Leadership and social networking: a roundtable debate

Social networking and new learning technologies dominated the agenda at a roundtable debate hosted by the Centre for High Performance Development (CHPD) and Personnel Today. A panel of high-profile leadership development professionals discussed the challenges that social networks can provide for leaders in a fast-changing business environment.


Jim Tapper, chief executive, CHPD (chair)
Simon Haben, group talent and leadership director, Royal Mail Group
Peter Ainley-Walker, head of organisational effectiveness, RBS
Peter Butler, director of learning, BT Group
Ian Williams, head of organisational capability, Lloyds TSB
Chrissy Amure-Butcher, leadership development director, American Express
Rachel Woolf, director of business development and marketing, CHPD

Ian Williams: The professional world has seen an explosion of social networking and networking opportunities. They provide you with a solution potentially two clicks away from where you are. “I know a person who knows a person who can solve this problem”, or “I know a person who knows a person to introduce me to this network”. One of the things we are bringing into our executive leadership suite is the ability to network. It is internal, which is a commentary on our organisation apart from anything else.

Jim Tapper: In all the chatrooms and things the networks still have monitors and if you have an effective networking learning environment, you ought to still have some sort of oversight. In the context of that, there needs to be somebody that is directing that work for the organisation if you are going to use it effectively.

Peter Ainley-Walker: What you are saying is that if there is not someone sitting there directing what they are doing, they will not know what to do?

Jim Tapper: There is a lot of ways you could set up a network with certain outcomes.

Peter Ainley-Walker: What if the network creates and exists itself?

Chrissy Amure-Butcher: The key point is that it should not be networking and collaborating for the sake of doing it but there has to be a strong purpose. There should be a real business outcome for why you are doing it, whether it is to drive innovation around a particular initiative or to share a best practice or whatever it is. We use that word so often, networking, and I believe it should be purposeful collaboration to have the greatest impact.

We have a network for women, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender network, a number of networks across the organisation. They have to have a business purpose for creating that network. So what are they trying to do as a network coming together? Is it because they are trying to increase the number of females in senior positions? Is it because they are trying raise awareness of the difference between genders? They are coming together with a purpose. We create an environment to enable the networks, the networks run themselves and they have a clear purpose.

Peter Butler: If you interfere with those networks, they will shut them down. We have got a lot of evidence of that. If they see big brother, whoever that is, interfering with those networks, they stop using them. They will create it somewhere else, go underground. It will happen in your organisation whether you like it or not. It has to be directed in terms of let’s enable it, let’s encourage it, let’s build it and let people use it for the benefit of what is going on in your company but do not be prescriptive about how you think it should be.

Jim Tapper: There are a lot of different approaches that you can take. You can just create it and let it run. Others will want to take more prescriptive approach. I think that it is a very fair challenge because people will either affiliate with a network and make it work or it will wither if they decide that they do not want to be part of that for whatever reason.

Simon Haben: I wonder if there are generational differences in how networks evolve and are created. Certain generations need more structure around it but another generation is far more comfortable.

Peter Butler: We need to be able to think, “what is generation Y?”, and then about the group after them. It is changing so quickly. My 27-year-old and my 20-year-old are generationally different. One of the things I think we need to talk about is the inclusiveness of these people in the decision-making process. We need those people around the table to be having that conversation with.

Rachel Woolf: I think what we know is that information search is a behaviour that is required, but how that behaviour looks to us and how it looks to the next generation is very different. For me, those networks you are talking about are the new way of information search. For us, we read a paper or read a book and now those networks are the information search for the newer generations.

Peter Butler: This is a real example of that. I used to do an awful lot of research and reading about my subject matter and things that interest me about innovation and the future of our industry. I have stopped doing it. Why? Because I found somebody on Twitter who does all of that for me. The individual is equivalent to me in another organisation. He is really passionate about doing this sort of thing. He tweets everything he finds in terms of research and I do not bother doing research any more because I just follow him on Twitter. I follow his articles, I follow the leads he has got, all of the research papers he finds go on Twitter. I did not put anything on Twitter personally. I do not have to. He does it.

The group moved on to the discussion of how traditional organisations can introduce new technologies.

Peter Butler: You need to work around the system. We had a notion we could create social networking capability but we needed to create it at a very low level and see how it was accepted, how it grew, what people thought of it. We probably had about 60 or so people and did a proof of concept. Then we did a business case together, to extrapolate some of the things we found.

The traditional method is: three weeks to develop a manual, send a manual and a piece of kit, then answer the phone for the next few weeks because they could not be bothered to read the manual. The new method: create a podcast, five minutes. A few slides, bit of an introduction, close ups. Email the podcasts and the piece of equipment to the individual. Takes a couple of days to create it, takes 10 minutes to watch the video. Job done.

No phone calls. All we got was feedback saying, “Brilliant, why can’t we do more of that?” Extrapolate a six-week process for two days and work out what the savings are for the company. When someone joins the company next week and sees the video then everybody saw the same message, not everyone will have got the same phone call. You have got consistency. The HR director in global services used to send out two or three page missives once every couple of weeks. Now he does a podcast. We know who has watched it. You never know who has read the note.

The problem I have had is slowing it down, because it has grown so quickly. I need to reposition it in the business as new technology. That is about building the capability and the licence to use it. The rules are no different to those around email. We have clear rules: you upload inappropriate content, you are liable to disciplinary action. 750 podcasts created by our own workforce. If you trust people they will respect it. If I start to manage it they will stop producing the content and nothing will be done. The benefit of all networks now is their viral nature.

Chrissy Amure-Butcher: There are certain groups, for example our Global Network Services group, who have created their own more formal knowledge exchange site, which is basically a site where they just share knowledge across that business group. We are starting to see more of that going on. There is talk about creating leadership wikis and things like that. I think there is definitely a will there, particularly within certain groups and particularly with generation Y.

The group went on to discuss how technology can improve learning experiences.

Ian Williams: I think we are potentially approaching the point where we are almost able to create virtual reality learning. I think we have got some great practices and systems and all that helps the transfer of information but it does not crack the enabler part. As soon as you start to create this virtual classroom with feedback simulation, you get close to it.

Chrissy Amure-Butcher: We went and saw a test, it was just fascinating. I would love to be able to do that. We were thinking of it from a diversity perspective in which you could create all these different scenarios where there was exclusion happening versus inclusion. You would say how you as a leader react in that situation and then receive feedback on how you reacted and I think there is so much you could do on that.

Ian Williams: I have seen some fantastic simulations. My wife is a practice nurse. She was doing extra study around childcare and brought up a virtual reality programme, which was called the waiting room, and it was full of children who had all kinds of horrible diseases. There were close-ups of these children and the parents with them, the parents’ reactions as well, and a series of questions she had to interact with. She typed in some answers and it would come back “moderately but you need to consider all these factors”. She said she learnt more in those couple of hours than she would have done in months, so the technology is there.

Rachel Woolf: Another challenge is how can you lead through technology? We are managing teams that we have perhaps never met, managing by email, by MSN etc, so what is the impact of technology on leadership behaviour and the style of leadership?

Chrissy Amure-Butcher: I have two team members in New York, we use instant messenger. I will make sure on a Friday I say “have a great weekend”. I have to make the conscious effort to think “if they were here what would you say?” That is how we often use instant messages, for that more informal spontaneity.

Peter Ainley-Walker: Going back to generation Y, would the 18- and 19-year-olds in the office need to consciously think about it or just do the equivalent? We are having to learn behaviour.

Rachel Woolf: A lot of the development needs we are suggesting are for us, the current generations, and I actually wonder whether diversity and inclusion training will be necessary in generation Y? They have grown up in a much more diverse and inclusive world, so is it just for us to deal with these things?

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