Book review: Organisations Don't Tweet, by Euan Semple

Social media isn't just a way to fritter away time, it is vital to organisations' future. Rory Cellan-Jones agrees, but asks why not join in rather than just read about it?

by Rory Cellan-Jones
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2012
One Sunday morning a few weeks back, I had a moment of searing doubt about my social media life. In Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress, I checked in on Foursquare, took a picture of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia and pinned it on a new Pinterest board, tweeted a couple of times about the Welsh victory in the rugby, accepted a new friend on Path, updated my Facebook status and then sat down to sketch out a blogpost.

Too much, I thought. I'm idling my life away in pointless activity and sharing far more than I should. Then I pulled myself together. All this tweeting, Facebooking and blogging isn't just egotistical self-indulgence - it's vital to my professional life. I use social media to publicise my employer's activities, to network with my peers, to research stories.

And, according to Euan Semple, this is what every organisation needs to learn - that social networking isn't frivolous time-wasting, it is essential to its future health. Organisations Don't Tweet, People Do is a manifesto aimed, as the author puts it, at 'anyone who works and is interested in how the internet is affecting the way we work both now and in the future'.

But the managers who pick up this book may still be nervous about the impact and value of social media in the workplace. And, according to Semple, they are right to be worried: 'Once people learn that they can find each other, share their knowledge and work together, the role of many managers will change if not disappear.'

There is plenty of good sense in this book about the democratising potential of these new networks, their resistance to tidy structures, and the way they undermine old command-and-control cultures. We learn that this is a cultural revolution, not a technological one, and that your company's IT department can be the single biggest barrier to making things happen. Anyone who has tried installing a Twitter client on a corporate PC will nod with recognition.

The social media world is painted in almost religious terms, as a force not just for profit but for good. We hear little of the negative side or of the dilemmas for any newcomer. Should I become Facebook friends with my boss or my junior colleagues? Should we have a policy on who is allowed to tweet in the company's name? How do we respond when our corporate name is dragged through the social media mud?

Instead, managers are exhorted to immerse themselves in this new world and accept that they will need to change. First of all, they need to blog, which will improve their writing skills, and so help them think more clearly.

The author, who is now a consultant advising firms on making use of the web, draws on a long career at the BBC, where he pioneered corporate blogging and internal web forums. These were apparently tremendously popular and successful, inspiring open conversations about everything from the trivial to the deeply serious, despite the attempts of some BBC managers to lock them down and make them more corporate.

I have worked for the BBC for three decades but until I opened this book I was unaware of either the forums or Semple's blog. That says a lot about the silo mentality of any large organisation; and the author does point out that the engineers, HR and finance departments were much quicker to embrace social media than the creatives, who were more reliant on an older and more exclusive culture.

But I believe the real social media revolution in the BBC - and other major organisations - has been Twitter rather than blogging, although, despite the title, the book never explores the former in depth.

The whole point of the 140-character phenomenon is that it is a form of broadcasting, aimed at the outside world, not internal discussions. But in the BBC it is used for both, allowing journalists to talk to audiences, colleagues to swap ideas and managers to prove they have a personality.

My problem with the book is that none of the sense of fun and possibility in social media comes over. The author is long on assertion, short on examples. I wanted to read more excerpts from blogs, join in with some of those fevered discussions on internal forums, follow a few Twitter conversations. Instead, what we are getting feels like a very extended PowerPoint presentation from one of those many social media seminars that anxious executives now attend.

So if you are a sceptical boss trying to understand why anyone would bother with social media, you may find the book of value. But you might do better to do as Euan Semple advises - simply plunge in, make the odd mistake, and learn to love this brave new world.

Rory Cellan-Jones is the BBC's technology correspondent

Organisations Don't Tweet, People Do: A manager's guide to the social web

Euan Semple.

Wiley, £17.99

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