Fighting Digital Illiteracy with Boundaries

Are you ready to win the war against digital illiteracy?

The first step is the toughest one. But it’s also the most important.

Provide everyone with clear-cut, easy-to-follow guidelines to help them distinguish between conversations that can happen in public, and conversations that need to be kept private.

Social media has become an integral part of our personal lives.  Unless organizations take the time to specify how (not if) employees can use social media at work, they risk forfeiting the chance to:

  • Capitalize on social marketing opportunities
  • Attract and retain top-notch personnel
  • Thwart obsolescence

Here’s why:

See-Through Border Fence

On social networks, trends direct our attention.  We have more confidence in crowds than individuals. A Yelp restaurant listing with a 3-star average and 300 ratings is more meaningful than one with a 5-star average and just 12 ratings.

For the same reason, organizations realize the true value of social marketing when everyone gets involved.  The more people there are discussing a topic, the greater the likelihood others will discover it.

A corporate Twitter feed and Facebook page driven by a PR department are nice to have, but they’ll never be as useful as the conversations of a diverse, engaged community.  And the larger the community, the more confidence we have in what they say, and the more likely we are to give it our attention.

Whenever an employee uses social media to get their job done, they leave behind a digital record that can be found and shared indefinitely.  If you have no policy, that notion is more than a little scary.  But if you’ve thought it through, it becomes a productivity windfall, because marketing becomes the byproduct of using social media to get the job done.

Remember, your employees are using social media already in their personal lives.  If you’d like them to use it for business too, they need to know what’s expected. Leadership needs to set clear-cut boundaries, so employees know what is and isn’y acceptable.  Companies that fail to take this step, will most likely also fail to mobilize their personnel to make the best use of social media.

It’s critical that the social media policy leadership sets be fair and just.  Blocking access to Facebook from the corporate network while expecting employees to respond to email outside of business hours sets uneven standards.  In fact, blocking access to social networks is both unfair and futile, because workers should have the right communicate with their friends and family, as long is it doesn’t interfere with the quality of their work.

Social media blackouts are the result of digitally illiteracy. They are enacted by misguided leaders from an age when the restricting information flows was possible and effective.  But as Wikileaks, Twitter and Napster have proven, the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it. Or as Esther Dyson said back in 2006, companies that profit from inefficiency will die, and for many types of communications, social media is simply more efficient.

Once the boundaries are in place, and everyone knows what can be public and what should be private, social media becomes a productivity gain, not drain.

Check out how Johns Hopkins and Avery Dennison are using internal social networks, or the workplace productivity gains of Chatter.

In this environment, the organizations that can draw a clear line between public and private have a huge advantage.  The road to getting there runs straight through policy, because you can’t draw that line between public and proprietary unless you do the homework to figure that out, and you can’t teach others to respect boundaries if they don’t know where they lie.

Social media without governance is reckless. And rules without training are toothless.  Take a look at my Social Media Policy Template to accelerate your policy development efforts or attend my upcoming Social Media Marketing Workshop in Los Angeles June 30 – July 1, 2011, where we spend a fair amount of time on this subject.

Welcome to the social media world of uncontrollable communications. You’re in it, whether you like it or not.

In my next post, I’ll start getting into what it takes to host an effective social media training.