Thursday, March 19, 2009

is social media 'unprofessional?'

I have plenty of clients struggling to make the case for business uses of social media (and plenty who resist its charms). One of the most common protests: It's unprofessional, just for fun, a time-waster. Or, it's what "those companies" do, but Would Never Work In Our Business. So I had to laugh when a law firm colleague pointed me to this post on Lance Godard's blog about legal marketing. He provokes a good discussion on whether law firms can move social media use beyond just networking or pushing out news to real communications and conversations that leads to real earnings from clients. And one comment offered perspective on how people resist sweeping changes--especially in technology--in exactly the same ways they have done for more than a century.
In her comment, business development consultant Ann Lee Gibson recalled a time in the mid-1990s when many firms debated whether to let non-lawyers have access to the Internet, lest it become a time-waster, or voicemail, too unprofessional. Then she spoke with an emeritus partner who recalled his father, also a lawyer, who:
...initially resisted using anything as crass as a telephone for business communications, but finally succumbed and had a line installed to a phone on his desk. However, for several years thereafter he continued to resist installing a telephone on his secretary's desk, thinking she would merely waste time talking all day to other lawyers' secretaries....Here's my point, and I think you can take this to the bank: Any time powerful senior partners in a large law firm characterize a new communication tool or medium as "unprofessional," prepare to see that tool become ubiquitous very fast. The more inflammatory the debate waxes about whether that tool is appropriate for widespread use in a law firm, the more useful that tool will eventually prove to be and the longer its utility will continue.
Call it the inverse relationship between pushback and innovation, if you will.
I don't think this is an issue limited to law firms, by any means--I see it in universities, nonprofits, small businesses, government agencies and corporations. It's evident in what they're not doing and what they're saying about others who are experimenting. If adapting to new technologies and new methods of work were easy, we wouldn't have books like Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. That's why I like to prompt my clients to consider all the technologies they've already mastered in their lifetimes. For many, that means reaching back to the manual typewriter, fax machine, briefcase-sized cellphones, electric typewriters, word-processing get the idea. Yes, you can adapt.

Let me know your reactions in the comments. What kinds of pushback are you getting at your organization? How are you handling it?

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