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Neil Morrison’s Change-Effect.com is usually one of our favourites, but his most recent post – Social #HR will eat itself – seems to have triggered an outbreak of pigeon-impersonating in response to a perceived cat. I’d recommend you read it before you read on, but he makes a good point or two even if he is a skilled enough writer and practitioner to be making them knowingly: the validity of the sentence “The certainty gained from unthinking consensus is the cloak that camouflages lazy ignorance” is, for example, allowed to come after the more pointed version – “The thing is, that the whole concept has been bastardised by the well meaning, but intellectually stunted.” I’m guessing Neil is after a reaction …

… and truth be told, I’m more tempted to agree with the pointed version. Neil’s point about edginess vs acceptance aside, surely there is more potential in a medium for discussion and debate than finding a list of things to agree with? Perhaps it’s that ASK values asking the right questions and looking for the answers to ‘Why?’, but I do think anyone whose Twitter feed consists entirely of retweets and 140 character verbal back-pats might consider sitting back from the keyboard for a moment and asking themselves what they are contributing? If your default post is to tell the world that you “couldn’t agree more”, might you not move everyone’s thinking and reflection – including your own – a little bit further forward if you considered the possibility of agreeing slightly less?

Having used online collaboration/discussion/sharing mechanisms since the late 1980s, perhaps my thinking is coloured by the fact that Facebook was a twenty-year old idea for me by the time it became a reality (and I couldn’t help but roughly equate Twitter with the thankfully briefly-lived Mac-based ‘Ping!’ facility of c. 1987), but when I look back over nearly thirty years of screen-based sharing, interacting with and networking, the people whose presence and participation I’ve valued the most didn’t come from either of the following categories:

  • People who post to say how much they concur with an existing post
  • People whose stance seems to be wilfully ‘controversial’ (I’m sorry, but nobody is always in permanent disagreement with everything and everyone: even if they are, they are ultimately predictable rather than controversial)

Nor, in all honesty, have they been those who either position their thoughts as the definitive answer on all occasions, perhaps confusing ubiquity with omnipotence. (Somehow, I can’t bring myself to agree that the intention of the idea of ‘the hive mind’ was for someone to be the Queen Bee while the workers disseminate their wisdom for them in a constant low drone …)

Rather they have been those who, whether thinking aloud for themselves or politely posting to prod or explore a specific point or angle – I don’t feel like I can say either ‘poke’ or ‘nudge’ in this context – the thinking of others, have stopped those reading the thread from quietly wondering if the needle had somehow got stuck in the groove. Those who, perhaps, see consensus as a reasonable thing to hope for as a temporary destination rather as a means of getting there, and who are wary of seeking comfort – as we commented in a recent review of a client presentation, being comfortable can lead us to not asking questions that we will regret not having addressed slightly further down the line.

Our online interactions and behaviours are no doubt an interesting measure of our personalities and personal styles, albeit that are (particularly by comparison with ten years ago) tempered by consideration of either our employers’ branding and positioning or our own. But with my academic/post-grad student hat on, I understand the point that beyond a basic level the contribution of the individual is to the bigger/global debate(s) of our discipline. What has been said before has already been said, and we should look to investigate it, hold it up to the light and sniff, and test us against ever-changing realities. In that context, there are no points for clicking ‘Like’ or ‘Retweet’. Even if several million people circulate the ideas and articles of a couple of hundred people, we’re still only really listening to a couple of hundred people.

And if the point of “Social #HR” is to move the discipline forward, keep it relevant and forward-facing, then perhaps some of its most influential practitioners should be encouraging us in that direction. As Esther Dyson once said:

So, to get the best results, we have people sharpening their ideas against one another rather than simply editing someone’s contribution and replacing it with another. We also have a world where the contributors have identities (real or fake, but consistent and persistent) and are accountable for their words.”

And perhaps, rather than seeing social media as another channel in which to ‘be HR’, HR might want to use some of its intellectual resource to consider the nature of the channel and the way it is using it. One of the Net’s oldest sages, especially in the online community sphere, is Howard Rheingold. I do realise I’m quoting when I cite the blurb of his most recent book, but the words are good enough to overcome the irony:

The future of digital culture—yours, mine, and ours—depends on how well we learn to use the media that have infiltrated, amplified, distracted, enriched, and complicated our lives. How you employ a search engine, stream video from your phonecam, or update your Facebook status matters to you and everyone, because the ways people use new media in the first years of an emerging communication regime can influence the way those media end up being used and misused for decades to come.

To help all of us step beyond the confines of our comfort-zones as we discover what we might ultimately be and achieve – and what else is HR for? – HR might have to take a step or two itself. We can always have the group hug afterwards.