About Ian Watson

Head of Knowledge Media at IRISS. Particularly interested in social media and how we can get better access to it in the workplace.

Research Unbound: Finch, open access and social media

This is a summary of a presentation I gave at an Open University seminar on Social Media and Research in Ageing on 30 October 2015.

The emergence of social media during the last 10 years has endowed the web with ever more powerful, accessible and innovative ways of communicating. Social media is really just the natural evolution of the web and the starting point for my presentation was a look at disruptive power of web-based communication, sharing and collaboration.

Bookselling, newspapers, music and cinema have all been transformed in the last 15 years.  Academic publishing has been relatively unaffected, perhaps surprising given that when Tim Berners-Lee created the Web in 1991 his aim was to support and improve scientific communication and the dissemination of research.

In 2012 the Finch report proposed a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated: by 2014 publicly funded scientific research was to be freely available to all on publication.  Although Finch acknowledged the existence of social media the report’s recommendations focused on adapting the traditional publishing business model to accommodate open access.  Essentially this involves publishers generating their income by charging authors a publication fee rather than levying subscription fees on readers.  For most of the public, however, journals continue to live behind paywalls.

So what about the commitment to make publicly funded research freely available to the public? Well, the major publishers have supported Access to Research, an initiative equipping public libraries with free access to a number of subscription journal articles. According to open access agitator Cameron Neylon it’s an empty political gesture that fails to meet the needs of the UK public (Improving on “Access to Research”: Restrictive access and licensing fail to meet the needs of the 21st century). Under the scheme the public may look at abstracts online but must visit a participating library to read the article. No wonder Neylon calls it ‘an initiative from a 20th Century industry attempting to stave off progress towards the 21st Century by applying a 19th Century infrastructure’.

Neylon has questioned academic journals’ fitness for purpose, noting that researchers don’t consume articles in the form in which they write them: journals focus on text whereas researchers want data. Publishing data in chunks is something Gary Hall advocates in his notion of the Unbound Book. Hall is Professor of Media and Performing Arts and Director of the wonderfully named Centre for Disruptive Media, at Coventry University. He makes the point that If you talk about what you’re doing on blogs or wikis or share your data on services such as Figshare, by the time you come to publish you have already put quite a lot of your wisdom out there.

Brian Kelly has been blogging for many years as UK Web Focus, advocating the use of social media to get your work disseminated and talked about. He has expressed frustration over the inaccessibility of institutional repositories, which seem to be more of a research audit tool for the institution than a means of dissemination, a view echoed in a research study undertaken by Iriss in 2013 (Improving access to research for the social services – can higher education digital repositories help?). If your stuff is to be findable on the web it needs Google juice (Using social media to build your academic career). In other words your work has to be findable by web search engines.

Research Unbound is Iriss’s contribution to encouraging a more open approach to sharing research. Inspired partly by Gary Hall, it’s both a campaign and a website, built on Wordpress, offering space to blog and take the first steps towards understanding new media and acquiring skills in digitally literacy.  A report from Future Work Skills talks about a new media literacy:

the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media and to leverage these media for persuasive communication.
Knowledge of fonts and layouts was once restricted to a small set of print designers and typesetters, until word processing programs brought this within the reach of everyday office workers. Similarly, user-friendly production editing tools will make video language—concepts such as frame, depth of field etc—part of the common vernacular

The need to present research evidence in more accessible formats was discussed in the Guardian earlier this year (see previous post Embedding knowledge in practice and digital participation).  It was argued that organisations should develop a culture that encourages and values reading, discussing and reflecting. In addition it was suggested we consider different ways of presenting content that might be more accessible for those without an academic background: a short animation or video might be preferred to wading through 60 pages of dry text.

What and how we communicate has been explored by the Research Utilisation Research Unit (RURU). Davies and Powell (Communicating social research findings more effectively: what can we learn from other fields?) stress the importance of dialogue in knowledge interaction and suggest borrowing techniques from other disciplines, such as advertising.

Two years Iriss hired a Creative in Residence to help us think about and improve our communication skills and techniques. For three months Andy, with a background advertising and copywriting in the commercial and the public sector, inspired us to think more thoroughly and creatively about what our projects were trying to achieve. He taught us the WWW of communication: not World Wide Web, but Who? What? What?

  • Who is you audience?
  • What do you want them the hear?
  • What do you want them to do?

This simple approach encourages us to think more carefully about our message. Social media encourages brevity (Twitter: 140 characters).  Brevity and precision are useful skills. Applying techniques from advertising, journalism and visual arts we produced this short animation to explain what person-centred means in practice.

WHO? (are we talking to)

  • All health and social care professionals working with older people: from care at home worker to hospital administrator to consultant GP

WHAT? (do we want them to hear and understand – and agree with!)

  • That all were doing their best and believed they were person-centred, but that’s not how it seemed to older people.
  • That one profession seeing the problem as someone else’s won’t improve things.

WHAT? (action do we hope for)

  • Think about how to make individual efforts amount to more than (not less than) the sum of the parts.
  • Improve communication at all stages.
  • Understand how improving communication can lead to a better focus on the outcomes for the person.
    Believe that this is possible.

Producing this video required a lot of thought, planning and creativity. A useful rule of thumb is that the average speech rate is 150 words per minute. That means that in a two and half minute video the message has to be delivered using around 375 words. Every word has to count and redundant words removed.  Newspaper style guides are helpful (try The Economist’s). Even if you’re not making an animation, this process of refining your message is a valuable exercise. The Conversation (academic rigour, journalistic flair) is an excellent example of how to present complex subjects in clear language.

What does this mean for older people? A previous post reported on Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby lecture in which she argued  ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re 80 or 8, if you’re online once a year or once a minute. Understanding where the internet came from and what it can do will help you make more sense of the world.’  She recounted the story of a woman who is a disabled full-time carer for her disabled husband. She was sinking fast into depression until a local volunteer taught her how to use the internet. She believed it saved her life. She felt her world expanded and that she could experience things she’d never otherwise have been able to do – she was “going on a holiday” when playing around on Google Earth and getting support from new friends she met in online groups.

The web and social media are a fact of life, just like telephone, which was once a novelty (and disruptive of the social conventions of the day). We don’t discuss the telephone and older people. Likewise social media is now mainstream. David Wilcox publishes an excellent blog – Living well in the digital age – which explores all the ways in which digital communication is can reduce social isolation and loneliness.

Digital participation or digital exclusion are of course important concerns, but if social media meets a need people will use it. Social media is experiential – it’s not really something you get trained in. We do need to understand and cope with dangers such as cyberbullying, phishing and identity theft.  But we can’t leave this to others.  Berners-Lee argues strongly that we all have role to play in shaping the web and he has come up with his second WWW: the Web We Want.

The message to academics and researchers, to old people and young people, is don’t stand back and think digital is something other people do. It something you can do.

Finally, where do we find the time to do this?  There is no simple answer but if you’ve put thousands of hours work into doing the research, shouldn’t you factor in the time to make sure people find out what you found out?

Exploring your social work brand

I’m not sure how many people would agree that personal branding is important for social workers, not just entrepreneurs and Hollywood stars. Kristin Battista-Frazee argues that the same principles that entrepreneurs and celebrities use create an image are equally applicable to changing the way people view social work and create a better understanding of what it’s about (How Do YOU Stand Out? Exploring Your Social Work Brand).

In the coming months, The New Social Worker (a careers magazine associated with Cape Western Reserve University) will feature articles about how to create a social work brand by leveraging your values and training. This chimes to some extent with what Davies and Powell say about communicating research: we should borrow techniques from other disciplines, such as advertising.

It might not be for everyone but it wouldn’t do any harm to follow what Battista-Frazee has to say about how social media and personal branding can enhance your personal profile.

Embedding knowledge in practice and digital participation

It’s nearly ten years since Changing Lives (Report of the 21st Century Social Work Review ) made the case for evidence informed practice and a culture of lifelong learning and development.  Quite a lot has changed since then.

In 2008 SSKS gave social care workers access to the resources of NHS Education for Scotland. This is invaluable but, as Dez Homes has noted, access to the journal literature is not enough. Two successive Knowledge Management Strategies recommended greater use of web based tools and IRISS and NES have promoted Personal Learning Networks based on services such as Twitter, Linkedin. Scotland’s Digital Participation Strategy (2014) highlights the importance of digital skills for the population as a whole, while the Digital Participation Charter encourages businesses and organisations to develop these slills in the workforce.

The 2015 Shared Vision and Strategy for the Social Services restates the importance of evidence informed practice (EIP). A recent paper from Christopher Chapman et al (Perspectives on Knowledge into Action in Education and public service reform: a review of relevant literature and an outline framework for change) notes that early literature on EIP made the naive assumption that there were stocks of knowledge on the one hand and potential users of that knowledge on the other.  Current thinking leans towards the view that, in the social sciences, research contributes to change through dialogue and interactions rather than direct implementation. Davies and Powell have suggested that in communicating research we should learn from disciplines such as advertising.

Al this suggests the need for a culture in which the creation, finding and use of knowledge is routine, a point made well in a recent Guardian debate (discussed in a previous post).  Such a culture needs a workforce comfortable with information and knowledge in digital formats. A report from Future Work Skills talks about a new media literacy:

the ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media and to leverage these media for persuasive communication.
Knowledge of fonts and layouts was once restricted to a small set of print designers and typesetters, until word processing programs brought this within the reach of everyday office workers. Similarly, user-friendly production editing tools will make video language—concepts such as frame, depth of field etc—part of the common vernacular.

So what do we do now?  I’d suggest we need to get firmly behind the Digital Participation Strategy and the Charter to help the workforce and the population at large get to grips with the new digital literacies that underpin communication and collaboration.

More the 25 years ago Tim Berners-Lee gave the world an incredibly powerful tool – the World Wide Web. It changed the way we work and live. It has disrupted countless business models and will continue to do so. It is, in the words of the Digital Participation Strategy, an everyday, anytime, anywhere technology.

It’s all about digital participation

I started this bog some three and a half years ago to encourage the use of social media and campaign for better access to the web at work. Since then we’ve seen a number of developments which support the assertion in that first blog post that social media is really ‘just the web’.

Martha Lane Fox in her 2015 Dimbleby Lecture made the point that it’s not OK not to understand the internet. The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s 2014 report Spreading the benefits of digital participation argued that

every individual, business and organisation must have basic information literacy and digital skills … Scotland must seize every opportunity to develop these skills through formal education, workplace learning, lifelong and community learning

Scotland’s Digital Participation Strategy, published in 2014, states

A world class Digital Scotland will be one in which internet access is considered as a utility on a par with access to electricity and gas, and where digital literacy takes its place alongside conventional literacy and numeracy at the heart of our education system. Access to the internet should not be considered a luxury in a modern country

To help realise this vision over 100 organisations have signed Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter committing themselves to

ensuring that everyone has the access, motivation and basic digital skills required to participate fully in our digital world

So, shifting the focus away from social media specifically, I’ve retitled the blog Just Do It! Digital participation at work. We’ll be looking at the digital literacy skills that people will need in order to be, in the words of the Digital Participation Strategy,

creative in their use of technology, innovative in developing services and applications and comfortable using the internet as an everyday, anytime, anywhere technology ….

These skills will be especially relevant to the evidence informed practice and knowledge exchange elements of the 2015 Vision and strategy for social services in Scotland.

Social care evidence base

Social care may be the poor relation of healthcare with regard to research funding, but it’s something of a myth that it is not evidence-based, says Research in Practice Director Dez Holmes (How good is the social care sector at building an evidence base? Guardian Social Care Network, 7 July 2015).  Evidence, she notes, is more than just the results of randomised control trials: it comes in many forms, including practitioner experience and wisdom and user and carer perspectives, a point also acknowledged in Scotland’s Strategy and Action Plan for Embedding Knowledge in Practice in Scotland’s Social Services.

Getting evidence and knowledge into practice is another challenge which, according to Holmes, isn’t just a simple matter of giving everyone an Athens password to the journal literature. Former social worker Gerry Nosowska (in the same article) says that social workers need time and space to find, use and share research, and this requires an organisational culture that encourages and values reading, discussing and reflecting:

If keeping on top of research and using it to inform their practice is to become the norm … leaders and managers have a key role to play in creating the kind of environment that encourages research.

Innovative methods to present evidence may also encourage better uptake and use of knowledge.  A three-minute video is often more effective than wading through 60 pages of academic jargon. Here is an example we at IRISS produced to explain what person centred means in practice.

The 2015 Vision and Strategy for Social Services in Scotland acknowledges the need to improve use of evidence, highlighting

 …  the need to breakdown the traditional barriers between stakeholders and find ways to maximise the participation of service providers and ultimately the service users themselves in identifying research priorities. Ensuring collaborative practice in all stages of research and knowledge exchange is also key

In the 21st century collaborative practice and knowledge exchange rely to a large extent on digitally literacy because the web-based digital media offers so much potential for finding, sharing and reflecting (see previous post on Personal Learning Networks for example).  What do we mean by digital literacy? A good place to start is GO ON UK for a definition of basic digital skills:

  • Managing information
  • Communicating
  • Transacting
  • Problem Solving
  • Creating

Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter invites organisations to play their part in ensuring that everyone has the access, motivation and the basic digital skills required to pDigi-Partic-Charter-Signat-rgbarticipate  fully in the digital world. Signatories commit to:

  1. Ensuring their staff have an opportunity to learn basic digital skills
  2. Encouraging and supporting staff to help other people learn basic digital skills, and help other organisations to embrace digital tools.
  3. Contributing resources and practical support for digital participation initiatives.

People working in social care are no less able to acquire digital skills than the population as a whole. The same skills that will equip them to book holidays, shop and complete tax returns, will equip them to exploit the power of the web to find use and share knowledge.

All we need is the cultural change that will allow this to happen in the workplace. The 130 or so signatories to Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter have committed to do this.  It’s a start.

It’s not OK not to understand the internet

On 29 April I gave a presentation at Holyrood’s annual Telehealth and Telecare Conference.This year’s theme was engagement – both staff engagement and public engagement –  and the brief was to address the question ‘social media and engagement: challenge or opportunity?’

It did feel a little strange to be asking if social media is a challenge or an opportunity. Social media is here, it’s now. A fact of life. Yes, it presents challenges for some people, either because they aren’t sure what it is or because of its disruptive impact on established organisational and power structures.  But there can be no question that it offers many opportunities for engagement.  Consider this definition:

tools that allow people to create, share or exchange information, ideas, and pictures/videos in virtual communities and networks. – Wikipedia

Sharing, exchanging and networking sound very much like the basic ingredients for engagement.

At the conference we heard from a panel of users of telehealth about how social social media is vital in dealing with depression, Alzheimers and visual impairment. This panel did not see privacy and data protection as serious barriers: not in the way ‘the establishment’ does.

Michael Seres is very well known for his use of social media to openly share personal information about Crohns Disease.  Look up Michael on the web for inspiration on how to meld, blogging, Pintrest, Facebook, Twitter to learn, share and communicate and build networks.

With these examples in mind I began by asking ‘what’s holding us back? ‘

Fear of the new

Fear of the new might be one factor. All technology goes through the ‘new’ phase. That’s when the evangelists or enthusiasts talk up the opportunities.  And the doom mongers talk up the dangers. People have always been wary of new things, fearing negative impact.

It’s OK to be skeptical of hype but we should avoid being paralysed by fear and apprehension. In any case, the technologies underpinning the internet, the Web and social media are not particularly new. It’s 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee – looking for a way  to support and improve scientific communication – invented the World Wide Web. He fused the internet, which had been around for at least the previous 25 years, and hypertext, the origins of which go back even further.

Berners-Lee was always clear the web was for everyone. By giving away the idea (which he could have patented) he allowed others to develop and refine web browsers which, together with affordable computers and home broadband, ushered the internet into the mainstream of everyday life.

Berners-Lee has recently come up with a new WWW: the Web We Want.

The future of the Web depends on ordinary people discussing it, taking responsibility for it and challenging those who seek to control the Web for their own purposes.
It is vitally important to me and our work at the World Wide Web Foundation that we empower people from all walks of life to shape the future of the Web.

So if you’re looking for a challenge, maybe this is it. What kind of web do you want? Which is really, what kind of world do we want? This means getting to grips with the legal, ethical and technical frameworks that underpin the Web and the social media that lives on it.

A couple of weeks ago internet pioneer Martha Lane Fox delivered the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture. With a non-technical background (graduate in ancient history), Lane Fox set up Lastminute.com, is now in the Lords, advises on all things digital and has launched a campaign called Dot Everyone.

In her lecture she argued that Britain could become the most digital, most connected, most skilled, most informed country on the planet. She was frustrated by the polarising of views that we often encounter: the internet will solve all the world’s problems versus the internet  is screwing everything up. She put it bluntly:

It doesn’t matter if you’re 80 or 8, if you’re online once a year or once a minute. Understanding where the internet came from and what it can do will help you make more sense of the world.

She went on to argue that we’re still wasting colossal fortunes on bad processes and bad technologies. She envisages a world where the internet is a tool for transforming the relationship between the state and the citizen, not something driven by the need for economic efficiency alone.

She felt were were being let down by our leaders, We need, she said, more politicians and senior civil servants who realise that ‘getting’ digital means more than operating a Twitter account or taking an iPad to meetings.

At IRISS I’ve been banging on for the last few years about blocking access to social media in the workplace.  How are social care staff to understand Facebook, Youtube and Twitter if they aren’t allowed access at work?  How are they to engage with the likes of Michael Seres if they aren’t trusted with unfettered access to the internet?

It can be easy to overstate the impact of digital but Lane Fox recounts the story of a woman who is a disabled full-time carer for her disabled husband. She was sinking fast into depression until a local volunteer taught her how to use the internet. She believed it saved her life. She felt her world expanded and that she could experience things she’d never otherwise have been able to do – she was “going on a holiday” when playing around on Google Earth and getting priceless support from new friends she met in online groups.

This is engagement!  Lead with need.  There is no point in urging people get on the internet unless you demonstrate the benefits or how it meets a need.

Policy background

Cabinet Secretary Shona Robison addressed the conference and talked about Scotland’s Digital Participation strategy. Here are some extracts from the Strategy which I’d suggest you quote to those who deny you access to Facebook, Twitter or Youtube.  Or compel you to use an out of date web browser.

Scotland’s Digital Future. Supporting the Transition to a World-leading Digital Economy:

The starting point… has to be a commitment to develop the digital capabilities of staff across the Scottish public sector. Organisations should … encourage the development of digital literacy across their entire workforce. This should be supported by the development of workplaces and IT policies that enhance access to and familiarity of digital technology.

Digital Participation: A National Framework for Local Action:

everybody who wishes to access the internet should be able to

it is the role of government to ensure that everybody in our society has the opportunity to develop digital skills

A world class digital Scotland will be one in which internet access is considered as a utility on a par with access to electricity and gas

and where digital literacy takes it place alongside conventional literacy and numeracy at the heart of our education system

Access to the internet should not be considered a luxury in a modern country


Yes there are dangers. Phishing, data theft, identity theft  and so on. But the world has always posed dangers and the way to deal with danger is through education and awareness.

Bogus salesmen have long swindled vulnerable people at the front doors. Now they do it by phone and email. We used to have TV campaigns warning about bogus door to door salesmen.  Why not the same kind of public education campaigns about using the web? Maybe for the reason Lane Fox mentioned: politicians and leaders in the public and private sectors who don’t understand the internet.


I’ve used the terms internet, Web and social media rather interchangably. That’s because social media is really just a natural evolution of the internet. Orginally the internet was the preserve of scientists until Berners-Lee showed what could be done by linking things up using hypertext. His Web was completely text-based. Young whiz kids came along and showed how a graphical user interface (the web browser) could open it up to a wider community, making it more engaging and exciting by adding images and then moving images, and then interactive elements. Broadband, cheaper PCs, cheaper photography allowed us all to share in the fun.

It has been suggested that the last 150 years were a bit of a blip during which we became text based at the expense of oral and aural traditions. Social media has given us back these oral and aural dimensions.The challenge, then, is how to exploit the opportunities this has opened up.

  • You don’t really ‘learn’ social media; it’s experiential.
  • You can decide what you like and don’t like, what’s useful to you and what is not …
  • … but make an informed choice.
  • Take up Tim Berners Lee’s challenge to help shape the Web We Want.
  • Sign Martha Lane Fox’s petition at Dot.Everyone.
  • And challenge those in power to open up access to the Web at work.

It’s not OK not to understand the internet.

Social reporting in practice

Our first serious attempt at social reporting (see earlier post) at Small Changes, Big Differences on 26 February was a great success with a large number of people joining in the spirit of Tweeting and taking photographs.  We used Storify (see previous post) to create this record of the event, and many participants appreciated seeing such a lively and engaging record, created before, during and after the event.

participants wave to cameraAn important reason for its success was because we planned it as an integral part of the event.  And, on the day, the opening speaker reiterated what we were trying to do, encouraging everyone to get into the spirit of sharing.

This helped create a buzz and gave participants the confidence to talk about the event on Twitter. During the day there were close to 1000 tweets, which we thought was pretty good.

Of course, what we’d really like to see is people creating their own personal record of the parts of the day that mattered to them, using Storify, Medium or whatever they feel comfortable with. That really is the essence of social reporting: individuals or groups capturing what was important to them using the tools they choose.

Social reporting – sharing the learning

P1020705Scribbling on flipcharts or sticking ideas on Post-it notes are well established ways of capturing and organising thoughts and ideas in group discussions, conferences and workshops. It’s effective too, except when it comes to organising, summarising and sharing all the knowledge captured on these bits of paper. Quite a lot of flipchart paper ends up in rolls under the desk waiting for someone with time to analyse and transcribe.

This got me thinking that there must a world beyond the flipchart. We already have smart boards and collaborative writing tools. Why not use them? It’s a short jump to realise that Tweeting from an event using a hashtag is much the same as posting your thoughts on a wall. What else could we use? Well, there’s Audioboom to capture soundbites, Vine for short video. And then we have great tools for aggregating web-based content: Storify and Medium, for example. Capturing thoughts and ideas digitally makes sharing easier and less time consuming.

This way of doing things is becoming quite well established and even has its own term: Social Reporting.  So we’ve started experimenting and what we’ve learned so far is that social reporting does require planning so that participants understand that it’s an integral part of the event, not a gimmicky add-on.

Of course, scribbling on paper, whether notebook or flipchart, is still perfectly valid. Indeed pens, pencils and paper are vital tools as explained in this video, How The Way You Write Changes the Way You Think.  As ever, digital doesn’t necessarily supplant analogue, but social media offers us so many additional ways of capturing and sharing. For example the Post-it people have created an app (iPhone only at present) that will capture up to 50 post notes and split them into individual notes that you can organise and share. Ideas don’t stop when the meeting ends says the publicity blurb.

We have drafted a guide to how it works and we’ll be trying some of the ideas at Small Changes, Big Differences on 26 February.  Follow the hashtag #scbd15.

Learning: the social dimension

I’ll be running a workshop on the social dimensions of learning at Learning Essentials, the  Elearning Alliance conference on Friday 31 October at West Lothian College, Livingston.

In a recent blog post Jane Hart notes that social learning is how we learn naturally, with our friends and colleagues. Social media, although not essential, she says, does offer tools that help us to help us connect to our networks of colleagues to ask and answer questions, and exchange ideas, thoughts and experiences.  This is known as a Personal Learning Network, a concept we explored in our recent animated story.

Continuous learning is less about courses and more about people sharing knowledge, experience, ideas and resources as part of the daily workflow. But Hart also warns against forcing people to use social media in courses or in the workplace and then confusing compliance with engagement learning.

Paul Matthews, in his recent book Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times, notes that employees need to be adaptable, responsive, continuous learners, innovative and willing to share.  To be like that, employees need to work in an environment that allows access to personal learning networks.  The emphasis here is on personal.  People have to want to do this, not be compelled to.

Knoco stories is a blog from Nick Milton offering insights on knowledge transfer. A recent post (Why knowledge transfer through discussion is 14 times more effective than writing) compares and contrasts two ways of transferring knowledge:

  1. Connecting people so that they can discuss
  2. Collecting knowledge in written (explicit) form so others can find and read it

He argues that connecting people is far less efficient than collecting while being far more effective – but how much more effective? He concludes that  effectiveness of transmission of knowledge through connecting is 35% compared to 2.5% for collecting. I’ll leave it to others to decide if they agree with his analysis but it does seem to support the notion that discussion and collaboration are vital parts of learning.

In the workshop we’ll have look at tools for building the personal learning networks and environments that can help us learning continuously and effectively, and willingingly!

Personal learning networks: feedback from the IRISS Challenge

Debbie Lucas is a staff development officer in a local authority social work department. She took part in the IRISS Personal Learning Network Challenge to learn more about using social media both in her own role and to support colleagues. These are her reflections.

Apart from dipping my toe into the world of Twitter by setting up, but never actually using, a personal Twitter account, I would consider myself to be a “Twirgin”. I never really understood the concept of Twitter and was a bit overwhelmed by the fast pace at which information seemed to come through this form of social media.

I took up a new post in a local authority training team in May 2014 and as part of this role, I made contact with organisations such as IRISS and SSKS. This led me down a path of e-information and wanting to know more about how social work practitioners were able to access this information in a way that was quick and easy, especially in the fast-paced, busy environments that we work in. And so, I came across IRISS’ Personal Learning Network Challenge. I was keen to participate and learn more about how I could use social media in my own role, but also how I could use it support practitioners within my organisation.

As with any journey, there were some exciting parts, but also some ‘bumps’ along the way. IRISS, and many others have written more than a few articles about the use of social media in the workplace. These articles focus on the barriers and challenges that organisations and, more importantly, individual practitioners face. Whilst I can appreciate the concerns that senior managers have about allowing staff access to social media, I entirely identify with the individual challenges that those before me have come up against.

Of course, access to Twitter was blocked to almost all employees of my local authority, so I was prepared to participate in this project on my own personal mobile phone. To keep myself right, I shared the information with my line manager and informed her that I would be using my own phone to access Twitter. This was met with some reservations, but I reassured her that my profile was entirely professional and that I would not make any connection with the local authority we worked for. I have to say that although it has never directly been called in to question, I have struggled with the unconscious mistrust that exists in relation to my professional integrity and the use of social media. I do appreciate that there is always the potential for someone in a professional capacity to behave inappropriately on social media, but surely employers should trust in their own selection process and policies/guidance to ensure that their employees will behave in a professional and mature manner when it comes to their job?

The PLN challenge was broken down in to small steps and this made it feel less daunting, especially since I had never fully made use of Twitter before. Soon I was building up a healthy list of colleagues and groups to follow. More excitingly, some started following me, although I was yet to actually say anything on Twitter!

I was amazed at all this information that was virtually “falling in to my lap” and I soon started to master the art of skimming through my Twitter feed and zoning in on information that was relevant or of interest to me. This made the next step in the challenge easier as I had to re-tweet something that I found interesting. I then had the task of actually tweeting something myself….! What on earth would I have to say that anyone would find interesting? So I kept it general and in the vein of the challenge tweeted about looking forward to working with IRISS about improving access to information and even “hashtagged”!

Screen grab of Debbie Lucas's tweets

I wasn’t sure what to expect after this first tweet, but I can tell you it was not to be re-tweeted by Alan Baird, Chief Social Work Adviser to the Scottish Government!!!
In the short space of time that I have been using Twitter, I have grown in confidence in terms of voicing my opinion. Reading other people’s/organisation’s thoughts on things that matter in the world of social work has made me consider my own thoughts and views to a greater extent.Whilst I still need to work up the courage to actually post my opinions, I have definitely noticed a shift in my willingness to publicly express a view.

I was quickly becoming more confident in using Twitter and really excited about being able to pick up information that may, or more likely may NOT have, come to my attention. At times I was opening up all sorts of links and never actually getting round to reading much of it: a small insight in to how difficult it can be for others to stay abreast of new or important information whilst managing busy caseloads and something to think about when supporting my colleagues to access and use social media in the future.

In the meantime, the Director of Social Work for my local authority, had been given information about the PLN challenge and had been made aware that I was participating in the challenge which led to me being given access to Twitter on my work computer.  I am disappointed, however, that I cannot always follow links to potentially interesting blogs as most of these are still blocked by the network.

I was also linked in with a colleague from the Corporate Communications and Public Affairs team who went over some of the basics of using social media, and also gave me some pointers in terms of ‘Lists’ that you could use to filter the information coming through on your Twitter feed. This definitely streamlines my feeds and I can look at specific lists depending on what information I may be interested in at the time.

There are differing views about the use of social media as a professional. In my opinion, there are two different elements to using social media in a professional capacity:

  1. as a representative of the organisation or group that you belong to, offering news and views of the organisation or group; and,
  2. as a professional in your own right with your own (professional) views and interests.

One of the arguments about allowing staff access to social media is the time it would take to manage this. Whilst this is true for the first point, for the second it becomes less of an issue in terms of workload management and more an issue of time management.

For those interested in the use of social media in the work place or as a professional, I’m sure you’re familiar with all the arguments against and for it. I am not going to go into this debate, but I do have an opinion about mixing the use of personal and professional profiles on social media. In the first element above, I feel it is to be avoided. The second element is more likely to lead to some debate, after all, most of us have professional colleagues whom we would consider friends as well.  I feel, however, that this is a blurring of boundaries and it would be too easy for a comment to be inadvertently posted in the wrong context, leading to potentially serious repercussions and damage to a person’s professional integrity. But this is another discussion for another day.

I am still very new to using social media as a professional but I have to say I do understand Twitter more as a professional than I ever did on a personal level. I am really excited about the possibilities and opportunities that this presents. I think that with small steps and a lot of education, we can convince senior managers of the benefits of social media for sharing information and improving practice, especially when there are specific social media networks set up for use in a professional capacity.

I am hoping that I can make a contribution to this ongoing debate and will continue to have discussions in my organisation regarding how we can effectively use social media to improve practice.