Tuesday, July 7th, 2009
In my previous post I published the recommendations for government, funders and civil society regarding how to spread the use of social tools and how to engage with them more deeply. I’ve now re-written them, having taken on board some of the excellent advice and comments that people kindly left on the last post.
I’m now going to post the re-written version for further comment. If there’s one thing in the report that has to be right, it’s this bit, so I encourage you to leave comments even about the smallest thing. Am I missing anything important? Am I communicating these points clearly? Am I going into too much detail? Or not enough? Please let me know!
Skills and training
It is widely recognised amongst social media experts that social media is experiential in nature: It is difficult to fully understand social tools until one has participated and experienced them for oneself. Non-users can therefore find it difficult to understand the benefits of a given tool until they have spent time using it and have genuinely engaged with the community.
Unlike basic computing skills, such as word processing or spreadsheet manipulation, the core understanding required to make good use of social technologies is cultural, not procedural. Social tools are generally very simple to use. It is a trivial task to set up a Twitter, Flickr or Facebook account, or to create a blog on a free service such as Typepad or Wordpress. Using those tools to engage with the public in a meaningful way requires more than just understanding how to publish an update or upload a picture; rather it requires gaining an insight into the motivations, behavioural norms and expectations that make up each tool’s sub-culture.
Government must, therefore, carefully consider its digital media literacy programmes: To create an effective programme requires expertise in the cultural analysis of social media, not just a technical understanding. By focusing specifically on social media and its culture as part of a wider digital media literacy programme, the Government could both improve digital inclusion, and empower individuals to take part in activities online that would improve their social inclusion.
But if social media is sidelined or treated as equivalent to non-interactive digital behaviours, such as sending and receiving email, there is a significant risk of creating a false sense of action and understanding. The consequences of a scenario in which organisations have been inadequately trained in the use of social media could be very serious.
The PR space is littered with examples of companies who failed to understand the social media culture into which they moving, and who thus made faux pas that damaged their brand and, in some cases, had detrimental effects on their profits. One recent example was when the home furnishings store Habitat started spamming Twitter with inappropriate messages promoting its spring catalogue . Because Habitat had not taken the time to understand what behaviours were acceptable on Twitter, it alienated potential customers by inserting marketing messages into conversations that Twitter users were having about issues such as the Iranian elections.
Any social technology skills programmes needs to be organised in partnership with existing social media communities, such as the Tuttle Club  and experienced practitioners, who may exist outside of the Government’s and the third sector’s usual constituencies. This work also needs to be done “out in the open”, in public view, so that anyone with relevant knowledge and interest can help shape the training materials. Tapping into the wider community like this will help ensure that training programmes do not just include essential cultural information, but are also flexible and adaptable in the face of what is a rapidly changing set of technologies.
Recommendations for social technology skills development
* Experienced social media practitioners should be an integral part of any digital media literacy or digital inclusion programme, and should be included in consultations and in steering groups.
* All governmental and allied groups working on digital media literacy and digital inclusion projects should adopt social media for internal collaboration and external consultation and conversation, so that all those involved have first hand experience of the tools and their culture(s).
* Centres of excellence in social media, whether community-organised, in business or in academia, should be identified, recognised and supported.
For Funding Organisations
* Funds should be set aside for cross-sector social media training, coaching and mentoring, and the creation of free/open source training materials, case studies, and other resources. Such projects should be led from within the social technologies community.
* Funding organisations should also adopt social media internally for collaboration and externally for communication as a matter of course, so that they become better equipped to understand social media projects.
* Additional help should be given to smaller organisations to ensure that they are not excluded from participation.
* Recognition and assistance should be given to informal, ad-hoc civil society groups and the individuals who wish to start one.
For Civil Society Associations
* Associations should earmark funds to pay for ongoing social media awareness training for as many staff as possible, especially trustees/management and those staff ‘at the coal face’.
* Additional training should be focused on those with the right aptitudes, e.g. curiosity, an ability to communicate clearly, and a desire to connect with people. These people can then become social media champions within each organisation.
* Volunteers, supporters and members should also be offered assistance in understanding new social technologies and opportunities to participate in the organisations social media projects.
Recommendations regarding training and the proliferation of skills through the third sector and public are addressed in the above section. There are many additional areas that deserve attention, however, and those are listed here.
Recommendations for government and policy makers
* Research into the use of the internet by the British population is fragmented and sporadic. Whilst both Ofcom and the Office for National Statistics produce research in this area, there needs to be one single body, a ‘British Internet Institute’, that carries out original quantitative and qualitative research and meta-analyses  of research produced by other bodies in this field. Such an organisation should be entirely independent of the Government and should focus not just on ‘issues of the moment’ but carry out longitudinal studies that will give us clear indications of trends and variations. This would provide data to support not just the third sector and businesses but could also feed into government policy.
* Social media should be embedded into the education system at all levels, from primary all the way through to university and continuing education. Social tools should not just be focused on students, but on empowering educators to share information and collaborate, and to help strengthen the relationship between educators and students’ families. The ICT curriculum also needs to be updated to include social media and associated topics, which may also help drive more general adoption of ICT by young people.
* Social media should become an integral part of government, from local to national levels. Using social technology in government will not just be beneficial from a practical point of view, but will also help spread the skills required to understand the medium amongst those who make policy.
Recommendations for funding organisations
* Grant giving organisations should consider how the projects they fund could be improved by the use of the web, and should encourage organisations to include social technology in their project plans. They should also be willing to specify additional budget to ensure that social media is worked into the fabric of the project, not bolted on as an afterthought.
* Adherence to web standards, particularly regarding accessibility, should be encouraged for all projects with a web component.
* Grants should be given for focused research into the use of social media and the web by civil society association to create a portfolio of case studies and best practices, including ROI, metrics, and resourcing needs.
* Funders should invest in projects that will help build technical capabilities across civil society, e.g. schemes that bring together developers and organisations to work on open source projects which could then be used or adapted by any other organisation.
* It is essential that funders be supportive of experiments and risk-taking. There is no one clear route to social media success, and some projects will not work out as well as hoped. These must not been seen as damning, but as part of a wider learning experience.
* The sharing of experience should be built into project plans, covering both success stories and lessons learned from projects that didn’t work out so well. Full and frank discussion of how social media fits into the civil society agenda is an important way to develop our understanding and future applications.
For civil society assocations
* Ensure that individuals have the resources, especially time, to engage with social technologies.
* Task a person or team within the organisation to learn about and experiment with social technologies on an ongoing basis, and to share their discoveries throughout the organisation.
* Use social tools internally for collaboration and communications. Blogs, wikis and social bookmarking tools are particularly useful in an internal context.
* Focus on a small number of tools, and choose ones that can be most easily fitted into existing work schedules. Understand the limitations of your resources and don’t try to do too much.
* Work with external consultants and mentors who can advise on strategy and implementation. Whilst the tools might be easy to use, using them well can be harder.
* Share success stories, lessons, problems and knowledge both internally across the organisation but also externally with other organisations. Sharing knowledge with others will encourage reciprocation, create goodwill and help everyone involved.
* Engage with social media communities outside of the third sector, for example, attend events focused on social media. There are many small, free, informal events, so it’s not just about expensive conferences.
* Let individuals’ personalities come through. Social media is not a form of corporate communication, but a one-to-one conversation so it’s essential to let people be themselves.
* Don’t just focus on younger members of staff. Having a talent for social media is all about one’s mindset, not age or technological history. Older members of staff can take to social tools like ducks to water just as much as their younger counterparts.
* Ensure there is space for dissent, and that it is evaluated honestly and fairly, and fed back into the process.
 The use of statistical techniques to review and combine the results of several different studies.