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Crowds can be wise with a Social Media Strategy

I was watching this video on the MIX site where Gary Hamel, in conversation with James Franklin of Dell, talked about how he believes Social Media will change organisations. One of his main focus points was in strategy development where he suggest that there will be more “bottom up“ rather than “top down” development.

A follow up comment suggested that Social Media was just about “gaming the system” and cast doubt on the value of “bottom up” developments driven by Social Media.

It’s a debate worth unpacking a bit as to take it on face value you have two very opposed irreconcilable views. One embraces Social Media and the change it could bring about and the other seems to suggest there is very little value in the application of Social Media as a tool for insight. Indeed, if left unchallenged, it could call into question the validity of crowdsourcing, one of the promised opportunities emanating from Social Media.

I will do the unpacking – at least from my perspective – over two posts: one will deal with the more conceptual aspects, and the second will deal with some more specific and practical considerations for crowdsourcing.

So – first up I would defend Gary on the basis that he is, I think, tapping into a very important point that is often overlooked in much of the buzz around Social Media. It is all to easy to be seduced into believing that Social Media is defined by the applications. Twitter, Facebook, You Tube to name a few get a great deal of coverage, not least as a result of the vast sums these brands are now said to be worth, and many think these are what constitute Social Media.

But this is a mistake. The important thing about Social Media is that it is an attitude of mind, a sensibility, a movement and behavioural change that challenges long held assumptions. Of course it is technical change that has enabled us to finally unleash these new attitudes as participants, but the applications themselves that currently underpin it will come and go. What will remain is the mind set.

That mind set is very much about engaging, participating, sharing and contributing with partners, clients, customers, stakeholders, friends. It has encouraged a sense of empowerment for both individuals and collectives, and it has emboldened the sense of value to each voice and a sense of a right to be heard.

In a business context that has quite profound implications. These participants, be they collaborators, suppliers, customers, clients have a voice with broad reach that is not mediated by the organisation. As a result the organisation – if it is to respond positively and seek value in this – must adjust long held assumptions about the nature of that engagement, and this applies to internally facing matters just as much as it does to externally facing.  At the very least they must learn to listen more effectively.

Gary Hamel recognises that this presents opportunities when properly handled and draws on, what I will refer to, as distributed cognition rather than the wisdom of crowds – and so taking a lead from Dave Snowden on this.

The wisdom of crowds can have something of a pejorative connotation – as exemplified by the response to Gary’s post. For those not familiar with it, the idea is that if a crowd is asked a question – for example how many sweets are in a jar – when their individual answers are plotted typically a bell curve will develop with the correct answer usually somewhere in the middle. This is intended to demonstrate the collective wisdom, judgment, insight and heuristics that when aggregated can provide relatively reliable answers. For it to work, however, certain conditions have to be met not least that each has to judge independently without influence and without knowledge of the other guesses.

As the respondent to Gary Hamel’s piece points out this is not the case in Social Media as most would typically understand it. It’s a good point. Certainly there is plenty of historical evidence that the agent provocateur can rapidly turn the wisdom of crowds into mob rule and we have seen reports recently that certain military and intelligence agencies are endeavouring to develop tools that can manipulate multiple social media applications simultaneously so as to create a groundswell of sentiment so skew or influence the collective mood of Social Media channels. This is something of an indictment of the tools themselves or at least how they are deployed. So it is entirely fair to say that simplistic applications of Social Media tools will not yield the returns that an intelligent approach to harnessing the Social Media mindset can.

But to me this does not challenge the validity of Gary’s basic argument. He is not arguing, or at least I don’t think he is, for mob democracy in strategy development. I think he is arguing for the harnessing, intelligently, of the Social Media mindset for better strategy development. That is not the unthinking adoption of every suggestion from the floor. One outcome will be more bottom up development and potentially flatter organisations – I feel another blog post coming on here.

And so it is with all Social Media campaigns. Too often I come across organisations that begin an unthinking deployment of Twitter or Facebook believing it will yield instant returns, only to relent at leisure the ever increasing resource required for no perceived return.

A strategy is necessary – and that is where twintangibles comes in of course.

In the next post we will look at what this better understanding of the wisdom of crowds means for innovation through crowdsourcing.

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