In June, I attended and presented at a large, excellent CIO conference in New Zealand. I learned from the conference, for sure. But I also learned some conference experience lessons beyond the event's walls that I never would have if not for social media.
I emphasize the social media aspect, because, my fellow IT leaders, we in IT are not a terribly social lot. I attend several startup events, enterprise IT events, and marketing events each year, and I tend to do a little informal comparative analysis between them.
There is NO comparison between social media traffic generated by enterprise IT practitioners versus, well, everybody else. Can you say "approaches zero"?
That really needs to change, for a number of reasons.
But most relevant to us at the moment, social media can maximize not only your conference experience, but your entire work life. Huffington Post writer and Extreme CMO Vala Afshar creates a "top social CIOs" list, because he believes, as I do, that social media can change the IT conversation in a huge, productive way. He writes, "[T]he role of the chief information officer in leading digital business transformation has become even more vital. Championing adoption of new technologies requires CIOs to actively engage and communicate broadly. To stay informed, successful CIOs are leveraging social media as their personal learning networks."
Amen to that.
When you go to a conference, you're looking both to learn about your interests and to connect with people who share those interests. This presumably will make you more effective at what you do. But like every plan, the results of this typical conference plan vary with how you execute.
As you may know from reading my blog and this column, I have some unusual interests for an enterprise CIO, including startups, workplace innovators, and new ways to design enterprise products so that they're more usable.
[For more insight on making your enterprise products more usable, see Usability: The Road To Digital Transformation.]
I don't normally see those things discussed at your typical CIO conference, but I was pleasantly surprised at the #NZCIO conference, particularly by NASA/JPL CTO Tom Sodestrom's talk, which touched on several of these topics.
Yet, great as the conference was, social media gave me the unique opportunity to learn more about startups, workplace innovation, and usability -- an opportunity that would never happened without social media. Here's how it went.
A few weeks prior, I tweeted about my upcoming trip and talk. One of my tweeps, who knows of my interest in workplace and "better HR," said that I should connect with some folks at Vend, a startup that not only has some interesting things going on in the human resources management space, but also, arguably, has taken the very "enterprise-y" world of point-of-sale software (most of which look a whole lot like the poorly designed, busy screens of your ERP) and reinvented it to resemble the screens of a well-designed consumer app.
My contact at Vend welcomed me, and we arranged to get together right after the conference concluded. "Let the social-media driven, post-conference learning ... COMMENCE!"
I visited with Kirsti Grant, Vend's head of talent, and Nic Kennedy, Vend's chief delivery officer. I learned entirely too much to detail here, but here are a few of the gems that I took away.
How to massively recruit without a recruiter. Vend has gone from 37 employees to 250 employees since 2013 using only two external recruiters (for super-specialized jobs). How do they do it? Simple, explains Kirsti: They sponsor conferences where the potential employees are, but the more important thing is that their own employees tell their peers what an awesome place Vend is to work.
There's always a higher purpose. We discussed Dan Pink's Drive, which stipulates that employees are looking for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I bluntly asked, "You make retail software, and that seems boring to me. How is that a motivating purpose?"
"No," answered Nic, "that's not the purpose. Our higher purpose is that we help keep small retailers in business. We give the little guy (who doesn't have the resources of a big-box retailer) the tools needed to be competitive." It was a reminder to me that everything does have a higher purpose. It's just that you may have to dig and think a little bit until you find the real, non-boring purpose.
Customers seek experiences, not products. I had never heard of Clayton Christensen's Milkshake Marketing. Nic shared it with me, and it is a neat concept. The idea is that a fast-food restaurant wanted to improve its sales, and in the process it learned that people don't really buy milkshakes. They buy the end result of the milkshake. It is a nuanced but important difference. You can't sell more milkshakes if you don't realize why people buy them. Most of us in IT have heard of "solution-based selling," but somehow that sounds creepier than Christensen's Milkshake Marketing. The point for IT leaders is: Don't make assumptions about the point of a technology solution. Ask.
The best processes are frictionless. The money quote here was Kirsti saying, "We were very anti-process until we hired 150 people." Ha! So many organizations lose sight of the fact that process exists to prevent errors and to ensure a predictable outcome. Nobody objects to that! What they do object to is periods when process creates drag on them, when it creates friction. Kirsti went on to say, "The thing we learned about process is that good process is invisible. People don't even realize that they're going through it."
Point for IT leaders? We're often involved with processes-as-systems for our organizations, whether they are customer-facing (as with fulfillment sites) or employee-facing (as with intranets). As with startups, friction causes the person using the tool to WANT to go away. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
Enterprise job protectionism is bad for the company. We got into a discussion about Vend's sales process. Nic said that there are two kinds of customers. First, there's the typical enterprise customer who represents the end-user. These folks want to do a huge feature comparison. Why? They want to document the hell out of everything, because they ultimately care most about "Will/can I get fired as a result of this product selection?" This is in stark comparison to the second type, the smaller customer who is the end user. These folks care most about benefits of the software. "Is it simple? Does it work efficiently?" What a wonderful reminder to those of us in enterprise IT to stop worrying about getting fired and start getting excited about how new tech can help our businesses and our communities. What would happen if we stopped being worried about our jobs and started wanting to help out in the best way possible?
Even these few gems were incredibly valuable to me, and I'm leaving a lot out. But the larger point is this. There's just no way that this introduction and this learning would have happened without social media. Ponder that the next time someone tells you that social media is a waste of time for non-marketers.
We make our homes in communities limited by geography. But social media allows us to choose to live in communities of interest and communities of practice -- indeed, in very rich and concentrated communities! This is where the magic happens, where we meet people we feel like we should have known all of our lives, people from whom we willingly learn and willingly work with.
I challenge you, IT leader. Will this be the year that you get social? There are risks, certainly: trolls, people who judge you for being "social" instead of only posting about work, and people who don't understand that social media is a vital part of being the kind of leader that your organization needs. But, the benefits to you and your organization are so great that it's worth the risks.Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human ... View Full Bio