The realities of introducing social media into organisations was brought home to me again yesterday at a conference in Cardiff for people in housing associations with responsibility for PR and communications. We had some fine presentations about developing the brand, dealing with media, using storytelling. These days tenants are customers, housing stock is homes - and quite rightly so.
I ran a couple of workshops on what blogs, wikis, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and the like might bring to the mix, and how organisations could use lots of free tools from Google and other sources. I tried to focus on what this meant for organisations, as people become more able to find their voice to contribute ideas, experience - and of course complain if they were not happy with services.
New media tools can give housing associations better ways to provide information, and support communication and collaboration within and outside the organisation. However, if the tools are in the hands of the resident/customers, that changes power relationships. Things shift from "take it from us" to "we'll take it from each other".
That's where the difficulties arose. While many people in the workshop were excited by the possibilities, they foresaw difficulties which were summed up in two phrases. The first was "we can't do that" - which meant the IT department and senior staff won't let us look at certain sites, or use free tools. The second was "we can't let them do that" - which meant that within the culture of the organisation it would not be conceivable to help customers develop their own voice, except within quite tightly controlled circumstances.
These constraints did not apply to everyone, and of course there are ways to work these things through in organisations, as Colin McKay sets out in his excellent Secret Underground Guide to Social Media for Organisations. However, what struck me was the number of glum nods to these observations, rather than the number of challenges.
The consensus in the workshops was that significant change was a few years off, not least because the customers of housing associations were (as a whole) older, poorer and less media literate than the rest of the population. Introducing social media would not be a high priority in addressing their needs.
On the other hand the PR and communications people in the workshop did feel that they should, personally, be exploring what social media could offer. Problem is, will that be seen as a priority by their bosses?
As well as a presentation and discussion, at one of the sessions we played a new version of the social media game, which I think worked pretty well. I've put all the instructions and cards up on the social media wiki. Please feel free to download and try the game for yourself.
Any examples of organisations - housing or otherwise - that are prepared to help their customers or members find a voice would be welcome. We are now exploring those issues over on a new site for The Membership Project.
I'm off to hear Clay Shirky talk at the RSA about his book Here Comes Everybody, which explains how people are organising without organisations. Landlords beware.