ConnectingHR – a most unconference unconference

Last week saw ConnectingHR’s unconference. I like unconferences – I’ve been to a few – they are more engaging than most conferences, and one learns more. What unconferences lose in expertise, they gain in energy: no more people standing at the front telling one the way it is. The unconference format means that the agenda is designed by participants on the day, and anyone can instigate a session. Most sessions are fully participative – a discussion rather than a pitch. And if one feels one isn’t getting anything from a session, you can move to another.

There is something creating an event on the fly – improvising the discussions: making it up as we go along. It is hard to be a free-rider at an unconference: the very idea is to get involved, and if you are not going to get involved, you probably aren’t going to be there anyway.

The only problem is the (very deliberate) lack of organisation means that interesting sessions clash; and so it was. One can’t get to everything.

In keeping with the improvised vibe, the unconference was held in a former factory – the Spring, in Vauxhall. (As well as being near Spring Gardens, it apparently used to be a bed factory. Geddit?) Aside from the cold, this was a great space, well suited to the use we put it to.

The focus of the day was very open, but since ConnectingHR had previously organised tweetups and done a lot of publicity through blogs and Twitter, one of the major topics was social media: most participants could be found on Twitter, and we covered ways in which social media could be used by organisations to communicate, both with customers and their workers. The implications for organisations could be very important.

There were twenty five slots, with five sessions being run simultaneously. I lead one session on “innovation through conversation”, which I think I will make a separate post.

The major theme for me from the rest of the day was that what organisations will be able to do with social media depends a lot on their culture – it is all about culture. As Sam Lizars tweeted on the day,

All conversations coming back to the same thing. Get the culture right – social media behaviour will follow

This might be because I went to the sessions which interested me, too – and I can get obsessive about organisation culture!

But social media represent just another way of communicating: if an organisation is good at communication, and uses lots of tools to communicate internally and externally, they’ll probably see how they can use social media. If they are rigid, bureaucratic and silo-based, they probably won’t – and if they tried, it would probably fail. Social media is just another tool: a blank sheet of paper. If you trust an organisation’s communications, if they are open and honest and engaged, their use of social media will probably work.

(An aside: I heard a great story the other day about an organisation which was developing its social media strategy. The internal communications team required that all employees had their tweets signed off before tweeting!)

The session led by Sharon Clews was all about this: “trust, organisation culture and social media”. There were lots of stories – how one firm going through a major change ignored comments by staff and former staff posted on a YouTube version of their big ad; another on how a media company had used social media evangelists to drive a culture change following a merger of two very different cultures.

The number of firms with restrictive social media always surprises me. As someone – I think it was Bill Boorman in an open session – pointed out, social media policy shouldn’t be any different to any other media policy: if an organisation wants to manage its communications, it shouldn’t matter if it is in a newspaper interview, a press release, a letter to a customer – or a comment on a blog.

I agree – up to a point. Someone else said that it is impossible to police the internet: you can’t control what people say in the pub, and you can’t control what they say on Twitter, Facebook or any other platform.

For organisations, social media should be all about the conversation – with staff, partners or customers. It will reflect the management style. Done well, it could greatly increase engagement, building the shared experience – and reinforcing the culture. Because social media can be a great way to connect people, it should also increase collaboration. (It is this aspect, centred around learning and communities of expertise, that I think could pay most rewards).

Gavin McGlyne gave a couple of great examples of using social media in learning – and collaboration and culture change – in his “pecha kucha” presentation on work he had done with TGI Fridays. OK, TGIF isn’t my bag – much too full on, frankly – but hearing how they used videos and blogs on a recruitment site – which any employee could contribute to – was fascinating. Employees posted links to the work site on Facebook. They posted pictures of the crappy bits of the job – which management were happy about, because they needed people to do those bits as well as hyper-party stuff. And it linked different TGIF outlets. The only time it didn’t work is when TGIF outlet managers tried to manage what their staff would post: when they treated it as a campaign. Then, it fell flat on its face: giving employees a voice means giving them a real voice, and trying to control it will probably back fire.

(By the way, pecha kucha? Sounds too much like pressure cooker to me!)

Ollie Gardener had travelled all the way from Norway to talk to us; I’m glad she did. She lead another discussion, based on her pecha kucha, on social media and learning and development. My bag, really. I agreed with much that Ollie said. Traditional L&D is about creating organisational clones: people who have done the same courses to rise through the hierarchy. (Indeed, to my mind, selecting people for jobs using competency-based interviews results in a monoculture, a very unhealthy place to be.) Ollie reckons organisations need individuals to succeed, and social media can enable people to access the learning to create that. Through connections – a personal learning network, perhaps (or just a bunch of like minded people) – one can map one’s own path: social media as an enabler. Tools such as Twitter (or its internal equivalents – Yammer got a lot of name checks), social bookmarking, wikis and blogs can help people find learning resources and record their progress (many people talked about their learning blogs – and I guess this is one). This is learning merging with knowledge management – but informal. If an organisation is to develop a learning culture, this would be the way to go.

There was a discussion about corporate social responsibility – and I am a sceptic – and how social media can facilitate broader social connections.

This was a very interesting day, possibly preaching to the converted – but there was some great experience shared. One of the best things were the open sessions for reflection which Jon and Gareth – the energetic organisers and MCs – had built into the day. Sharing learning was what it was all about.

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