Build your skills: Professor Zahir Irani

Senior officials are often wary of social media – but new ways of reaching out can help boost your contacts & expertise

Social media doesn’t always appear to sit comfortably with the kind of responsibility that comes with a senior role in the civil service. But to sideline or even dismiss social media as inappropriate to the working of government would be a mistake. The ability to make professional and thoughtful use of social media is an increasingly essential skill for everyone in the service – for personal development and career advancement, as well as the task of communicating the outputs of the day job.

The first rule, though, remains one of caution. Social platforms such as Twitter, Yammer, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Facebook may have become more business-oriented and accepted as a means of ‘serious’ communications and networking, but their basic nature and principle remain open, public, and permanent; no comment is ever forgotten online. The tone and culture is casual, while transactions and content are fast-paced and ephemeral – a characteristic that fosters a lack of depth, and mitigates against opportunities for detailed and thorough explanations. As a result, there is every chance for posted material to be misinterpreted or misunderstood, either innocently, or purposely in order to suit an agenda. On one level much social media content is just streams of noise, with only occasionally relevant bubbles of contacts and content.

Nonetheless, it is also a means of communication now embedded in personal and professional lives; and through an environment of digital devices and connectivity, it will only become more so. So while senior managers need to approach these fast-moving, open channels with care, they can – indeed, must – learn to find a measured and responsible way to engage with social media, not least because that is increasingly expected by their colleagues and the public. 

Most simply, that means plugging into social media as an information source. For example, during July’s ministerial reshuffle, it was possible to stay in touch with news pretty much as it happened: no waiting for the Six O’Clock News or the next day’s papers, or even for major media web sites to update. It’s important to invest time in researching, targeting and sifting sources among the media, individual experts and relevant bodies, in order to create your own channels of useful news and insights; don’t rely solely on the official news sources, mainstream press or more limited personal networks. A range of aggregation and management apps can be used to collate and organise your preferred sources (for example, idea collection tools such as Evernote).

We all need to be able to leverage potential from each other for personal development. This has always been the case in the civil service, of course, and there tend to be many unofficial networks within departments; but these connections, often forged at school or Oxbridge, can be exclusive and act as a limit on collaboration or on people’s efforts to gain contacts and support for career advancement. Social media provides people with another way to connect, enabling you to join networks or build new ones around common interests and values within the service. This helps expand your web of contacts, and ensure that more staff are aware of your role, expertise and interests – and can form the basis for wider cross-departmental sharing of experiences and opportunities. A group created within LinkedIn, for example, increases the opportunities to make new contacts and develop your expertise around a specific topic – say, e-government techniques or IT implementation. 

Think about creating your own specific social networks to achieve particular goals and to broaden your circle of influence. One of the great inefficiencies of every large organisation is the lack of collaboration, the duplication of effort and activities, and the failure to make use of the potential for sharing. There are opportunities for an organisation the size of the civil service to leverage its depth of expertise via social media as a platform to support mentoring – a kind of ‘marriage broker’ system, under which people flag up areas where they’d like a mentor or fields in which they have experience and expertise to share. This could create a low-cost and structured mentoring scheme drawing on some of the best and most relevant talent.

Externally, there is the chance to develop a wide-ranging community. Social media can be a very time-efficient way to build contacts across stakeholder audiences – in business, industry, academia, relevant overseas organisations etcetera – and to maximise opportunities for collaboration and benefit from external input. It’s also ‘light-touch’, allowing a senior manager to have regular contact with a large network without needing to commit to an impossible programme of face-to-face or phone appointments.

Using social media doesn’t need to constitute any kind of risk. Clear policies are certainly required. But most of all, time and resources must be invested for all managers to exploit – and, of course, to avoid being exploited by – the channels and networks available. 

Professor Zahir Irani is dean of the Business, Arts and Social Sciences College at Brunel University London, and recently completed a secondment as a policy adviser in the Cabinet Office.; @ZahirIrani1

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