June 24, 2011

Peek-a-Boo, I See You

Posted in Social Learning tagged , , , at 9:30 am by kristibroom

Babies and small children often enjoy a game of peek-a-boo. There’s a novelty at that age that allows us to believe that what we can’t see doesn’t exist, until we remove our hands and enjoy the surprise when we see that our mother/father/friend has returned.

Social Technology has allowed us to make visible distant friends, formerly unknown contacts, and innumerable resources. With all the good that it provides, though, comes some bad. What if you really don’t care what your sister ate for breakfast, or really don’t want to see yet another grainy children’s concert video? What about those distant school friends that are really better kept distant?

Here’s a news flash: social technology didn’t invent those problems. Unlike what we believed as infants, hiding the distant friend or the grainy video doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that you won’t come in contact with it eventually. Social technologies only bring them to us more easily.

I’ve been rolling out learning communities in various formats for a couple of years now, and over the years, have had discussions about the amount of “socializing” that takes place on them. Our eyes seem to quickly focus on the activity surrounding the community/class potluck or class introductions, and less on the rich content-focused discussions. In my experience, there are many more of the latter, though it’s often the former that draws us into the discussion. So if potlucks are a gateway to a rich experience, should we discourage them? What if, though, the only discussion that takes place is that type of surface socializing…at what point do we intervene to change directions?

Almost every community manager I speak to has a story of “that one posting” – whether it be a potluck discussion, or a rant by a disgruntled employee – that draws into focus the downside of what can occur on social technology. But the technology didn’t create potlucks or disgruntled employees; those discussions just happened previously word-of-mouth. Technology enables the conversations to occur more efficiently, maybe, but with that efficiency comes exposure.

How do we handle this type of exposure? I often reference the story that Andrew McAfee tells in Enterprise 2.0 of the European investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW). McAfee tells it best, so you really should read it in the book (p. 156), but the gist of it is that the CIO defended the use of social technologies as an important compliance tool, saying that the uncovering of those less desirable posts allowed the organization to find problems, and address them, in advance of the regulatory agencies. The issues always existed; the social technology allowed DrKW to expose them, and fix them more efficiently.

So if we can get comfortable with surfacing issues, then we need to ask what is the right blend of “social” and “content” in a learning community? How do we avoid blaming the technology when we see postings that are unfavorable, and instead use it to enable and encourage the types of interactions we’d like to see within the group?

I think there are a few things that can lead to success:

Roles: A key step toward getting and maintaining the type of contributions you would like is to have someone in place to monitor the space. This person or people are empowered to remove truly inappropriate content, and also to coach for the type of content that is desired. This person should also be the one to communicate the expectations to new contributors, as necessary.

Rewards: Having a system, whatever the system, that rewards people for valuable contributions and not for noise, will lead to more of the valuable contributions. This doesn’t have to be difficult. A simple online or offline “thank you” is a start.

Recognition: …or acceptance that there will be noise. There will be a level of “social” that helps to build connections among members or your community. Figure out the tolerance level that is appropriate for your community, and as you begin to reach the tipping point, drive interactions to the content-rich discussions.

So, like our early games of peek-a-boo, we may want some of the information we can now access because of social technologies to disappear – and not return as we open our eyes. However, I think a better approach might be to look past the noise with an understanding that there is more good than bad, more benefit than detriment, and that collectively we can encourage the types of interactions on social technologies that allow us to get the most out of them.