Making the Digital Revolution work for the Built Environment
Yesterday I participated in a panel discussion about social media and the built environment at the launch of BREbuzz, a new social platform set up by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) to encourage communication with and between its customers and stakeholders.
On the panel were myself, Munish Datta, Head of Sustainability at Marks & Spencers, Jim McLelland, Sustainability Strategist and Head of Sustainability at McClelland Media, Anna Scothern, Digital Group Communications Director and Nick Tune, Head of Digital and CEO at BRE. The panel discussion was chaired by Niall Trafford, COO of BRE.
I was asked to kick off the panel discussion into social media in the built environment by talking about the importance of communication. Here’s what I said in my five minutes:
Communications in Construction
I don’t know about you, but when I started my career in construction at architecture school in Liverpool in the 1980’s, it wasn’t long before I recognised the importance of communications within the construction industry. This was reinforced later in the 1990’s, when I took up my first post as Practice Manager of an architects practice in London. My first and most important job in all the offices I worked in was to stop unsolicited callers interrupting the fee earners!
The importance of communication between individual people in the construction industry cannot be overstated, whether it is in meetings, via phone calls or the dreaded email, or even on the golf course. This is because our businesses operate by these means, using referral networks. When we are looking for knowledge and advice, my colleagues would look to each other first, and then to trusted former colleagues and associates who they know and trust. Keeping in touch with each other is essential.
So what has happened in the last 5-10 years? Some of this essential communication has begun to happen online, through what we call Social Media.
Social Media is People having Conversations on the Internet. Indeed, without conversation, social media grinds to a halt. The way social media platforms work is that conversation processes amplify your message, introducing you to a wider audience, and helping us find likeminded people and check out people we don’t know with more confidence. These platforms aren’t about broadcasting (though thats important), they are about conversations between real people.
Today, people are so much more connected than we were in the ’80s and ’90s. By the end of the decade, 50% of our workforce will be millennials – they will have grown up with the internet, and use social media to communicate as effortlessly as we use the telephone.
Silos are breaking down. People’s networks reach much further than they did before, between and across disciplines, between companies and across countries and continents. People can easily choose who to work with, and how they want to work with them.
So how is this Changing Business? Here are three examples.
In Recruitment and Retention. How do we keep our valuable staff when they can leave so much more easily, having so much more knowledge about other firms and contacts across the industry? We need to rethink our plans, including our succession plans to make sure we’re offering them what they want.
In Marketing, people can do their own research on us before they get in touch. This makes the process of generating leads potentially much more efficient, but we must be aware of the maxim: Marketing is Everything You Do, because we search (and that means everything your staff do too). Also PR is Everything We Think About You, because we talk, and talking has got a lot easier.
And finally in Knowledge Sharing, the topic of our discussion today. You can learn so much more from a much wider group, in a much more flexible way. The potential of this is huge, but to conclude I would point out, that the way in which we work and how our businesses survive and thrive in the coming years, will be based upon how we help our people use these new technologies effectively.
After the presentations, there was a lively discussion around data, leadership and education. On the subject of education and implementation I offered this experience from my recent consulting work.
I’m more and more frequently being asked to speak to board and senior management level meetings about social media, and the key concerns directors seem to have are two fold.
- What is social media and do I need it? And more particularly, do I really need to do it, because I’m not convinced I do, and
- How can we mitigate against the risks that social media poses to our business? In particular, how can we help our staff to be safe and sensible online?
I believe that company directors in the built environment are beginning to understand that Social Media isn’t just something you give to your marketing team. They are becoming more savvy about the potential it has for customer service, recruitment, internal efficiencies, stakeholder relations and profitability, and they are becoming aware that it affects their whole organisation. As business owners and key decision makers begin to understand the potential of these new communication techniques, I hope the industry will begin to reap the benefits.