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I Am Not a Ninja–But You Still Need Me

A few months ago, Steve Radick and I gave mutually-exclusive lectures about social media to two different audiences and posted our dueling presentations to slide share.

Yesterday, Steve posted an article that reiterated one of his points from a few months ago: “Social Media” is not a career option. I argued otherwise. This time the formulation of his argument went to the Far East, and he declared “Rest in Peace, Social Media Ninjas” And here I am again, arguing otherwise.

In a certain sense, actually, I agree with Steve. I think that the time of silliness, frivolity, and simple unprofessionalism surrounding social media is coming to an end, if it hasn’t already (as this crude-language but very funny video attests). So, yes: no more social media ninjas.

But the larger point Steve is making (again, for the second time), is that Social Media is a subset of communications. He says:

Instead trying to be a social media ninja, try being a communications specialist. Try being a knowledge management professional. Try being a recruiter. Try being an information technology professional. Because guess what – THAT’S what you are doing.

But the thing is, that’s not what I’m doing, and that’s not what Social Media Experts should aspire to. In post from a few months ago, Steve wrote: “I always tell people that I’m not a social media consultant – I’m a communications consultant who knows how to use social media.” I think what’s implicit in that sentence is a two-word phrase at the end: “I’m a communications consultant who knows how to use social media for communications.” But, as I pointed out, Social Media Experts touch upon more than communications, more than knowledge management, more than recruiting. These are uses of the tools we make it our living to understand.

And that knowledge is essential not only to communications, but to nearly every aspect of business and government operations. I’m not saying that Social Media is bigger than communications, I’m saying that it’s more like a Venn diagram in which social media overlaps with communications, HR, internal operations, marketing, IT, KM, and other business areas.

You may know the communications aspect of social media, but that doesn’t make you a social media expert. And if your focus is always on communications, you’re going to miss what’s on the horizon in social media, because you’re going to look at what works, and not what is going to work, or what is coming down the pike and will not work.

The problem you identify, however, is that there are a lot of people who were billed (or, more subversively, who billed themselves) as social media experts, when in fact they were just people who used social media tools. I would point out that just because you can swing a hammer, you are not necessarily a builder, and certainly not an architect. If you want to be an architect, you should probably know how a drill works, but you’re actually very unlikely to be in charge of installing all the sheet rock in the house you design, much less to paint all the walls, install all the lighting, and keep the lawn mowed once people move in.

That analogy holds for social media. I don’t monitor the facebook pages for every team after I help them develop their strategy. I don’t run the social network analytics on microblogging platforms after I recommend that an office install that tool and then train their staff on how and when to use it rather than sending around an email. I don’t generate the traffic report that I’ll analyze to see how many visitors are coming to a site from Twitter. But my job is to make sure that all of those things happen, that they are thought of and incorporated into operating procedures.

And then there’s this: what tools do we need to develop? I doubt we’d have drills were it not for screwdrivers. And what about the intermediaries of the gimlet and the brace? Or the variation that is the dremel?

Steve also may think that we’re further ahead than we really are. When Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote “The Twitter Trap” surely there were many communications professionals around him; perhaps, though, if he had had a social media specialist, she might have said (as I did here) “there is no Twitter Trap (and if there were, it would be called a “Twap,” as I’m sure you could surmise).”

Perhaps a social media expert would have reminded you add relevant keywords to your article in the “tag” field (“social media” for instance), so that it would appear on index pages?

So, no, I’m not a social media ninja. Never have been, never wanted to be. But I am a social media expert, and with new tools coming online all the time, and new uses being devised for tools yet unforged (and even unimagined), I think my career path still has room for ascent, and is wide enough to accommodate many peers.

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Steve Radick

Gadi – this quote is one I absolutely agree with – “it’s more like a Venn diagram in which social media overlaps with communications, HR, internal operations, marketing, IT, KM, and other business areas.” Couldn’t agree with you more about that. But what makes you think you’re the one who knows how to best integrate social media into their respective disciplines? I know I’ve given presentations to everyone from HR specialists to intelligence analysts, and it’s really difficult when you’re talking about how an intel analyst can use social media when you don’t really have any experience actually, you know, being an intel analyst. Wouldn’t we be better off having a skilled intel analyst who is also skilled at using social media instead of parading around a few mile-wide/inch deep social media “experts?” I mean, at some point, don’t we need to go beyond the basics of social media and start integrating? Instead of having one guy (or one team) trying to sit in every circle of that Venn diagram, isn’t it more sustainable to have people who do both at a high level?

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

This reminds of the argument that a skilled project manager can manage any project even if he or she doesn’t know much about the industry the project is in. For example, I should be able to successfully manage a construction project just as well as I can manage an IT project because the project management skills are that universal.

I happen to disagree with that argument but my question is if your disagreement revolves around a similar issue.

Chris Poirier

Hmmm, this is an interesting discussion and I have to agree with points on both sides of this discussion. For one, I completely agree with the Venn Diagram approach. (“Social media” was/is intended to be a tool that can provide solutions for many subsets of business practices and approaches.)
However, Steve equally makes a point that I have come to firmly believe in: “Wouldn’t we be better off having a skilled intel analyst who is also skilled at using social media instead of parading around a few mile-wide/inch deep social media ‘experts’?” To illustrate this point, I consider myself to be that “skilled” individual that has multiple subset skills that make my primary subject matter expertise all the better for it. (e.g., project management knowledge, presentation skills, web 2.0 skills, IT integration skills, etc.) These subsets are what separate team members working on projects/programs as they are able to be more agile within organizations that choose to matrix these employees. You get the best of all worlds this way instead of attempting to matrix SMEs that only hold the skill of “social media” and/or “consulting flavor of the day.”
Honestly, I can see both sides and I think this is a matter of personal preference on what this “person” actually looks like in an organization. Though, I will concede that “social media” has passed its infancy and now is growing up and needs to find new ways to explain what it can actually do for projects/programs instead of being something that is sexy for 30 seconds then no longer serves a purpose. The skill of integrating the technology with a project/program is where the rock stars lie in wait, not in early adopters and advocates.
Sustainment is key; FACTA, NON VERBA!

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Chris, Steve: it would be great to have a skilled intel analyst who was also a social media SME. It would be even better if she were also a skilled program manager and a lawyer, so she would know the ins and outs of records management requirements. Even more helpful is if she were conversant in procurement and acquisition, knew HR regulations, and had a firm grasp of supply chain management. Maybe she could also be a crackerjack writer and copy editor?

Where we seem to disagree is on an implicit assumption of yours: this idea of “inch deep mile wide.” I don’t think that’s what social media experts are at all. I know I’m not. I am constantly reading about four subjects, which I see as combining to make me a social media expert:

1. Community: what makes it, what does it do, how does it impose its strictures upon individuals, how to those individuals push back?

2. Information: what is it? what is it worth? how is it created? how is it consumed? how does it spread? how is it stopped?

3. Gamification: how do people encourage or discourage specific behavior? why do people want to do certain things? how are systems constructed to obtain specific outcomes?

4. How is social media being applied withing/for/by governments: (this is specific to my field, other social media experts are likely more focused on ‘business’ or ‘academe’ or whatever their industry): how are wikis being used? is it worth the time?

I would argue that the same thing that makes anyone an expert in their field makes me (and some others) social media experts: a combination of education, experience, and continued learning in a specific area.

Steve Radick

@Gadi – so our fundamental disagreement lies not in our end result, but in the way to get there. I think we both agree that integration is goal, but you seem to fall in the camp that believes social media is almost an industry unto itself (like records management, HR, supply chain management, etc.) and I think they’re just tools that those professionals can use (like email, telephones, etc.). If that’s the heart of our disagreement, I can totally respect that, as depending on the organization, they may need one or both approaches at any one point in time.

Chris Poirier

@Gadi – As Steve mentioned, I think we are on the same page RE: integration. Please, also understand that any of my comments are not directed at you as a social media expert, my concepts and discussion are more widely targeted. I can comprehend the purpose of a social media expert and as I mentioned in my response, how things get done is almost entirely up to preference of a team/organization/individual. (e.g., if matrixing an organization is key for success then having a social media expert that can assist multiple teams in a single environment could be beneficial in getting the appropriate tools to the appropriate end users.) However, like in most government organizations, we do not have the benefit of always having SMEs on hand to deliver tools and only deliver tools. We usually are hamstrung by the fact we have limited employees to go around accomplishing core missions. To this end, having the social media expert on hand may not be viewed as beneficial as having a core mission SME on hand that has at least some familiarity of tools that can be applied to a problem.

My argument here is this: The tools in use today are becoming more common and having people that are at least knowledgeable is not as difficult as it once was. The tools are now part of a lot of individual’s lives and are not as alien and scary. This limits the need for a specific SME in my mind, it’s almost like saying you require someone knowledgeable in MS Office Suite in a position description. Sure you don’t need an expert, but they need to know enough to get by and that skill set is more easily obtainable than it once was.