Feb 24 2009

Blogging and project management

I met yesterday with a friend – let’s call him ‘Glenn’ – who works for one of the UK’s leading construction contractors. We talked a bit about social media and its take-up in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector, and he described how his organisation had experimented internally with blogs.

The initial explosion of blogs saw dozens started on the company’s intranet (a few withered and died after the early excitement wore off). However, Glenn said, some directors began to get a bit worried about the implications of allowing project managers to write blogs about their day-to-day work on site, and having all the entries searchable. For example, he explained, what if a project manager’s blog posts included notes about poor health and safety practices by a subcontractor that then led to an accident or, worse still, a site fatality. Any ensuing investigation might identify that the project manager had been lax in his duties, leaving the contractor liable to prosecution. As a result, the firm decided to ban all staff blogs below C-level directors and business unit heads.

In my experience in the UK construction sector, such action is typical of the risk-averse attitudes that prevail in many AEC organisations, particularly when it comes to transparency of information. It seems to be tackling the symptoms of a problem not the cause.

I see little difference between our hypothetical project manager jotting something down in a blog posting and the same person scribbling a hand-written note in a note-book. The issue here should not be about the blog, about how the note was written, but about how the project manager enforces good health and safety discipline on site. Better still, if the subcontractor (and other project team members) could read the project manager’s blog – perhaps it could feature as part of the scheme’s collaboration platform – the health and safety issue would be public knowledge within the project team and might prompt rapid remedial action. Or am I being over-optimistic?

If anyone has some examples (good or bad) of how blogs have been used by project managers, I would be interested to know.

Feb 19 2009

Value your Web 2.0 guerillas

On a train journey to Manchester today, I read Information Age‘s Effective IT 2009 report and focused on its section on communications and collaboration, including an article, Social understanding, mulling over the slow adoption of Web 2.0 technologies within enterprises.

This article underlines that social computing can create new dynamics of information and knowledge transfer among employees (interactions often stifled by formal knowledge management systems and procedures). It cites Proctor & Gamble’s experience of creating a social network site, BeingGirl, as part of its marketing strategy to target teenage girls. And, facing an acceleration in the proportion of its workforce retiring each year, US high street bank Wachovia used blogs and wikis to capture company knowledge before it walked out the door.

Such examples help show that the ‘soft’ benefits of social media – enhanced communication, engagement, identity – can also be matched by solid returns on investment that justify management backing. However, the magazine’s survey data showed that businesses planning to deploy Web 2.0 technologies in the next 12 months were actually slightly down on 2008, from 20% to 18% – possibly because IT budgets are being cut, or because “most companies are fearful or flippant of social computing” (to quote Gartner).

Nonetheless, the social computing revolution may already be happening unofficially within organisations. From my own experience within the UK construction industry, employees across numerous well-known firms – including architects, consulting engineers, contractors and materials suppliers – are already using blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social applications that aren’t (yet) officially sanctioned by their IT departments.

In other industries (as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams point out in their book Wikinomics), such “guerilla adoption” (or “shadow” IT), often by a minority, can rapidly deliver demonstrable business benefits (eg: more responsive customer service, faster new product development). Moreover, such early adopters can also:

  • provide useful feedback on what social media tools work best
  • help persuade their colleagues about the virtues of the different approaches they use
  • having gone through the learning curve themselves, gently introduce colleagues to the (n)etiquette of using the tools efficiently and effectively.

But not always. For some Web 2.0 guerillas, the attraction of doing something unofficial is, well, doing something unofficial. As soon as it is legitimised, it may no longer be attractive and they could well discontinue their activities. In worse cases, they may even resent being ‘outed’ and start using Web 2.0 techniques in a more malign fashion. This is where having appropriate corporate policies on use (and abuse) of social media become important. In my view, while a ‘light touch’ approach is always preferable, there may be times when you need to clamp down on potential sources of internet-delivered internal dissent.

Feb 19 2009

Will the future of events be virtual?

Phil Clark has just blogged about the potential impact of virtual worlds such as Second Life on the management of conferences and other events. He believes that we will see “an amalgam of live and online events” begin to develop, where a live event coincides with a virtual one and the two feed off each other. He mentions Be2camp in this context – which I co-organised (Phil attended Be2camp 2008 and was instrumental in the event being sponsored by Building magazine):

“combining audiences and speakers from the two spaces can create a real buzz and exchange of ideas. So you have questions, comment, links and ideas ping-ponging between real and virtual conference room.”

However, I think we are still some way from such events becoming normal in the architecture, engineering and construction sector (though some Be2camp people are already planning further Web 2.0 events; I am considering a joint Be2camp/CIMCIG event in September, for example). Even an enthusiastic technophile like Phil admits to feeling “swamped” by the normal web stuff, let alone catapulting himself into another world. And non-geek construction professionals will find the transition even more challenging. But it may yet become a necessary transition.

Only yesterday I wrote on ExtranetEvolution.com about a new type of construction collaboration platform that combines file-sharing with an information-rich multimedia communication environment incorporating online meetings with chat, voice over IP, webcam and screen-sharing support. This product, Kalexo, is expressly aimed at managing construction tasks between distributed members of a project team, and is – in my view – likely to be just the first of a string of products incorporating richer and richer levels of collaborative functionality around the creation, sharing and management of construction project information. While Kalexo doesn’t (at least not currently) expressly support building information modelling (BIM), it may only be a matter of time before industry professionals will routinely be able to hold virtual meetings inside a model of the latest iteration of the facility they are working on (such interactions are already possible in Second Life, of course, but are not yet part of normal project delivery).

Feb 14 2009

Blog as self or company?

After my presentation at the CIMCIG event on Wednesday, I was asked if people in the social media world would welcome someone writing from a corporate perspective.

Drawing on my own experience of corporate blogging, I emphasised that social media was really about people having conversations online. As such, it made sense to make sure that readers could see who was talking – having a name, job title and a photograph of the blogger certainly helps people understand a bit about your role and associate your views with an individual rather than a faceless legal entity.

I have been blogging at ExtranetEvolution.com for nearly four years but have always used my own name to blog, even though it was common knowledge that I was working for a particular company. This has a benefit in that it immediately gives me some authority as ‘an industry insider’ to talk about developments in the sector. I think this is a common experience for many corporate bloggers.

However, it is vital not just to talk about your company. I went out of my way to comment upon developments affecting all the main players in the UK collaboration market, while also keeping an occasional eye on events in the US, Australasia, mainland Europe, etc, and talking about wider developments (publishing, Constructing Excellence, telecoms, Web 2.0, BIM, SaaS, etc, etc). The comments I receive via the blog and through emails confirm that readers appreciated the breadth of coverage, and it had an indirect benefit to BIW in that the blog research and writing process also gave me a good insight into trends in the sector, competitor activity and so on.

I think corporate blogging also helps give a company more of a ‘personality’. Readers have told me that I was/am one of the faces of BIW, and that they feel they already know a bit about what I and/or BIW, stand for before they meet me. It certainly helps to get conversations going and has led to some invitations to speak at industry events – all good for corporate marketing.

Feb 11 2009

Mission-crittall

 

No, the title’s not a typo – it reflects an interesting part of my presentation at today’s CIMCIG conference at the Building Centre in London. As outlined on Monday, I was down to talk about the rise of online communications as part of the marketing mix, particularly during a construction recession.

Last week I asked the organisers (Ross Sturley and Chris Ashworth) if they could let me have a list of delegates, and – almost randomly – I selected a business from the among the organisations attending. I wanted to illustrate some points I was making about Web 2.0 by looking at the online ‘buzz’ that might exist about a business. I picked out Crittall Windows. I say “almost” randomly as I wanted a firm I knew almost nothing about (which ruled out several well-known construction names) and which would be relatively straightforward to find (some brand names have numerous doppelgangers on the web).

The presentation was going OK, but when I suddenly unveiled my slides about ‘Crittall’ (and ‘Crittal’ – I also searched for the misspelt version of their name), people suddenly sat up and took notice. Here was a business/product whose online presence included:

  • seven Wikipedia mentions
  • more than 20 blog articles
  • hundreds of Flickr photos
  • 15 YouTube videos
  • a Twitter user talking about specifying the product
  • several discussion forum articles
  • at least one Facebook user, and
  • a local community Facebook group proud of its local manufacturer.

To his great credit, John Pyatt, managing director of Essex-based Crittall Windows, was in the audience and was very sporting about the surprise that I had sprung upon him. Afterwards, I explained that I had simply selected his company to make a point and had been pleasantly surprised at the extent of its Web 2.0 footprint (for a historic if relatively unglamourous construction products business). I also stressed that this was only a superficial view as – among other things – a proper audit would have looked more deeply into the key marketing messages, competitive differentiations, etc, that Crittall wanted to project.

The presentation certainly seemed to excite some interest among other delegates too, underlining my perception that, while some sectors are getting web 2.0-savvy, there are large portions of the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector that have yet to grasp the significance of social media.

The event included some excellent presentations (some very gloomy about the recession). I particularly enjoyed the presentation preceding mine from Andrew Cassie of CIB Communications. He talked about a recent CIB/CIMCIG survey of AEC marcoms professionals, and I hope the full findings will be made more public shortly. In the meantime, for more event background, see also the Twitter stream about the event (thanks also to Liz Male for maintaining the flow while I presented).

Feb 09 2009

CIMCIG

I am preparing my talk for Wednesday’s CIMCIG conference at the Building Centre in London (a happy return to the venue of Be2camp 2008 which I co-organised last year). The theme for the conference is Downturn Marketing: A survivors’ guide to recession, and I will be speaking about “Online: The rise and rise“:

Many are focussing on the apparently cheap alternatives offered by online marketing methods. Is it really the panacea it occasionally claims to be, and can we make a step change in ROI through enthusiastic adoption of novel communication such as Wikis, Tweets and Blogs?

(For me, the event will be notable in one major respect. While I am down to speak as head of corporate communications at BIW Technologies, this conference will be the first time that I will be representing my reformed consultancy business, pwcom.)

I plan to reflect on the major changes that have taken place in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) marketing and PR world. When I started learning my trade  just before the early 1990s recession, the worldwide web was still some years away. Even when CERN opened the web to the world in 1993, it took a couple of years before my then employer (Tarmac) decided that it should have even a rudimentary website.

Just over a decade later, websites are now a key part of the AEC marketing promotion mix, and just as the industry faces an even deeper recession, we are seeing new web technologies change the online landscape. I have written before about the limited take-up of web 2.0 technologies by AEC professionals, but – perhaps reflecting the slightly higher levels of AEC media web 2.0 adoption – I believe that now is the time to invest in social media as an integral part of corporate and marketing and PR. However, it is not necessarily a cheap option – particularly if organisations have to rethink how they communicate, moving from approaches based on broadcasting to becoming listeners and sharers. I wonder how this message will go down on Wednesday?

Feb 06 2009

PR and web 2.0 ‘ghosts’

Having worked in construction industry PR for over 20 years, I have seen the technology involved in managing communications between organisations and their ‘publics’ evolve quite dramatically (echoing technological changes  in the wider construction industry, of course).

From paper to electronic (web 1.0)

For example, when I joined the marketing team at Halcrow in the late 1980s, most of our media relations work was heavily reliant upon paper-based communications. We had word-processors (Wang – anyone remember them?), but our finished news releases were still photocopied, stapled together and then sent by post, perhaps accompanied by a laboriously labelled photograph. Occasionally, we faxed news releases to favoured journalists, or they were couriered by motorcycle messenger.

Today, it’s a different approach. Releases are rarely printed out and posted; they are more likely to be emailed, and they are also made immediately available on our website, perhaps with accompanying low- and high-resolution images (for web and print use) available for download (the Halcrow website today even has a video newsroom).

From web 1.0 to web 2.0

But even this approach may be changing. On Thursday I attended a free breakfast briefing on social media hosted by London PR firm Kaizo, and there was talk of how they sometimes pitched stories to journalists using Twitter, about digital news releases optimised for web 2.0, and how corporate blogs are becoming part of the communications mix.

While many of the fundamental skills of PR haven’t changed the advent of new technologies does mean that PR professionals have to learn some new techniques and to adapt their codes of conduct accordingly. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) recently issued new social media guidelines (as have other bodies), and – like my fellow PR Liz Male – I remain committed to  its core principles of integrity, competence and confidentiality, but have some queries about  its strictures on openness and disclosure (Liz has already started to effect some changes to publishers’ policies on deep-linking).

My web 2.0 activities are not undertaken anonymously. In my ExtranetEvolution blog, for instance, I repeatedly disclosed my BIW employee status so that it was clear that my opinions may not be completely neutral (even if I endeavoured to be so). However, such openness can make life awkward occasionally (for example, I started participating on the Building magazine discussion forums last year, but soon found myself getting ‘trolled’ by other users hiding behind user-names).

How ‘ghostly’ can we be?

The CIPR Code talks about ‘ghost’ blogs:

… members should be aware that ‘ghosting’ a blog is illegal … . The drafting of material by public relations professionals for their clients naturally has a role to play in many areas of professional endeavour. But where a client requests a blog which is run entirely, or almost entirely, without detailed oversight by the supposed author (or ‘public face’) of the blog, then there are serious questions of integrity in addition to the legal issues.

Here, I wonder where the dividing line for ‘almost entirely’ lies? Over the years, like numerous other PR people, I have ‘ghost-written’ speeches, presentations, letters, emails and comments for clients and senior company colleagues. In every case, these productions were discussed before drafting, then checked, amended and approved by the individuals concerned, sometimes with no changes at all.

I suspect such practices would still be permissable. The CIPR guidelines give some examples of social media activities outlawed under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations:

  • Creating fake blogs (‘ghosting’) …

Under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations the following social media practices are no longer permitted:

  • ‘Astroturfing’, the practice of falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support by means of orchestrated and disguised public relations activity. For example, in the context of social media, astroturfing techniques could include the creation of a dedicated blog, posting comments on others’ blogs or on message boards, submitting supposedly amateur videos to YouTube
  • ‘Flogs’ the creation of a fake blog by a PR agency or organisation that poses as a customer to promote a product or service.

Like the term itself, ‘ghosting’ is a bit nebulous, not something that is easily defined. But ‘fake’ and ‘false’ are, to my mind, clearer concepts. Something is genuine or it is fake; it is true or it is false. So long as PR people continue to ensure that the words accurately represent their clients’ or colleagues’ views and that these individuals give informed consent to their use, including on a blog, then we should be OK. But it is less than ideal.

Better still, reverse the balance. Our clients and colleagues should be encouraged to learn about blogging and to learn some basic skills so that they can use the medium themselves (this is something that I have done for BIW colleagues and for other organisations). Such blogs would then ‘be run entirely, or almost entirely, with detailed oversight by the author (or ‘public face’) of the blog‘ – effectively removing any issues about integrity.

Feb 05 2009

Building communities

A fortnight ago, I helped facilitate a workshop attended by about 16 UK construction professionals, all members of Constructing Excellence‘s collaborative working champions group (see my EE post Collaborative Working Champions going online). My friend Martin Brown (isite) and I introduced the group to some of the basic principles of social media and gave them some hand-on exposure to some web 2.0 tools and techniques, including some hands-on practice. The final act was to begin work on a new online community, using the Ning platform, and today this is just about ready to go live to its founder members.

On the verge of inviting that group to join the network, I read today’s Daily Telegraph article by Clay Sharkey (How the net gives power to the people). While he focuses on political use of the internet, some of his points seem to me to apply just as much to the construction industry and to the potential of web 2.0 tools to help industry people collaborate and change things:

Until recently, large groups of people left to their own devices rarely did anything complex. They needed management and oversight to help them work together. Digital access, though, is changing that.

… any tool that makes it easier for people to do things in groups will mean more group action – a lot more group action.

… society is made up not just of individuals, but of groups that pull together. If you change the way groups get things done, you can change the world.

Feb 03 2009

Let’s make construction more ‘social’

[This is a re-post of a blog article I wrote for Building Sustainable Design, which launched this week – also reproduced on ExtranetEvolution.com.]

I have spent more than half my career in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) and property industry looking at issues relating to collaboration, and since 2000 have been focused on how to use internet-based technologies to support collaboration. ‘Support’ is the operative word: people collaborate, not systems. Successful collaboration is only 20% technology, the other 80% is all about people and processes (the balance may even be more extreme: 10/90, perhaps).

So with this focus on ‘people’ it was perhaps inevitable that I got involved with ‘social media’ or ‘Web 2.0‘. Broadly speaking, this relates to the use of web technologies and design to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users. Tools range from blogs, RSS feeds, iGoogle and social tagging to extranets, wikis and Second Life, to name but a few, running on PCs and, increasingly, mobile devices.

But what does all this have to do with creating a more sustainable built environment? For me and a growing number of others, quite a lot.

The climate change agenda is forcing major changes upon our industry. And it’s not just about more efficient energy use, reducing waste or safeguarding habitats. It’s about the ‘three Ps’; truly sustainable approaches strike a balance between environmental, social and economic factors, between Planet, People and Profit. As an industry we need to be thinking more holistically about how we can deliver a better, more sustainable built environment, from planning and design, through construction, to facilities management and beyond. Collaboration is the key.

Conventional, often insular and adversarial approaches to delivering building projects have proved very wasteful. More integrated, collaborative approaches hold out the possibility of creating long-term efficiencies gained by working together, in teams, through supply chains and across sectors, and by sharing information, ideas and experiences. Web 2.0 will help support such collaboration.

The Be2camp project

During the summer of 2008, a small group of construction bloggers and other enthusiasts organised a not-for-profit conference about Web 2.0 and the built environment. Held at the Building Centre in London in October, Be2camp featured live presentations alongside contributions from speakers in Australia and the USA, plus, most importantly, lots of debate and discussion – both face-to-face and online (in the spirit of open collaboration, the presentations, event recordings and some of the online discussions before, during and after Be2camp 2008 are all viewable here).

Public data, mapping, email overload, community networks, charrettes, carbon footprints, real-time building energy use, architecture in Second Life, and cloud computing all featured as topics – often with strong sustainability 3Ps messages.

Is construction anti-‘social’?

Since the event, the Be2camp website has supported an online network of AEC people interested in using Web 2.0 more widely. However, while that community continues to grow, there remains relatively little take-up of Web 2.0 among the wider construction industry. Compared to other sectors, there aren’t many construction blogs; few AEC professionals use Twitter; many remain ignorant of RSS feeds; and online discussion forums can end up dominated by cranks. Why such under-use?

  • First, while innovative in its use of some technologies, I think the industry is still quite conservative when it comes to new ICT tools.
  • Second, it is an age thing: according to surveys, the take-up of social networking tools is high among early career professionals but older age groups are less inclined to use them.
  • Third,  collaborative attitudes are often passively or even actively discouraged within construction businesses and project teams. In 2009 – the 15th anniversary of the Latham Report advocating ‘partnering’ – only a minority of projects (possibly less than a quarter) are created by integrated teams working collaboratively.

How do we change things?

  • Well, first, some change is inevitable. Blogging is increasingly common (Twitter even featured on the BBC news), many websites now feature RSS feeds; learning materials (eg: Pam Broviak’s guide) are starting to appear; and some AEC institutions are experimenting – the Institution of Civil Engineers is building networks using Ning and the RIBA has a wiki, for example.
  • Second, notwithstanding the current downturn, the industry still faces a skills shortage and web-savvy youngsters will be recruited and bring their collaborative attitudes and behaviours into the workplace. As when email became mainstream, managers and organisations will need to learn and to adapt their processes to meet the challenges and opportunities.
  • Finally, industry organisations such as Constructing Excellence, the Strategic Forum for Construction and professional bodies should be promoting collaboration – and Web 2.0 as part of its support mechanism – as a key component of truly environmentally, socially and economically sustainable construction.

Technology on its own won’t help us build a more sustainable construction industry, but it may offer 10% of the answer.

Feb 03 2009

Welcome to pwcom 2.0

Welcome to my blog, and my new website. This is a new beginning for me – after nine years with BIW Technologies, I have decided to branch out and run my own business again.

However, it won’t be exactly the same type of consultancy. For a start, I won’t only be focused on business-to-business public relations and marketing for the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector. Having spent the past three years or so developing knowledge and skills in social media (Web 2.0), I am excited by their potential to improve corporate communications, and so plan to offer specialist advice and consultancy services in this field. Many AEC businesses will, I know, be wary of adopting these ‘trendy’ new tools and techniques, but I think my industry-specific experience will help AEC customers make informed choices about their social media strategies, particularly where these need to be integrated with ongoing internal and external communications programmes.

However, I will not be turning my back on the world of construction collaboration technologies. Having first encountered what we then called ‘project extranets’ in the late 1990s, I gradually became something of an authority on these web-based systems, writing the industry’s first book on the subject, published in late 2005. Since then I have continued to write about the systems, about Software-as-a-Service, collaborative working and related issues, in my ExtranetEvolution blog, in magazine articles and book chapters, and to speak to academic audiences and professional bodies. I plan to continue these activities and hope that my new-found independence will open a few doors that were previously closed to me as an employee of one of the leading system vendors.

Perhaps you are looking for some PR or marketing support? Maybe you want to augment your existing communications with controlled use of social media? Or perhaps you need an honest appraisal of the pros and cons of different vendors’ collaboration technologies? Whatever your requirement, get in touch to see if I can help.

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