Dear CEOs and senior managers, it’s no longer ok not to know how Social Media works

Imagine if Canadian library managers decided not only that they were uninterested in hiring French-speaking staff, but actually banned their staff from speaking French, making signage in French or providing materials in French. Imagine speaking French was dismissed as a frivolous waste of time when people could be productively communicating in English. Imagine they did all this whilst millions of English-speaking Canadians were learning French and starting to speak to other information service providers in French. There would be outrage and bewilderment in the community and among other librarians. Yet this is exactly the scenario in which many library services (and libraries within larger organisations such as Universities) find themselves in relation to social media and mobile online communication more generally.

I’m attending VALA 2012 this week and so far the unifying theme has been social media and making library services mobile-friendly. I hope to absorb many interesting ideas that will find their way to becoming future blog posts, but today’s is really a frustrated plea. Already I have had several conversations with colleagues in the industry who understand where we need to going, but have been stymied by more senior managers or boards who simply don’t or won’t understand what the rise of social media and mobile computing generally means for information service delivery.

The inertia and complacency displayed by the managers of these organisations is mind boggling. Do they honestly think that social computing is a niche fad that is just going to go away? Facebook is about to launch its Initial Public Offering of shares – in the middle of a recession. Documents filed as part of the IPO show that Facebook’s net income last year was US$1 Billion, with 483 million daily active users in December globally. Facebook alone has over 10 million users in Australia – a nation with a total population of only 22 million. And you think it’s just for kids? Of Twitter’s 106 million users worldwide in 2010-11, more than half were 35 years or older. That membership has already doubled in the months since. Some fad.

Veronika the Librarian prepares to die

Librarians are ‘Information Professionals’ – if you don’t think social media is relevant to you and your job, you need to retire or leave the industry. Librarians are in the business, as Felicity Gilbert put it so well yesterday, of finding contextually relevant information for people. More and more, that context is online using a social media channel. If you aren’t interacting with your patrons on Twitter, Facebook and whatever else becomes huge next, you are doing several things:

  1. Telling your community that you don’t want to help them.
  2. Telling your community implicitly that you don’t understand them and the way they interact with interesting people, and by extension that you don’t care about them and their interests.
  3. Telling the world you are marginal and irrelevant to their daily lives.

Social media and the associated instant, personalised mobile information solutions are where libraries must go to ensure we are fulfilling our mandate. This is no longer something than can be allowed to remain with ‘the young ones’ or ‘the techies’. This is fast becoming core knowledge – just as I’m expected to be able to assist a 5 year old to find dinosaur picture books, a 72 year old find a new crime author and a 45 year old find information about writing resumes all on the same desk shift, every librarian needs to understand the dynamics of social and mobile computing and our place, as information professionals, in that world.

VALA 2012 has thrown up all sorts of challenges to the librarians attending: Do you actually understand the back-end of your library management system? Do you know what people are saying about your library service on social media sites? Do you know what keywords your patrons are using on search engines to find your website? How can members communicate with your library when they are waiting for a bus, walking down the street, in a cafe…? Can they do so at all? Is your online presence mobile-optimised? And if the answer to any of these is ‘no’, what are you going to do about it?

Talking about eating your lunch

Libraries that don’t strongly enter the mobile social computing space will soon find themselves having their own ‘Kodak moment’ – having invested heavily in a once-important service they will wake up one day to find that nobody is interested in what they are providing. For the lucky senior managers this might not come until after they retire, but for the rest of us there are no options. Whomever is ultimately responsible – Boards of management, Communications departments or IT departments – need to either get with the program or get out of the way. Not having a social media presence is, for a library service, the same as refusing to have telephones. Possibly, it’s worse. People aren’t talking about what they ate for lunch on social media – if you’re not around, they’re talking about eating your lunch. They’re talking about what they know and what they want to know. They’re talking about their information needs and wants. They’re talking about your organisation. Are you talking to them?

*in case you were wondering, today’s title is inspired by this article on SOPA.

5 thoughts on “Dear CEOs and senior managers, it’s no longer ok not to know how Social Media works

  1. Ok, firstly, I like the French Canadian analogy.

    Now, I have some questions:

    1. Which library services are you talking about that display “inertia and complacency” in regards to social media? Using Facebook to search for libraries I found profiles for the first 5 that popped into my head (Melbourne Uni; Boroondara; Monash Uni; Port Phillip Library Service and Eastern Regional Libraries)…
    2. Why should I care about them other than to avoid accidentally applying for a job there?
    3. What makes you think they’re reading your blog?
    4. How can you tell the difference between “inertia and complacency” and ‘once bitten, twice shy?’ There are countless examples of social media ‘events’ going viral – who wants to be on the wrong end of that? What are the strategies to avoid that, and how long does it take to develop policies and procedures for dealing with social media?

    I listen to 774 in the car on my way to the train station; Red Symonds talks to “Harriet Hashtag” around 6:45am in a segment called ‘News from the Tweetguist.” To me that suggests Twitter has cracked the mainstream and is no longer considered a “fad.” This article in today’s Age describes a fairly savvy social media strategy employed by at least one of the big four banks (, again suggesting an acceptance that social media is here to stay.

    I wasn’t at VALA, so I didn’t talk to your colleagues, but are they bemoaning the “inertia and complacency” of their managers in regards to social media, or is that merely a symptom of how long it takes to get things done generally, particularly in larger organizations like universities? Guys like you and me like things to happen yesterday, but in a worst case scenario we’ll settle for right now; I’m guessing that the people we talk to at events like VALA are cut from that same cloth.

    In some regards University libraries seem to follow public libraries, but someone has to go first; isn’t it prudent to sometimes let others spend the R&D money and learn from their mistakes? Particularly when you have students paying rather large tuition fees in a competitive market where mistakes can be rather costly…

    Veronika the librarian – nice

    “Do you actually understand the back-end of your library management system?” Again, not having been at VALA, I don’t know the context, but how important is this? How much do I need to know about internal combustion engines to drive a car? Case in point: of the 10 million Facebook users out there, how many know how it selects the ads that they see? Or of the millions of Google users out there, how many know how the search algorithm works, or even what an algorithm is?

    “Boards of management, Communications departments or IT departments – need to either get with the program or get out of the way.” They love hearing this kind of thing, by the way.

    “Not having a social media presence is, for a library service, the same as refusing to have telephones. Possibly, it’s worse.” I agree, but as I said, I’m unaware of these library services that don’t have social media presences, and why I should care about them.

    In regard to the article that in part inspired this post, Anti-SOPA campaigners are to the left what birthers are to the right.

    Fantastic post, Hugh. As you can see, it really got me thinking. Sorry to dump in your reply section…

  2. Hey Craig, thanks for commenting. To respond:

    1. If I wanted to name and shame the organisations and individuals involved I would have done so in my post. But I can say one was a university and another a public library service, both in Melbourne.

    2. Because you care about the profession and its capacity to help people, regardless of whether you work for a particular organisation or not.

    3. I’m quite sure they’re not reading my blog, but some of their colleagues are and might bring it to their attention. At the least it might give those who are on the right track some confidence in the face of pessimism.

    4. This is the difference between organisations that make a decision to be agile and forward-thinking, and those that choose to be risk-averse. If you’re not willing to make lots and lots of mistakes you can’t achieve excellence – as a person or an organisation.

    Personally I think the real key is to gave people with the right personality running your communications rather than focussing necessarily on the technicalities. Anyone can learn technically how to post on Twitter, Facebook or whatever (the whole point is that it is so easy) – but ‘social media disasters’ tend to occur when people or organisations forget basic rules of social interaction. Beyond ‘don’t be a dickhead’ there are few special policies required for social media – how long are your ‘answering the telephone’ or ‘talking to people who walk in the door’ policies?

    Re social media being mainstream – yes, that’s exactly the point I’m making.

    Re backends – I don’t expect the average Facebook user to know or care how it all works. But then again, they’re not information professionals. You don’t need to know how your car works, but if you are a rally car driver it’s going to be pretty useful.

    Re SOPA – I think you are being very harsh. SOPA/PIPA is a dangerous last gasp of a dinosaur industry desperately clinging to an out of date business model and trying to take everyone else down with them. Some of the anti-SOPA rhetoric has definitely been overblown or even outright false, but calling all anti-SOPA voices ‘left wing birthers’ is wrong. You may however be amused by this little piece, I know I was:

  3. A very thought provoking post Hugh that sure has got me thinking and feeling defensive.

    Having been involved in public libraries for many years and as an early adopter of technologies I can empathise with your impatience and frustration about how slow organisations are to adopt things that seem to be obvious.

    I had happily mastered the 23 Things technologies long before that was offered as Public Libraries Training for staff, mainly due to my RSS Feed Reader (then Bloglines) and my own personal learning.

    Professional and personal development in these fields will most probably depend on the initiative of the individual, for if they wait for their organisation to get with the program they will be left behind. There may still be an element of complacency in our industry.

    Now you will be horrified to know we have just put our public libraries presence in Facebook and Twitter into a hiatus after being involved for several years. The reasons for this you describe in your post. Risk – yes. Third party property issues – yes. No organisational policy relating to the use of this media either for the organisation as a whole and for the employees – yes. Lack of resources required to operate in this media channel effectively – yes. Issues raised through SOPA regarding sharing of media – yes.

    Not because of ignorance or lack of staff training or staff initiative or wanting to network in this field with our customers.

    We maintain our mobile presence for our system technologies and this will remain so and be developed further.

    I remain unconvinced that Facebook will remain the tool of choice though and some of that doubt together with the other reasons stated above have led us to discussions that ultimately led to our temporary withdrawal from this field.

    And yes I continue to try out other tools such as Google+ and Unthink and Chumsgroup 🙂

    • Hi Sue

      Thanks for your real life example – it sounds like you’ve taken exactly the approach I think libraries need – try it out, give it a good go (two years minimum) and if it isn’t working for you, ditch it and try something else. This is quite different to “this new technology is outside of our comfort zone so we’re banning it”.

      While I respectfully suggest you’re making a mistake and ‘risk’ regarding social media is massively overstated , I obviously don’t know the specifics of the risks and problems for you.

      I’m no particular fan of Facebook – indeed, I really only still have a personal account because that’s how all my friends invite people to social events. I’d love for it to not be the dominant form of social communication but the reality is that it *is* – that’s why I use it as an example. Probably in 5 years we’ll think of it like we do MySpace now.

      Finally, I perhaps conflated two different issues a little. The problem I see is not so much that there is ‘an element of complacency in our industry’ (every industry has some late adopters) but rather that many library services (public, special and academic) don’t actually have control over whether they can use social media and other ‘new’ systems/technologies. The librarians may be raring to go, but I keep hearing about libraries where other departments or boards of management hold the power over whether it happens – and are stopping the librarians from doing anything.

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