Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Euan Semple (image from BCS website)

Euan Semple (image via BCS)

Tonight I went along to the Informatics Forum in Edinburgh to listen to an inspiring talk by Euan Semple on how social media can make organisations more effective. I furiously scribbled reams of notes on a few scraps of paper and have reconstructed them here as best I could. Apologies to Euan if I have misquoted or misinterpreted any of his points. The talk was organised by the Edinburgh branch of the British Computer Society.

During Euan’s time at the BBC, he pioneered the use of weblogs, wikis and online forums to enable staff to work more collaboratively. Now an independent advisor on social computing, his insights help bring a clarity of thought to what is, for many, a brave new world.

Futzing around

In the mid 80s the BBC created a more corporate IT environment than it had previously had. This was quite alien to many of its employees, and lead to what Euan describes as “a lot of futzing around”. People faffed about reformatting documents and worrying about security issues, and this all meant that in many cases they actually stopped talking to each other. The concerns around security scared a lot of senior managers, and Euan recalls having to remind the Head of IT Security, who was worried about information leaving the organisation, that this was exactly what the BBC, as a broadcaster, existed to do.

Then a time came when it was clear that a lot of the creative minds within the organisation were spending a lot of time on the internet, collaborating with people from other companies, and often no longer having those same conversations with their colleagues. It was time to start bringing social media into the corporation, initially somewhat under the radar, to harness these conversations and their obvious benefits.

Euan describes his attempts to create a collection of “Cotswolds villages” – growing organically, perhaps haphazardly, but in accordance with what real people needed and wanted. Places where people wanted to be. This is in contrast to the “Milton Keynes” of most corporate systems – efficient and planned but dull, uninspiring and underused.

Digital divides

Inside the Informatics Forum

Inside the Informatics Forum

Talking about access to social media, Euans suggests that our assumptions about digital divides are not always true. A farmer in Africa, geographically isolated but network-savvy, might have more connections than an office worker sitting behind a corporate firewall. And this is becoming a serious issue for companies – Euan states he wouldn’t consider working for a organisation who blocked social media, and it’s easy to agree with that sentiment. In times past, collaboration was restrained by time (waiting for post) and location (only being able to carry out work in the office) but now information is ubiquitous and immediate, always on.

People have to take on certain amount of responsibility for this, but the potential is huge. Euan’s example of getting immediate and useful answers to questions posed on Twitter is one that many of us will recognise, but you have to feed those channels, investing time to build relationships – it can’t be a one-way thing.

Letting the innovators innovate

Euan talks about his discomfort with terms such as social media – for him they sound finite, defined and expensive, rather than the infinite and readily accessible world that is the web. But the term social media does at least serve a useful purpose – foregrounding the social bit, which is where the real value lies.

Euan admits that he doesn’t know what collaboration and innovation should look like. Somehow stuff just happens – it can’t be clinical, planned and forced, but must grow organically. And innovators must be allowed to innovate.

Back at the BBC, it took 6 or 7 years to fully embrace social media, growing slowly by advocacy, almost virally. Wikis, forums and bulletin boards were introduced slowly, and allowed people to use them in a variety of different ways. Euan admits that many employees used these platforms to talk about anything under the sun, but he argues that this didn’t matter. It was about getting the numbers up, creating enough momentum to eventually have an ecology. Another vital point was not to be seen as controlling or over-moderating the conversations. A risky strategy, and one which Euan lost much sleep over, but the community eventually matured and came to moderate itself.

One man’s taxonomy…

Euan in action

Euan in action - photo courtesy of queens_hall

A lot of management is about tidying things up – organising and filing things away. Same with information systems. But one man’s taxonomy is another man’s gobbledygook, and can often restrict and stifle the conversations. Euan states that it’s important to encourage noise – to let people talk about what they want. Then, users can employ tools to filter the noise – he describes RSS feeds as his fishing nets, for example.

Learning is, by its very nature, painful. But learning has also become sanitised, professionalised. Most of the truly valuable things we learn come from our peripheral vision, rather than through these formalised processes (for example, spotting useful links on Twitter). And social media is undeniably all about learning.

Euan mentions Seth Godin’s blog, where Seth talks about permission marketing vs intrusion marketing. The latter is the more traditional model – the noisy messages on TV, the eye-catching billboards, the sprawling ads in magazines. But permission marketing describes a new process where the consumer opts into the messages – they choose to receive them and actually value them. This can apply to management too – getting staff to want to receive information, rather than forcing it upon them. Again, social media presents the ideal platform to deliver this.

Trust is another huge issue to consider – we must be accountable for what we say. It takes time to build up that trust, but the rewards are huge.

Euan concludes with his four top tips:

  1. Remember that it’s not about the technology. It’s about how we work and communicate. It’s about the conversation – the tools just facilitate that conversation.
  2. Be passionate. Social media requires passion, drive and energy. That can’t be faked or forced.
  3. Undersell. Euan worries that social media could be a victim of overhype, with people rushing into it. It’s important not to set expectations too high too soon.
  4. Be patient. These things take time to bed in and the results won’t be immediate.

And finally a quote by Peter Drucker:

In a knowledge economy there are no such thing as conscripts – only volunteers


A good range of questions followed Euan’s talk, and I can’t do justice here to all the discussions which ensued. Some good points to take away from it, though, included:

  • How to convince those who just don’t get it? Need to avoid sounding too clever or cocky, as this can put off new participants. And need to tackle cynicism. It’s also important to not think in terms of right and wrong, success or failure – what may appear to be a failure to one person is valuable and important to another.
  • Euan compares the web to the Wild West – a potentially unruly land which needs some policing. A major driver for him has always been to strive to make this new world habitable for his children, who will undoubtedly spend much of their lives on there. And whilst it can be used for so many good purposes, it can equally be used by the bad guys.
  • Some discussion around whether social networking is inherently socialist, although political restraints and cultural differences will always exist. Euan states that he hopes that social media will make it “less easy for us to be convinced to have wars” which is a wonderful perspective to have.
  • Social media can democratise communities. There is, though, the risk of alienating the quieter people, as some will be naturally more adept at this form of communication than others.
  • The transient nature of much of this brings about the risk that we sometimes miss the important and serious points. Also, we have to filter out much of the useless content to get to what we want.

More from Euan

Photo acknowledgments – first photo of Euan via the BCS Edinburgh website. Second photo of Euan originally published on Twitpic by queens_hall.

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7 Responses to Working in a Wired World – a talk by Euan Semple

  1. James

    You’ve done a really great job of capturing Euan’s presentation. Thanks!


  2. I think you’ve got everything I had in my notes…but to be honest I was in shock for most of the talk after being called out about my pathetic shopping exploits…so I probably missed stuff as well!

    I’m so impressed that you managed to write that all up last night as well. I’ve recently been trying to blog about events that I’ve attended (rather than let my notes just sit in a pile gathering dust) and am struggling. It can take me days to write one blog post! I suppose (hope) it will come with practice.

    • James says:

      Ah so that was you that Euan picked on, Lesley!
      I wanted to blog about this immediately after as I find the spark often goes after a day or two. As you say, though, it’s not always that easy!

  3. John Fraser says:

    Thanks James – a great summary. You can have a copy of my mind mapped notes of the talk if you like.

    Edit – John’s mind map is now available here (PNG image, 2MB)

  4. That was indeed I. I don’t intend to get caught out like that again! I fully intend to purchase something fabulous on every shopping trip from now on!

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