Monday, February 17, 2014

Our Work, Weak Connections, & Professional Engagement

I've been in a number of conversations recently about how we (professionals) use social media to promote our ourselves organizations, and attract people to what we and our organizations do.  These conversations became particularly meaningful after hearing Jeff Hemsley discuss his doctoral research. Hemsley's current research looks at information flows in social media networks, with an emphasis on social movements and political events.  He is co-author of the book Going Viral, which explains what virality is, and how it works technologically and socially.

So what do we need to do in terms of promotion?

Talking About Ourselves & Our Work is Necessary - This "talking" can take many forms: articles, presentations, blog posts, tweets, conversations, etc.  In order to be part of a professional community and to have influence in that community, we need to make our knowledge, skills and positions recognized.  I know far too many people that are hesitant to talk about their work or who will downplay what they are doing.  Those two actions are important if we want people to know about us, hire us, use our services, etc.

We often talk about having an "elevator pitch" to use when we meet someone. These days, however, we need to talk to people, that we may not interact with face-to-face.  So while the elevator pitch is important, other methods are becoming more important.  In fact, consider that someone may know you and your organization from those other methods before ever meeting you face-to-face.

The 21st Century Requires Alternate Ways of Engagement - If you're thinking about promoting yourself and your organization using methods that were normal in the 20th century, you are doing a disservice.  Consider this...when was the last time you took someone's business card and acted on it (e.g., emailed them, called them, setup a meeting)?  If you did act on that business card, did you actually have that person's information and the business card really wasn't necessary?  We aren't using the exchange of business cards - and other old school methods - as a way of engaging, in the same ways that we used to.

At the ALISE Annual Conference, I attended a session on altmetrics.  In their presentation, "Altmetrics: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Assessing Impact on Scholarship and Professional Practice", Laurie Bonnici and Heidi Julien mentioned alternative ways that scholars are talking about their research and what that means in terms of impact.  Clearly some social sites are not where people feel comfortable talking about their work, yet these are the places where people can broaden their influence and impact.  For example, talking about your work on Facebook or through Twitter.  By the way, one of their questions was on how impact is measured, and that is a place where research needs to continue. 

Weak Ties Are How We Influence - On the right is a visualization of my LinkedIn network. My network is dominated by library and information professionals.  When I talk to them, I'm "preaching to the choir" (in other words, talking to people that generally have the same point of view as me). 

In his presentation, Hemsley pointed to the power of weak connections in our networks as being important to how we and our organizations have impact. In this visualization, you can see people that are connectors between two networks.  You can also spot people that are in my network, but unconnected to everyone else.  For me, these are people who are weak connections, who might be a bridge between my network and theirs, which are likely not library-focused. 

Let's Create New Practices - So how to do change your professional engagement?  How do you capitalize on weak ties?  How do you have more influence?  Let me tell you what I'm doing and what I'm experimenting with, in hopes that there is something here that you can use.
  • I promote on my blog and web site the conferences I'm attending and the presentations that I'm giving.  The conferences help you understand how I define my community of practice and the presentations tell you what knowledge I want to share.
  • I have maintained a practice of using my blog to talk about what I'm learning.  I don't limit the "what" to just the focus of this blog, rather - for example - I talk about many of the conference sessions that I attend.  Sharing information...sharing what we're a powerful action and it draws people towards us.
  • Besides blog posts, I also use Twitter to tweet what I'm learning.  If I'm at a conference, I'll tweet out information from conference sessions.  I've had a number of people tell me that they find my conference tweets to be informative.  For me, I've met people at conferences because of my tweets, so those tweets have created new professional connections.  (If you follow me on Twitter and wonder how I can type so quickly, while at a conference, consider that I'm using Twitter as the way I'm taking notes.)  
  • I use Twitter apps to schedule tweets.  This allows me to do things like promote upcoming events.  I don't schedule a high number of tweets and I don't do it all the time.  However, it has been a useful tool for me because it allows me to get my thoughts together and then have those tweets appear when I think they will be more readily received.
  • While I take photos at events, some colleagues promote themselves, their organizations and what they are learning through their photos. We don't think about photos has being useful for professional engagement, but truly they are.
  • I post presentation to SlideShare.  If you've given a presentation, placing it on SlideShare allows it to have more reach.  Be sure to include a description and to give it tags (use tags that related to how someone might look for this information).  I frequently place presentations in SlideShare before an event and that does not negatively impact my audience.  (And rather than giving handouts, I point people to SlideShare.)
  • I'm experimenting with Tumblr.  I've come late to Tumblr and am still learning how to engage with people there.  Tumblr is more visual and more casual, yet it is where people are talking about important professional issues.
  • I'm trying to figure out how to connect with "weak ties".  According the Hemsley, weak ties across networks that engage with a message are how a message goes viral. Hemsley doesn't yet know the formula for virality, but I suspect that part of the formula can be seen in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  How do you do that in 140 characters, through Facebook, or on a research site? Good questions.
  • I post information to specific people and groups.  This is placing information in a specific network and it may help the information spread.  If nothing else, it helps to ensure that I'm not always speaking to the same group.
  • I'm willing to experiment with new forms of communication and engagement. I do limit how may tools I'm willing to experiment with.  Frequently I let my colleagues and friends experiment first, and then I experiment with the tools that have resonated with them.
Ways of Engagement Will Change - Finally, it is important to note that how we engage with our networks will change, and likely change rapidly.  You cannot sit back and wait for things to settle down, but rather you must begin to engage your network - and your weak ties - now.  And as you learn how to do that, I hope you'll share your lessons learned with me and others.

Addendum (2/21/2014): Paul Signorelli faciltated a webinar yesterday entitled "Social Media, Library Partnerships, and Collaboration: More Than a Tweet".  I'm pleased that Paul found inspiration in this blog post and was able to pull a few quotes for his presentation!


Jeff Hemsley said...

"I do limit how may tools I'm willing to experiment with." Me too. Learning a new tool takes time. I count on word of mouth to help me figure out which tools to use.

I'm also on Tumber. Since I do data viz/art I use it as a like a portfolio.

Paul Signorelli said...


This is a wonderfully written and very thoughtful reminder to all of us that the social media tools we have can be extremely useful in helping us engage with colleagues and other partners/collaborators at highly productive levels. My own experiences confirm what you are suggesting in terms of using new practices to seek very productive levels of engagement; in fact, your decision to post this is helping me fine-tune a presentation I'm about to give on the intersection of social media, library partnerships, and collaboration--which means that your article is an example of the very process you are describing. Thanks a million for taking the time to put it out there for the rest of us.

Mitch said...

Brilliant post, and as I read it I could see how much I'm lacking in overall connectivity even though I'm on social media all the time when I'm not working on assignments out of town.

I have found that when I go to conferences I share a lot of what's going on, but the group overall isn't internet savvy so I'm promoting and talking about things that the group will never see.

I also realize that I need to get out more and interact more so I have more to share and can meet more people. Something to work on, definitely.