Archive | September 2009

Assuming…and other mistakes

The social media explosion is temporary—or at least I hope it is. As more people learn how to fish, there won’t be the need for people like me to toss halibut into the throng of open mouths—or at least I hope so.

Sometimes I do have pangs of doubt whether the current crop of policy makers and leaders will ever graduate beyond their current levels. Maybe the eventual evolution of the common body of knowledge will be due to the replacement of one generational talent pool for another. Maybe, eventually, I won’t have to explain Boolean search strategies to people, not because eventually people will understand the how-tos that people like me are putting out, but that they will be replaced by new blood or the programs themselves will evolve to make the Semantic Web a reality.

Maybe that’s always the way things work. Perhaps we all hit a certain wall when it comes to new ideas or approaches. While many can adapt and learn, maybe the majority of people reach some sort of innovation saturation? Could be. I know I hit a wall with math. Calculus. I gave up—went to philosophy and literature and never looked back. If the world was waiting for me to engineer a bridge somewhere, it was out of luck until they start putting a “build me a bridge” button on these graphic calculators.

Most of you are probably wondering what the hell I’m getting at. Fair enough.

Last week I got an email that highlights a type of email I routinely get. Now, before we continue, I am going to qualify all of this by removing any sense of elitism or a patronizing tone. If the points of this post are true, I too will fall victim to my own saturation of innovation where my mind will be unwilling or unable to further redefine its information-processing structures. So this isn’t a “old people don’t get it” post in the slightest.

Anyway, email. About a month ago I led a faculty bible study. It was on the passage of the Christian Scriptures where Jesus led his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and made the speech about “On this rock, I’ll build my church.” That whole thing. I opened up with a short side study, discussing how old the disciples probably were before moving on to the rest of things.

I talked about how I’d heard a bible teacher named Ray Van Der Laan give a pitch years ago, showing that the disciples were probably all teenagers. This was how old disciples usually were in the culture and time: teens. I meant it as a quick intro to the rest of the study, but people at the session were blown away.

“That makes sense!”

“I’ve always wondered about that.”

“I’ve never heard that before.”

“Where did you find that?”

“Where are your sources?”

“How can I read your information?”

I told them the Web. Google the teacher I’d mentioned. They went away astonished and paid little attention to the actual study….I guess I should have focused on the age thing.

About a week later, I was still getting emails, asking where to go and what Web site to look at. I had to tell them it wasn’t in one neat package, but the information was across several sites. Google was their friend. But that’s where I assumed people could find out information, and I started to think again on how some groups, no matter how many times you coach them through something, can’t figure things out.

Again, not an intelligence or age thing, but some people will never learn how to adapt to new technological environments. Some people just can’t get the concept of fishing.

This final email that set off this post arrived a few days ago.

“SSG Salmons, where did you get your information for that study last month? I’m giving a session and want to bring up the young disciple idea. Fascinating.”

I had to break it down. Google the teacher’s name “Ray Van Der Laan.” That would bring up every document he’s remotely associated with. By adding words after the name, you can further exclude irrelevant searches. Try adding the phrase “disciples were teenagers.” That should bring up the list of posts I had scanned through to refresh my sources.

A few minutes later…

“SSG Salmons, I don’t see anything.”

I typed in the search string. Then looked down the list. There they were, the articles I’d seen before. I picked out the first few, including the “teenage posse” one that had been the most helpful.

A few minutes later…

“Thank  you!”

Our educational philosophy focuses on questions and answers. I think this has a tendency to lobotomize us to adaptation and innovation. We expect something to just work.

Car breaks? Someone fix it. “It won’t make a ‘vroooooooom!’ anymore!” Computer has an error? “My Yahoo! is broken!”

Classical education focuses on how to think. It’s not in the lists of facts that can be digested like a machine, but it’s about cultivating the character of a thinking person. In Rabbinic teaching, questions are answered by other questions.

“What is 6 + 4?” a teacher will ask.

“What is 5 x 2?” a student will respond. It shows that the student not only knows the answer, but can move the discussion further.

We don’t do that anymore, it’s all just quantifiable rote memorization and minimized thought. Ninety six percent? Great, “A+”. Ninety six credit hours? Great, bachelor’s degree.

So when a new paradigm like social media enters the fray and challenges us to redefine how we perceive and interact with social units, geographical and notional affiliations, or even data itself; many of us cannot figure it out. It’s me and Calculus. Ugh! My brain is teh hurts!

So, to help, guys like me who haven’t reached their innovation saturation levels, Google the term “social media training” and teach ourselves. A year later, I’m speaking at seminars, companies and governmental organizations throughout the world because I’m soooo knowledgable. If only people knew….

Granted, I know I can put on a good show, and I am genuinely flattered at the attention; but as we move forward, I do grow concerned that we’ll have to wait for many to retire or move on to get people in positions who haven’t become saturated.

And then, eventually (although “eventually” is happening faster and faster these days), I’ll hit my ceiling too. My processor won’t be able to handle the load. I’ll check out, and someone else will step in who can run two or three computers at once, type two letters simultaneously and watch seven movies concurrently with commenting on a quantum mechanics blog.

Meanwhile, I’m available to give training to you and your employees on how to effectively leverage social media trends in your workplace and on your external-facing communication initiatives to increase the effectiveness of your organization.


Delivering on promises

One of my weaknesses is that I get distracted. When operating in a team, with constructed deadlines and timetables, things are easy. A day’s mission or set of milestones are there to be tackled and accomplished. However, when a rogue agent like me, I’ve discovered the common challenge of effective time management. It’s harder to be your own boss.

It’s a skill we can always improve on—getting the most out of our day; and I see the danger that guys in my position can get into. I have a tendency to go on and on all day about how A, B and C can all change the world and help at work immensely; but without the follow through, it’s all a Ponzi scheme—shuffling one pile of enthusiasm to another, without ever accomplishing anything.

My personality doesn’t help. I’m an extrovert, so while I have that hard-charging attitude that Myers-Briggs talks about, I miss out on the detail-oriented aspects of being more introspective. As a result, I find that I have five or 10 projects in the works at any given time. Wikis for the European Command, DINFOS, the Public Affairs Department; video pages for the broadcasters, for my personal social media site; draft policy for NATO; access consulting for the Library of Congress; that novel…just for starters. If I don’t hunker down and follow through, it’s all for naught. I become just another zany distraction—all about theory with little execution.

I think the follow-through idea is the best part. I’d rather be a man of fewer initiatives but more thorough implementation. But—ha! don’t we all wish for other traits? Instead, maybe I need to write things down…or find a job where I can get some help. Maybe part of my problem is that I’m always working alone. Strange that the social media guy is always by himself. Hrmmm.

In addition to actually following through on initiatives, it’s also necessary to follow up once something is completed. In the case for social media initiatives, it’s good to touch base with people I’ve worked with previously. I’ve found that a lot of people have questions or concerns, but don’t want to be a bother or, worse, think they look like a fool.

But, far from it, when someone helps a group or organization set up something new, there’s always the need for further consultation. I’ve found calling up people I’ve worked with and asking how things were going gets a sigh of relief. At work, it’s the same. Continued training and encouragement is necessary for sustainable and consistent adoption of new initiatives. Otherwise, the flash in the pan is dazzling, but quickly dims to what was before.

Most discouraging is failure. When all of the best intentions for an organization get stymied in argument or inaction, or when an initiative just falls flat with no users or interest. That can make the social media advocate and supporters look the fool. The discouragement can bog down enthusiasm; but that’s where my journalist’s thick skin comes in. Jesus doesn’t love me any less when an initiative fails. Moreover, some of the big higher ups in my chain of command would rather me make a mistake in trying something rather than make a mistake by not trying something. So, really, where does the fear or sense of dread originate? Even in the midst of abject failure, it’s good to stick to the drive that spurred the initiative in the  first place.

After all, execution that didn’t work out is far better than a promise without results. And a good attitude amongst failure will help keep a person trying to deliver on the expectations set forward by innovators and dreamers.


Don’t push too far ahead

My boss gave me some good advice today. Don’t push so far ahead of things that it makes you irrelevant.

Very true. It’s the same wisdom we teach our journalism students. A lot of them, especially the college grads, show up with a lexicon of words and fancy literary tricks. Even if they are correctly used (that’s an “if”), a lot of times the alluded-to humor or historical references are too far above most peoples’ heads to be of any use. Students argue with their instructors all the time about how they feel journalistic style is “dumbed down” or too simple. Some even think it’s our duty as literary types to raise the bar of average literary levels.

And of course we, the ever patient instructors, nod, put our hands on their shoulders and lament the state of American reading levels. Then we insist on our original “make it simple” edits.

The same is true for social media. A lot of people in the social media sphere/universe/whatever pride themselves on getting it. They are in the know. They have the pulse of communication. And it’s terribly exciting to harness the power of changed communication–to be the harbingers of revolution and burn the status quo. But unfortunately, I can see how arrogant that can make social media proponents like myself. Moreover, as there is a push to move beyond social media, we can further confuse those struggling to keep pace. What good is poetry to a person who can’t read? Aren’t the nuances of Shakespeare lost on someone just beginning to learn English? It’s true that those who advocate social media trends, jargon and practices should take care to not push too far forward, too quickly.

We can keep counsel with ourselves–establish thinking groups and work in new areas, sure. But we should always be diligent in empowering those around us. There was a civilian gentleman who presented at the Marine’s public affairs symposium down in Hampton, Va., yesterday. He and I chatted about how surprised we were that it has taken this long to get most people on just the basic levels of social media. And, I admit, every time I run across a new group of people who laugh about being social media infants, I do have the urge to roll my eyes, get frustrated and say “Get with it, keep up!” But what good is that? What good is a steak, however well cooked (or not), to a newborn? If the crowd we social media zealots are in need more basic modules of instruction, far be it for us to see ourselves as too elite to be bothered.

Teachers learn patience. They learn to teach the same skills to new people, constantly. They shouldn’t lament the never-ending procession of 5th graders who need to learn state capitals. They shouldn’t be angered when a student needs the same special instruction that hundreds of students before him did. Likewise, those that teach social media shouldn’t be too in love with themselves that they “can’t be bothered” with teaching the basics or working with new groups on ground already covered.

Granted it is discouraging on one hand to still be mired in teaching 101 even after this long. Sometimes it does seem that the world will never get it–that we’ll spend so long continuing to argue “if” we should instead of “how” that we’ll miss the boat. But we have to temper our itch for innovation with the wisdom of restraint. When journalism students come to interview me for their assignments, they always ask for me to spell my name. Sometimes, I want to say, “Look it up. Don’t bother me with that.” But they’re just learning. We all don’t know what we don’t know. It’s unfair to come down on someone for mistakes we all made.


Preamble to the revolution

There are a couple of quotes that I use to start off my social media seminars/talks/whatnot. Today, I’ll share those.

There are two kinds of fool. One says, ‘This is old, and therefore good.’ And one says, ‘This is new, and therefore better.’

— John Brunner, author
“The Shockwave Rider”

Most people who run across jerks like me resist. And rightfully so. There is no shortage of snake-oil salesmen who promise the world, if only some company hire them or some company buys a service to cure all that ails. Social media is no different. It’s immediately overwhelming the number of speakers, conferences, books, seminars–not to mention blogs, wikis and videos; all explaining how social media will solve the world’s problems. So, when faced with yet another session from yet another presenter, there is often skepticism. And I don’t blame people.

What I try to convey with this quote is that there are two ditches to each road, and both have a danger to we, the travelers. On the one side you have the ditch of too little–too little action, planning, whatever; it’s the extreme of inaction. On the other side you have the ditch of too much–rash, impulsive, misplaced emphasis, too much action. Falling off of either ditch means a stuck car. Anyone who advocates either ditch is a fool, Brunner says.

When it comes to social media, these extremes apply as well.

You have the guy harping about “new new new” like it’s some kind of cult. Guys like me can fit into this category. These are the snake oil salesmen, latching on to social media because it’s new. Nevermind the fact that it might or might not be needed. People in this category–advocating this ditch, are out to tear the world down because it’s old. Everything must go! Shake up the system! Oftentimes, paranoia about becoming irrelevant drives a person to such zealous rage, or perhaps frustration at a circumstance, or perhaps still ignorance. It is foolish.

Likewise, the other side of the argument is foolish as well. These involve the “old” people, advocating “old” things. Many times, the new zealots attack old because–well, it’s old. What more does a thing need to demonstrate before being taken down? Regardless, people who advocate the old ditch do so out of zealous conservatism. They are worried. Sometimes they’re scared. They would rather be safe than risk a foray into the unknown. And, to the defense of what works, it has done so. Established norms have proven themselves. Otherwise, the organization wouldn’t exist today. Where this mindset paralyzes people, though, is that comfort in past procedural or philosophical victories stagnates. Spartans were amongst the best warriors of the world in their time, but even the mighty phalanx became obsolete, as did the Spartan strategies.

Flirting with either ditch is risky. That’s why we stay in the middle. We bring the wisdom of experience and temper it with relevance and constant introspection. We push to wisely move forward. With social media, we aren’t burning down the house–we’re remodeling and reshaping things as we find tools that better meet our established objectives. There is a place for the zealot revolutionaries and staunch conservatives–both offer valuable insight and innovation. But neither can be given too much sway. Too much of either is foolish.

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Of a good leader, who speaks little, when the work is done, his aim fulfilled, the people will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

— Lao Tzu, father of Taoism

When advocating change, starting a revolution, orchestrating an attack on the status quo or whatever; it is important that the thought leader, commander, policy maker, whomever, is not chasing after glory or personal gain. Side effects can occur, sure–a book deal, a better job offer; but these are best accomplished when the above quote is held close to the heart. It is in the essence of every good leader to be selfless. Being the frontman/woman should be a role taken with modesty and supplication. Cults of personality are too easily swayed toward the dangerous cliffs of disconnection, misdirection or self-affirmation. When a leader falls in love with him/herself, the movement is in peril. While it is still possible for such a movement to continue to do good, based on the altruism of the leader; more often than naught, petty personal squabbles and short-sightedness keep the vision from seeing past the fog of the immediate morning.

Instead, when a leader is focused on empowerment, on teaching others to fish, such a movement is timeless. It speaks to the essential goodness in people: self sacrifice, extraordinary effort, collaboration, truth. These are the virtues that social media tries to extol. After all, it does take a lot of work to set up and maintain a wiki; to write a blog; to prepare a seminar lecture. If a leader pushes for these initiatives with the intentions of being beneficial to as many people as possible, it stays genuine. People listen. It sounds socialist, sure, but people trust it. That’s why most of Web 2.0 is free. So many tools that do so much…free. Who is the head of Google? Who wrote Facebook? Ok, even if you know those, who is submitting data sets to Who put in the long hours to establish Or any of the other thousand free and extremely beneficial tools out there?

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

— Army General Eric Shinseki (ret.), former chief of staff, as quoted by Tom Peters in Reimagine, DK 2003

Ha! Priceless. And spot on. Now we’re getting down to business. With the process of revolution qualified and the new guys hopefully humbled a bit, the conservatives need a good kick in the butt too. Every time I run into a brick wall when teaching social media–every time people say, “Not now” or, “We’d rather stay with email”; this quote comes to mind. And I said brick wall, mind you. People who are generally hesitant are normal. I’m talking about when all is said and done–when the objectives have been defined, the leadership pushing forward, the tools identified, the initiatives begun, the training established. Then, after all of that, if the general consensus remains, “Who are you? Go away! We’re fine with what we’ve always done”; then it’s time for this quote. Safe might be safe, for now. But soon (soon happening sooner and sooner every day), such stagnation will render an organization irrelevant, if it isn’t already.

DINFOS, where I work, was skirting close to irrelevance. When no one could be bothered to push for new material in the curriculum. When everyone was happy just plugging along. When change was too hard, according to some. Or worse, when change was not needed. I would often liken it to working in a monastery. We painted over the windows with our incredibly limited Internet access. We stuck to studying our ancient texts of journalism, complete with “FLITJ” headline counting and dummy sheets for pagination. We never mentioned blogs, wikis or anything like that. Hell, even our “field training exercise” had media pools, a practice decades old and not used very often anymore.

But some in the schoolhouse started kicking people in the teeth and got things moving. For various reasons, certain mindsets were resisted. I was one of the advocates for social media, joined by several others in the building. We started tearing down the rotted, old framework and started reinforcing our operations with new material. We had to. Some of the services had already set up follow-on schools to augment the training of individuals from here. When I was in the field (out in the regular Army), doing things the “DINFOS way” was a joke–synonymous with wrong or uninformed.

Whereas instead of being the bastion of military communication, as we daily laud ourselves as being; we were instead the babbling old relative in the corner–someone the services tolerated because of our history, but arguably one who never said anything of much value.

Irrelevance should be the fire than always nips at our heels to wisely change. Businesses change because irrelevance equals bankruptcy. In the bureaucratic morass of government service, where irrelevance does little to stymie promotion, it takes the girded zeal of well-intentioned introspection to push through the expensive and suffocating layers of mechanisms dedicated to the status quo.

So many say, “Why bother? It’s easier to just sit back and get paid.”

Easier, yes; but God is watching. I’d rather better the world, in my small way.


My time in the wilderness and the return to waning interest

As you might know from my last post, I was scheduled to spend some time with the fine folks at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium these last few weeks. Due to the hotel situation, my lack of cell phone coverage, and the quirky copyright and IT policies at the NATO military headquarters, I was without all but the most austere personal Internet services for the two weeks. I was off the grid.

A couple of people jokingly asked if I went through any withdrawal symptoms sans Twitter or Facebook. Strangely, no. I think I’m reaching the point of overexposure to social media where I see it as a work thing. I don’t live to tweet, as it were. I don’t thirst for comments and admiration to pour on me through the bloggosphere. It’s how I “keeps it real,” I suppose–I can take it or leave it.

Now that’s not to say I’m not a zealot when it comes to advocating social media use. I’m a firebrand of passion and conviction, but the edge wears on a person after a few months–especially when teaching the same pitches.

The trip to Europe was great. The people at SHAPE were very welcoming and open to learning about social media. I very much enjoyed my time there and hope to keep those new relationships going. It’s always cool to see new sparks of creativity and empowerment when it comes to social media. But did I lament my time in the personal wilderness of disconnection? No, I was very at ease.

Because I had the company of real people. I still greatly prefer that. I’m not so under the influence of the one ring of technology that I skulk into the cavernous basements, away from light, to hold fast to my “precious” social media. I love conversation with women, especially (sorry dudes). Smiles, laughs, all of that is better than a retweet any day.

So I guess this post is my confession that I’m not a pure-bred social media-ite. I can actually live some days without tweeting the world my lunch preferences. (To be fair, I could not stay nearly as informed as I might be without my hard-tweeting tweeps passing along valuable articles and policies. To them I am eternally grateful! For the sake of literary flair, though, I’m taking the aloof position of indifference). If the EMPs were to go off and the world reduced to the crackling radio static of ambient galactic silence, I’d persevere. I’d know my friends. I’d know how to research topics. I’d be all good.

Which serves to pad me against social media failures. When returning home to the states and heading into the Defense Information School to rejoin my compatriots, I saw that the workplace wiki is still floundering. No one is using it. For all the good or bad design, well or not well researched needs and capabilities of the tool, no one cares. They seem indifferent. This is probably because the tools that I advocate, both the wiki and the social bookmarking group, don’t hold any innate value for people. I’m not angry, or frustrated, or offended in the least–if the shoe doesn’t fit the shoe doesn’t fit. I’m fine, personally, about the possibility that DINFOS does not want social media–that the workplace culture is too ingrained with email and how things currently operate, that times aren’t ready for change. I’m fine with that.

And I’m not waiting to give some sort of “Just you wait, you’ll be sorry” sort of parting shot. No. I’m strangely fine with all of the efforts here potentially rolling back and being completely for naught. Why? Because I myself have grown. I have seen the multitude of companies and organizations who want/need these sorts of changes. They are the ones who ask me to travel the world over to give them some moments of social media knowledge–from me or whomever, but social media know-how nonetheless. It’s cool to be in great demand, even if not as much where I live. Belgium over Maryland? Ok.

My project champion is even losing a bit of faith. He’s ready to throw his hands up on our workplace wiki experiment. With the wiki, our department can save $37,000/year just in printing costs, and hundreds of man hours of searching through email. All that, and it’s search-able, easier to find info, blah blah blah…but no one is using it, so it’s all a m00t point. Beta was a better format than VHS, yet it died. CBS was a better color standard than NBC, but politics edged CBS out.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, there is no tree.

So we’ll see how things go. I have one more idea that I hope might spark some interest. We’ll see how things go. I do hope it takes off, but again, if not, I’m fine. Mom still loves me. The baby Jesus still loves me. I’m good.


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