted. Surrounded by so many fake recommendations, the occasional sincere unsolicited recommendation is lost in the noise.  Their value is diminished to the point that they are useless.
  • Real recommendations occur without the knowledge of the subject. Real recommendations (which LinkedIn was trying to emulate) occur between people privately.  When someone calls and asks my opinion of another person, they’ll get a real recommendation.   It will have for more value to the requester than any generic recommendation on LinkedIn.

To eliminate all these problems, I think LinkedIn should just drop the entire system.  No more recommendations cluttering up profiles, no more requests filling up my LinkedIn mailbox, no more “happy talk” about people you’d otherwise not write about.

Instead, when you want to find out about someone, find a mutual connection on LinkedIn and contact them.  Use LinkedIn for what it was intended: connecting with your professional network to learn things and do a better job. You’ll get a better, honest answer that benefits everyone concerned.

And please, if you like this idea, recommend it to someone else.

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Legs And Memory August 21, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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My grandfather had a saying: “A weak memory makes strong legs.”  This seems to be coming to mind more often these days, as my short-term memory seems to expire faster than I can get the items I set out to retrieve.  Multiple trips ensue, helping my legs and overall cardiovascular health, but wasting time and energy.

Forgotten items create more work, both at home and on the job.  While personal memory problems may be inevitable as we become more, ahem, mature, organizational memory loss should be completely avoidable.  Unfortunately, almost everyone is terrible at capturing and using our organizational memory.

Everyone you work with has huge amounts of useful information stored in their heads.  From the moment you begin employment, you are gathering information about what you do, why you do it, for whom you do it, and how you do it.  When you start out, everything is new and you spend lots of time gathering data that everyone else long ago internalized.  Simple questions confront you all the time: who is in charge of that?  Which form do I need?  Why does this work that way?  Your coworkers patiently explain all this, bringing you up to speed in your new role.  After a while, you internalize this information as well, to the point that you stop thinking about it.

When the next new person arrives, they begin the same process.  It is highly unlikely that you documented everything you learned when you started (who has the time for that when you are just getting started?) so this poor soul goes through the same process.  Time is wasted as the weak organizational memory forces them to do a lot of walking.

I have been on teams that set out to solve this problem.  We created formal guides and detailed documentation for our organization in the hope that new hires would get up to speed faster and waste less time.  We tried to create an organizational memory but in the end, failed.  Why? Continuous change.

Capturing most of this information results in a snapshot of a continually evolving process.  That snapshot works for a short time, but eventually fades.  Even after a few weeks or months, there are enough blurry spots in that snapshot that people will once again have to manually fill in the blanks.  As soon as people lose faith in the documentation, they abandon it and go back to the manual process.

Like real memories, captured organizational memories fade rapidly over time.  To reinforce real memories, you must replay them in your mind.  To reinforce organizational memories, you must constantly revisit and update them.  This is time-consuming and expensive, and ultimately not cost effective.  Except for the most important processes that require rigid definition and oversight, most of our business rules exist in the (very) fluid minds of the participants.

The idea of easy, effective knowledge capture has been an ongoing goal for the past thirty years or more.  It has yet to become a reality.  Our collection tools are simply not capable of collecting all that we do and learn in real time.  Currently, people are looking to social media as the next magic bullet that will make this a reality.  As tempting as this sounds, I don’t think it will pan out from a data collection perspective.

The real answer, I think, is to accept that organizational memory is best retained in the heads of the people in the organization.  It may be that these social networking tools will allow us to find the person who knows what we need better than any previous tool.  It may be that capture has never been the problem, but that the connection network has been deficient.  Social networking may let us connect the perfect capture tools (our brains) in better ways than ever before.  As I’ve pointed out before, knowing who knows is the key to success in any field.  We may be on the verge of solving the problem of finding who knows better than ever before.  Memories may continue to fade, but the walking will be greatly reduced.  We can only hope.

Until then, I’ve got other problems.  Where did I put my keys?  Time to start walking…

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