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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

The importance of pigheadedness

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I just read an essay by Clay Shirky, Gin, Television and Social Surplus, about how the industrial revolution has resulted, after a brief period of societal gin-soaking, in a surplus of time and productive capacity which has been mopped up by TV sitcoms. Now, however, this social surplus is being put to use in things like Wikipedia, World of Warcraft and blogging. People are taking their spare time and energy and they’re doing something with it.

It’s a great essay, and I strongly recommend that you pop over and read it, right now, all the way through, because it articulates something that many of us know is happening, but which a particularly large chunk of the media hasn’t cottoned on to yet. It’s not the content of Clay’s essay that I want to further discuss, but one little line that has much broader ramifications:

The normal case of social software is still failure; most of these experiments don’t pan out.

Every now and again I’ll be talking to a client or a journalist or some random person at a conference, and they’ll ask me if I think that social software is a fad. Invariably they’ll have anecdotal evidence of some company, somewhere, who tried to start up blogs or a wiki inside their business, and it failed. That, they say, is proof that social software has nothing to offer business, and that if we give it a few more years it will just go away. Quod erat demonstrandum.

The problem with this interpretation is that these failures - which are common, but largely unexamined and unpublished because no one likes to admit they failed - are part and parcel of the process of negotiating how we can use these new tools in business. They are inevitable and, were they discussed in public, I’d even call them necessary as they would allow us to learn what does and doesn’t work. Sadly, we don’t often get a glimpse inside failed projects so we end up making the same mistakes over and over until someone, somewhere sees enough bits of the jigsaw to start putting them together.

There is a lot of failure in the use of social software in business, on the web, in civic society, but we need to see this as a part of the cycle, a step along on the learning curve. We can’t afford to stop experimenting, just because something failed once, or because it didn’t work out for someone else. And we can’t afford to take part in the Great Race To Be Second, either, because if you’re waiting to see how other businesses succeed (or fail) before you leave the starting line, you’re not going to be second, you’re going to be last.

From a business point of view, the nice thing about social software is that a lot of is is free or ridiculously cheap, so the monetary cost of failure is low and made up mainly of the cost of people’s time. There is no need to judge a social software project based on the same criteria as, say, a massive software deployment from a megacorp vendor that cost millions and took three years, yet these are the terms by which many businesses are judging their blog, wiki, or social networking experiments. And because the tech is so cheap, businesses can afford to run many small experiments to find out what works before they deploy tools more widely; indeed, they cannot afford not to.

But we also need to recognise that the biggest speed bump in social software projects is invariably going to be the social, not the software. The technology is improving every month, mainly because it’s being developed by small, nimble vendors who use the software they create and want it to be the very best it can be. But the tech is only a fraction of the battle. The rest, like Soylent Green, is made of people.

And this is where the problem with failure comes in. Generally speaking, people don’t much like change. They don’t even like choice all that much, although they’ll tell you that they do. They certainly don’t like failure, or anything that looks even remotely like it. (Especially in the UK, although I think that the US is a bit more tolerant.) And they don’t like trying again when things do go a bit wobbly.

Failure, real or perceived, is inextricably entwined with status and, frequently, if a project looks like it’s about to go bottom up, instead of figuring out how to save it, people figure out how to distance themselves enough to save face. In a business culture where rewards and punishments are focused on the individual, the teamwork and collaboration required to make a social software project a success can become too much of a risk. But if you’ve got the right skills and personality, you can turn that around.

To be successful at social software implementations in business you need firstly to have a solid understanding of how people work and relate to computers, tools, and each other. You need to understand how to introduce tools in a way that is non-threatening and which emphasises utility and benefits. You need to understand the political climate within your business, and know how to route around anyone who’s threatening to be obstructive.

Secondly, you need to be really pigheaded. If one team doesn’t take to a wiki, try working with another. If one blog fails, try to figure out why and then start another. Iterate. Change things. Experiment. Try again. After all, it’s only failure if you give up.

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9 Responses to “The importance of pigheadedness”

  1. Jenn aka JeSais Says:

    A blog, or any social networking enterprise, takes persistence above all else. It is not a case of “build it they will come,” but rather like any business venture, you have to have a plan. Building a blog, posting a couple of times then wondering why no one comes by or comments is like opening a restaurant, not putting up a sign or doing any PR or advertising then complaining that its empty.

  2. Ian Betteridge Says:

    Culturally, there’s always an internal dislike of admitting failure - which is where consultants come in :)
    And Jenn’s completely right about planning. More often than not, partly because of the way these projects start, they get built without a plan of “where next” - and thus flounder around and ultimately close.

  3. lewis Says:

    there is also a really interesting clay shirky-daniel goleman conversation called ’socially intelligent computing’ which you can listen to free samples of at the publisher’s website http://www.morethansound.net

  4. Suw Says:

    It’s not just blogs written for an external audience we’re talking about here, but all social software endeavours in business. They are rather like bonsai - if you don’t give them enough of the right sort of attention, they die. Quickly. (And I’ve killed enough bonsai in my time to know!)

    Strategy and planning is essential, but it’s not the only thing you need. The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, after all, gang aft a-gley. But just because a project goes a-gley, doesn’t necessarily mean that the tool is flawed. Perhaps there’s a flaw in the plan? Perhaps the plan was fine but the execution lacked? The problem is, it’s easy to succumb failure and dismiss the tool out of hand, rather than examine the reasons for failure, and then try again with a better plan.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “We installed blogs/wiki/social bookmarking in our company, and it was useless!” and, when I’ve dug a little, discovered that their plan was “Let’s throw shit at the wall and see what sticks!” Organic is for vegetables, not software implementation and rollout.

  5. sandy blair Says:

    Great blog post, the discussion about how to use social software in organisations often seems to be about the successful anecdote. It’s a compelling, well established technique, Clay starts his book with a mobile phone story. But the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and we could all do with more information of failures and how to avoid them.

    We’ve been round this loop before with ‘plain old websites’ and certain effective principles have emerged from the likes of Jakob Neilsen.

    We need to get to the nitty gritty now - how do you do the plan of launching a wiki, what do you do the first three months its up and running, what techniques are there to fix problems, how do you spot early there are problems….

  6. suw Says:

    Sandy: Yes, we do need more than just some anecdotes. I’ve done a fair bit of work with businesses, and there are a fair number of case studies out there, but the problem I have is that whilst I could easily spend, say, six months pulling all of that information together and drawing up some guidelines, I also have to pay the rent in the meantime!

    That said, I do have an adoption strategy for social software, published on this blog, which has been successfully used by myself and by others (even the CIA!). And, indeed, I will soon be running a seminar to answer the exact questions you post at the end of your comment.

    There is expertise out there, it’s just a matter of pulling it all together.

  7. Christine Says:

    Can you post a link to the “adoption strategy for social software” you mention? Could not find it in the archives :)
    Thanks!

  8. Phil Hodgen Says:

    @christine

    http://strange.corante.com/2006/03/05/an-adoption-strategy-for-social-software-in-enterprise

    You’re welcome. Mr. Google found it for me; I didn’t bother with the website’s search functionality. :-)

    @philiphodgen

  9. David Zuckerman Says:

    First, I have to say that “But the tech is only a fraction of the battle. The rest, like Soylent Green, is made of people.” is one of the great lines I’ve read this year.

    But my thought was to say that “the problem of ignoring negative results” has been spotlighted as significant throughout scientific journals. Bluntly, though any scientist would agree that negative results can be as significant (meaningfull, useful) as positive ones, the journals don’t want to publish them. Thus our capacity to learn from the broadest range of experiments is irrevocably limited. One might say that the problem with tech is only a fraction of the battle, that the rest, like Soylent Green, is made of people.”

    Keep up your good work.