Saturday, October 31, 2009

Social Media Simulation and Training Environments, by an Internet Media Coach

All well-known systems engineering methodologies and enterprise system development programs leverage testing environments. Testing environments can be built and operated for very different purposes, ranging from prototyping and simulation, to pre-production load testing and usability or “Section 508 Accessibility” checks. Specialized SOA testing frameworks are sometimes required, for difficult infrastructure integration challenges. Most major systems that get deployed to large numbers of users also feature a training environment. This working copy of the “real” or “production” environment affords the user and company a lot of protection against mistakes, mis-operation of system functions, and basically allows you to test-drive a system, but reset and try again if something doesn’t work right or mistakes are made. Play around, learn and mess up - no harm, no foul, and the system assets, data and reputation of you, the system owner and others are all protected.

That’s one very difficult challenge to learning social media, for commercial or government employees. It’s nearly impossible to learn how to use social media tools and techniques in an environment that forgives all missteps, can be wholly reset and leaves no incriminating traces of your mistakes or potentially embarrassing, compromising communication skills after you’re done. The best way to learn how to post to Flickr, to learn the nuances of Twitter and engage in the myriad of online dialogue environments is to actually do it “in production”, as they say, which comes along with a lot of actual or perceived personal and organizational risk. That’s the reason most social media programs and users representing significant companies or governments are usually associated with the “Public Relations” or “Internet Marketing and Social Media” department – these folks are trained and expected to know how to engage in public dialogue, within the bounds of legal, regulatory and policy controls (when available).

Much is being written and discussed online currently regarding the state of Government 2.0, and how we’re quickly reaching an impasse where the ability to become a social media practitioner is simply neither supported nor available to employees working behind government firewalls and Internet usage policies. Social media simply isn’t very social or usable at all, to those for whom it would most benefit. As well, the public forum is missing out on a lot of really good insight and dialogue, because so many employers and employees simply can’t afford the risk, or don’t have the capability to learn, understand and test the risks, that come with posting material online.

I’ve written before on the need for “social media governance automation” – social media governance (and Internet media governance in general) is already a hot topic, as a style of content management and workflow decision-making. Before allowing employees to post a blog entry, tweeting or sending a photo through a series of RSS pipes, most larger organizations can certainly set up and enforce all kinds of content management procedures and controls to protect loss of sensitive information or damage to reputation and credibility. But there’s typically no standard method of enabling any and all employees to test this out…and by doing so, understanding better the risks to the organization and exposing the actual talents and capabilities of the employees. Harnessing the latent power of employee social media participation can’t be done, without an effective social media simulation and training environment.

Plenty of companies and consultants are available to provide “social media 101” training, and there’s no end to the social media tips and techniques available through self-style Social Media Evangelists. However, what’s a small business owner, a government employee looking to self-educate or a professional seeking to change careers to do, when faced with the task of learning social media but not having it impact their job, organization, personal or family reputation? I see all the time examples of “learning by doing”, from the very tentative “LinkedIn lurkers” and “Twitter Testers” (who’ve posted a profile, but don’t participate much) – to the “Facebook Flamers” and “Blogging Blowhards” who’ve simply crashed the party and left a trail of privacy exposure and digital embarrassment in their wake (to be forever indexed online).

We can’t all get it right the first time, and as business owners, managers or others entrusted with corporate or government information management and protection, we simply can’t just let everyone under our management or guidance loose to “play” with social media – without a reasonable degree of guidance, coaching, reputation management, training and possibly, social media simulation. It’s not much different than raising your own children – we shouldn’t let them open email accounts, use search engines and social media sites, and in general use the Internet at all (whether via computer, cellphone or gaming console), without methodical and consistent parental guidance in such things as Internet Safety, online etiquette and computer/digital asset protection. My own children are on the Internet, but walled off, anonymized and protected against the typical dangers of online activity – to the degree they’ve proven they need it, and to the degree I think our family and friends need it.

Establishing social media simulation and “real-world” training is achievable, but not yet widely available or possible across all social media tools. Some applications, like Facebook, are already evolving their ability to manage test accounts for developers. Some social media tools, like Twitter and Wordpress, currently allow a large degree of anonymity for user accounts, and no explicit policy for “test accounts” - though like most social media sites, you remain bound by user policies and simple good sense which include removing accounts when you’re done and no longer using them. On the other hand, most social media policies and terms of service are inherently vague and require practical experience to interpret – for example, Wordpress says that your blog should not be “named in a manner that misleads your readers into thinking that you are another person or company”. “Misleads” is the key term – I may create a Blog named “Green Flies”, but most rational folks wouldn’t come to the conclusion I’m actually the Human Fly, or work for “Green Flies Inc.” – so anonymity is preserved, with no explicit misleading going on. Basically, no harm - no foul.

You can effectively set up and manage simulation environment tools and processes, while making sure risks are minimized and participant activities remain clearly within the proper bounds (from the very loose to the legally explicit) of personal, professional, corporate or third-party policies. Since there do not exist common standards, practices or tools for end-user social media simulation and testing, it will be necessary to leverage knowledgeable Internet media consultants or firms (like those I work with) to help manage risks, apply common sense and practical experience, and basically provide the right set of “training wheels”.

What’s key to know, is that there are methods to get online, test and “try before you buy” in the social media environment…working with a new breed of trainers I’ll term “Internet Media Coaches”. An Internet Media Coach is similar to the rapidly developing profile of “Social Media Coaches” – but adds the experience in traditional Information and Content Management, Digital Asset Protection, and Computer Security and Privacy to the base knowledge of Public Discourse and Collaboration using social media tools.

Contact me for more information regarding hiring an Internet Media Coach, or setting up a Social Media Simulation and Training program or framework.

1 comment:

Aly said...

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