A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (actually, it was on the outskirts of Luton, but when you work at head office in the City, Luton really does seem far, far away) I was privy to an early dabble in using electronic fora – messageboards, if you will – for internal communication purposes.
I am, as my regular readers will know, an old communicator. (Rather like one of those clunky black plastic devices off of an early episode of Star Trek. Badoom tish. The gag that never stops giving.) So this was many years ago – indeed so much so that my memories are sepia-tinted and stored on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies – and it was a bit of a groundbreaker.
The idea – of course – was based on the concept (still current today) that you should engage with your employees, give them a voice, listen to what they have to say, encourage them to contribute and get it on with a bit of the old ‘you said….we did’ malarkey. It was also believed that such a forum would encourage sharing of knowledge and experience and – in a corporate context – allow for the dissemination and subsequent passing on of policies, procedures and operating practices.
At this time, being part of an electronic and virtual community, powered by the wonders of the new-fangled interwebosphere, was really rather daring. And – here’s the key bit – no-one had any real experience of how such a thing would function and – most importantly – how the key players (the employees) would interact with it.
Now I just know, at this point, that you – loyal readers – are shaking your heads and averting your eyes because – with the benefit of your years of exposure to social networks (for yes, this is what that was, in essence) – you can predict what comes next.
But in case you’ve not arrived at the ugly conclusion (for such it is) yet, let me tell you that the users of this proto-social medium, this ur-twitter, were many thousands of employees, scattered around the country in small teams, manning what can best be described as lower-end retail outlets.
As I recall, it took less than a week for the sheer quantity of ridiculousness and the myriad examples of internet Tourette’s to warrant the beginning of a damage limitation process that – in fairly short order – saw the tool shut down. No – it didn’t work as expected – no-one was really into sharing knowledge and best practice, no-one was into disseminating corporate updates.
No – they were in to insulting each other across the country, excoriating management, getting all sweary and generally getting their inappropriate on in a jungle stylee. This was, I have to say, something of a surprise at the time – I don’t think anyone saw it coming – as we simply didn’t equate giving people a voice with them using it.
I think we believed in some happy nirvana where people took responsibility, used their common sense and where ‘selfies’ did not, and never would, exist. Today, of course, with Zuckerberg-tinted hindsight, we recognise the awful truth of what we’ve done (and what, I’m afraid, cannot be undone).
Give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable. Given half the chance.
Which is why I’ve never had much time for Yammer – the so-called ‘enterprise social network’. As Spinal Tap said ‘there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever’ and – from experience – I think it is too much to ask of your employees to have to tread it.
Facebook are, apparently, contemplating a similar tool – if this is so, I think that the line is getting finer and finer by the minute.