It is fascinating to be part of the evolution of something new – something that changes, irrevocably, the way we work and the way we communicate.
We are the proud owners of a ZX80 – the first affordable home computer. We progressed to a BBC computer and thought those early games – Monsters and Pacman were pretty cool. I feel very old explaining to the children that at work we didn’t have desktop computers – just a mainframe churning out computer printouts. We didn’t have email – we communicated by letter or internal memos with carbon copies –you what, Walt? When desktop computers finally arrived, they were rather solitary affairs, running early spreadsheets – remember Lotus 1-2-3? – and word processors.
The internet? Multi-media? When they appeared, we weren’t allowed to engage with those things at work – what a waste of time! People weren’t trusted to access the new tools, whereas now they are fundamental to information, knowledge and connectivity.
Fast forward to 2011. Social media is here – connecting people in ways that were previously unimaginable – powerful, immediate, exciting and yes, possibly scary. We are in the middle of another communications revolution – mainstream in some areas, alien and almost taboo in others. Each day more businesses are flirting with social media such as Twitter, but often just putting up bite-sized announcements, not understanding that it is a “conversation” and one you cannot control. Many parts of the public sector appear to be oblivious or terrified; others are actively engaging. The best local authorities are leading exciting public engagement projects, understanding that true “consultation” means letting the public set the agenda rather than just responding to narrow surveys with council-constructed tick-boxes.
As some of you will know, I conducted a mini tweetathon (@WhoseShoes) last week, from “Excellence out of Adversity – New Types of Workers” #NTofW2011. This was a conference I attended in Glasgow, run by Skills for Care, Skills for Health and Skills for Care and Development. One workshop considered the barriers to establishing on-line communities in the health sector and how to address them. The point was made: “How odd to trust people to undertake heart surgery (NHS) or to take children into care (social care) but not trust people to access e-learning or Communities of Practice.
There was a school of thought that taking part in on-line discussions is not necessarily regarded as “real work”. I tweeted this and @ShirleyAyres immediately replied: “Is communicating online with colleagues, people who use services & carers & sharing good practice internationally not real work?”. Fair point! Similarly “…Is attending conferences like #NTofW2011 “real work” & how will outcomes of improved #socialcare services be demonstrated?” Ouch!
A key principle of the personalisation agenda in social care and health is co-production. Professionals no longer decide, as sole experts, what is best and “fix” things for service users and patients – the person should be in the centre, setting out their aspirations and determining (with their “circle of support”) their own outcomes. It therefore seems essential that social care and health conferences embrace social media and allow those who can’t attend to follow on-line and actually contribute. One of the best examples I have seen was the recent Carers UK conference which had a live video link and discussion thread. As well as taking questions from the floor, speakers (including Paul Burstow) were asked questions by on-line contributors. Carers who, by definition, could not necessarily physically attend the conference, could thus be fully involved.
Social media clearly has a huge part to play in the “Big Society” and the desire to engage communities, but not always in the way the government may have anticipated or envisaged. “One month before heartbreak” was a fantastic, incredibly powerful social media campaign enabling disabled people to tell their stories and open people’s eyes to the effects (immediate and knock on) on their lives and the lives of their families of losing Disability Living Allowance. The Welfare Reform Bill passes through parliament imminently – will the government listen?
Impressive “Big Society” type examples of the power of social media were seen during the recent snow and freezing conditions. Some of these were routine – snow warnings, notifications of school closures, advice. Some were more interactive – scope to complain quickly that roads had not been gritted or to report accidents. Some were inspirational – lighting quick responses to appeals for people to help stranded elderly neighbours or take pregnant women to hospitals. Suddenly 4x4s were socially acceptable, even de rigueur!
I can understand why people are wary of social media. Sometimes when the kids are all glued to their mobile phones, I look back nostalgically to the days when the only people in the room were… well, the people IN the room. But like any major change, there is no turning the clock back. And the best way to learn? Just do it.