Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Constructing social media
Article Type: Editorial From: Construction Innovation, Volume 14, Issue 3
Today’s construction and built environment sector faces exciting but immense cultural, societal and technological changes. This is evidenced through a myriad of issues – a rapid escalation in the need for improved sustainability, better information management and advanced construction techniques – to test and challenge established practices. While these challenges are significant, there are a number of platforms and tools that can improve communication, learning and sharing – not least social media. The core challenge here is “what can social media offer in support of Construction Innovation, Information, Process and Management?”
This guest editorial provides a snapshot of social media (past, present and future), including why and how this new collection of tools can be used to purposefully improve construction.
As a reminder of how rapidly social media has become mainstream, this year, 2014, has seen Facebook’s record breaking $19-billion acquisition of WhatsApp (#B23). For many, this is evidence of the high value placed on social communication. This poses a few questions, especially the need to understand how a start-up organisation, offering simple and free social communication technology, can be valued at such a high figure, and what the relevance of this might be for construction communications.
The past – old ways of doing things
Construction project management and business improvement has emphasised the importance of communication, in general, and more specifically, the need for an effective communication strategy for each construction organisation. Indeed, as Deming originally proposed, and as total quality management analysis subsequently revealed, poor communication lies at the root cause of most, if not all, process and quality failings. In addition, working as an improvement consultant with a myriad of organisations across the built environment has revealed a lack of social media awareness. This can not only hamper innovation and innovation dissemination in construction on key industry issues but also specifically on such issues as sustainability, building information management (BIM) and collaborative working. Given this, one conclusion is that: social media is not a new thing, but a new way of doing old things, like talking and communicating and having conversations again, using new technologies (#B3). Indeed, as Tom Standage argues in “Writing on the Wall – the first 2000 years of social media” (#B22), today’s social media is simply a web-version of mass or social communications that would be recognised by Cicero, the Romans and the Johnsonian Coffee Shop crowd, and that our current anxieties are the same as previous generations on mass communications. Similarly,
Students today depend on paper too much […] they don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves […] they can’t clean a slate properly […] what will they do when they run out of paper?" (#B14).
Present – new ways of doing old things
The rise of social media has led to the emergence of a communications shift in the way construction shares information and participates in conversations. However, this new social dimension, based on engagement, relationships and trust, is in many ways part of an emergence of a new connected construction generation; connected in real time across organisations, sectors and countries, and forming digital communities of practice (see #UKBIMCrew). For example, groupings of conversations focus on sustainability, BIM and collaborative working, with participants that are both “Generous and Expert” (#B13).
Acknowledging this, to effectively engage in this “social space”, companies are now turning to use the same social media tools and channels that individuals and community-based organisations in other sectors have embraced so quickly. Yet, for many in construction, social media still feels very much like uncharted territory. In addition, the value that social media offers remains either unrecognised or misunderstood because of fear of exposure to mass criticism. This is a real problem, especially as social media is now perceived as today’s “shop window”, for construction organisations as well as for companies in general [as was the website in the 1990s, and brochures and marketing departments before that].
While the use of social media may be the first encounter for some organisations; as a search tool, these approaches are becoming more pervasive, with searches made through Twitter now exceeding those made through Bing and Yahoo. Indeed, the rate of searching through Twitter is now second only to Google. This makes sense, especially in the role as a construction practitioner needing to acquire up to date information or find current best practice. Given this, one of the first steps is to try to find out what people and organisations are commenting on and discussing, rather than wasting time sifting through dated material on Google and other such search engines. Even Wikipedia, which has been criticised for inaccuracies, can be a useful starting point if used correctly (with attention to authorship and contributors). Issues within construction and other sectors are now following this approach, especially with the advent of vertical “pedia’s”. These are increasingly becoming the “go-to” source for an overview of construction terms and concepts; for example, see the open-source designing building wiki (#B9).
Future – better ways of doing new things
The following narrative presents a number of key areas of debate, the importance of which presents a forum for discussion and reflection.
Construction leadership, senior management and social media
The proliferation and use of social media has perhaps caught some construction management off guard. What was initially seen as a curiosity or a passing “fad” has now become established and mainstream.
There go my people, I must understand where they are going so that I may lead them:
Alexandre Auguste Lehru-Rollin[#fn1].
Lucy Marcus (#B18) makes the case that today’s leaders, directors and managers need to be both grounded and “star-gazing”. Grounded to drive process and keep the organisation solid, but star-gazing to explore new avenues and innovations. This includes social media, as a means of moving the organisation forward. If construction leaders prohibit or discourage (rather than actively encourage) everyday digital communication through social media at work, they will limit (or stifle) innovation and prevent (or hinder) the rapid uptake of BIM required by government strategies:
The biggest barrier to social media take up lies at board and director levels. Most staff within construction organisations will use social media in some personal capacity, a skill and resource to be harnessed for organisational good. The first and perhaps the most dynamic step an organisation can therefore take in embracing social media and in preparing for BIM, is to ensure that construction directors and boards understand the benefits that managed social media strategies can bring, and enable real open sharing and collaboration (Brown, 2011).
Collaborative working is now moving beyond supply chain relationships and how we work together on projects to how we share information and knowledge across projects and across organisations for the overall benefit of the sector. This indicates a cultural shift, one that takes people or organisations to consciously put the good of the industry ahead of their own short-term goals (#B16).
Social media and sustainability
Sustainable construction, (or in its wider context, responsible construction), is one of the grand challenges faced by the sector. As such, social media is emerging as a great communication tool for advocacy, learning and sharing – a unique platform for sustainability. If academics, advocates, clients and contractors (and other similar contemporaries) are serious about encouraging progress towards sustainable construction, then the time has come to reach out to influence all partners, suppliers and staff through social media, blogs and web 2.0 applications. Communicating sustainability “stories” is a key requirement in construction; and is especially important for building sustainable accreditation, such as Considerate Constructors, BREEAM and LEED. On this theme, worthy of note is the Living Building Challenge (#B17), through its education imperative. This requires all challenge projects to share their experiences, approaches, stories and results through project websites. This could go further, by embracing social media as a more real-time project advocacy tool.
Construction is entering a brave new world, with new drivers, commitments and government dictates. Clients are procuring, in part, on innovation capability, looking for innovation ability within the supply chain. The construction supply side is likewise seeking evidence of innovation to satisfy clients’ requirements and aspirations. Social media, (if leveraged correctly), can be used to illustrate innovation in several ways. It can also provide a raft of other advantages, not least being aware of construction developments, sharing best practice, and lessons learned.
Education and academia
On one hand, evidence suggests the emerging connected generation is comfortable with using web 2.0 and social media in everyday life; however, conversely, these tools are often prohibited in the workplace, with social media absent from many construction curricula. This is an important issue, as strategic digital literacy is increasingly becoming a competence required by industry. Given this, new academic recruits into industry will be needed to help shape organisations’ social and new media communication strategies, approaches and deployment. Online social media profiles, such as those supported by LinkedIn, for example, may well become the portmanteau curriculum vitae of graduates and industry, as is already the case within the world of public relations (PR) and the social media business itself.
Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now
Return on investment: using social media in construction
Looking for a financial return from time invested in social media is an important question. However, this is arguably misguided for many organisations. Instead, organisations should be considering the negative effects and potential damage to their organisations from not engaging. Moreover, reflecting on the consequences of having a poor engagement strategy. Indeed, as #B12 proffers that the age of damage through bad or uncorrected publicity with social media can be both the culprit and saviour (#B12).
This can be conveniently divided into four key segments, covering “visibility”, “intelligence”, “engage” and “learn + share” (see below).
This includes the need to be visible – to be seen as being innovative, to punch above the organisation’s weight and to reach out. Holding conversations across the sector are aspirations of many organisations. These aspirations can be satisfied with social media, which would be prohibitively expensive in time or money through traditional routes. For example, a plumber holding discussions on aspects of the Green Deal with UK Ministers or the contractor engaging with potential clients through social media conversations (demonstrating experience, competency and expertise).
The role of the amplifier to spread and amplify news is now a key part of the PR machinery. Organisations looking to secure maximum coverage for a paper, event or piece of news can now use social media platforms as a tool to do so (as an amplification message). #B19 curated a series of leader board rankings of the top 500 influencers across many built environment sectors, based on measures of interaction and influence across all major social media channels. A key purpose being to include those identified in sharing and amplifying news, messages and research communications.
Social media can open doors for both new and existing markets (including client and competitor intelligence). This is a compelling reason why it belongs firmly in the boardroom.
Learning and Sharing
Social media has become a vital source of improvement links, stories and experiences. The maturing of discussion groups, Twitter conversations and Google hangouts has become today’s benchmarking process.
If a company wants to see a future, 80 per cent of what it will have to learn will be from outside its own industry.
With such a volume of learning coming from outside an organisation, those not embracing and utilising social media are increasingly disadvantaged in respect of innovation and improvement awareness. For a recent example, see #B15 which included people across three continents. This provided an insight into global sustainability strategies and approaches. From personal experience of benchmarking, this would have previously required far greater effort in setting up a specific traditional benchmarking visit to gain such insights.
The power of the hashtag
Hashtags have become a powerful tool. However, they are probably misunderstood, or even unknown by many in construction organisations. Hashtags are ostensibly a means of ring-fencing or filtering social media “traffic”. They have enabled an explosion in the reach of tweetchat conversations, events, presentations, news items, newspaper content and TV programmes, for example.
Historically, locating key messages on a new industry initiative would have entailed travelling to face-to-face events, to sit through presentations, usually for whole days at a time. Presentations were often accompanied by a set of poorly printed acetate slides, and conversations with key stakeholders limited to (at best) a two-minute chat with speakers. However, today through hash-tagged events, it is possible to, not only remotely pick up key messages and slides shared from within the event room but also participate and converse with speakers pre, during and post event. For example, the Construction 2025 launch (#B7) or the recent Digitising Construction event (#B26).
The power of reach
Monitoring reach and impact is important in so many aspects of discourse dissemination. Using social media, the numbers can be high and impressive, for example:
* reach from a recent University of Central Lancashire PPP what is PPP? event (#PPPConf 2013) with a face-to-face room of approximately 30-40 people reached 18,468 participants online during the event (#B5);
* tweets from a Built Environment awards event (Be2awards) were potentially seen by 7.5 million accounts (#B25); and
* our recent tweetchat with the sustainability officer at Kimberly Clarke reached 1.5 million accounts (#B24).
There are many PR, web and research-based organisations attempting to understand the significance of these high numbers of reach and impact. This is a particularly encouraging sign, helping organisations to align and embed social media to the most appropriate channels.
Fear of social media
Uncertainty in use is a key barrier to take up of social media within construction organisations. Given that social media is a powerful communication, learning, sharing and improvement platform, it deserves organisational focus (as with any other improvement initiative). This is especially important, as it can influence policy, strategy and leadership direction. Inappropriate use can result in organisation “confusion” where mixed messages or conflicts of cohesion are presented (unintentionally). This can be particularly damaging. On this issue, the fear of sharing too much, and, specifically, of giving away secrets to the competition, is often cited as a reason for not using social media. However, the same arguments have been used against benchmarking, collaborative working and other best practice improvement practices. #B21 summed up two key reasons not to fear sharing [within the 140 characters of a Tweet].
Don’t worry about sharing your best info online,
(1) Your competition knows what you are doing
(2) “People like leaders not followers”
The US construction company Burns and McDonnell observed that it is not social media itself that is at fault; but, more often, a lack of trust within the organisation. Burns and McDonnell acknowledge staff as being ambassadors of the company, and formally encourage the use of social media as a means of continuing and enhancing conversations with clients:
We don’t see the social space any differently than I we? do any other activity where our employee-owners would be interacting with clients and friends. If you teach your staff how to talk about the company and how to interact with the public regarding the company, then these platforms are not an issue (#B6).
Conclusion: beyond social media
By not fully engaging with social media, the construction industry as a sector is in danger of missing out on a new era of business. Social media has moved beyond Twitter. It is no longer just a means of sharing simple messages. It is now a key enabler for crowd-sourcing and problem-solving; innovation sharing; co-creation of value; and for crowd funding for ideas and innovations. Importantly, it enables digital competence and collaboration – essential “ingredients” for successful BIM and Sustainable Construction.
Social media, alongside web 2.0 applications have been major positive disrupters for many industries, from music to books thorough to newspapers and journalism. These disruptions have led to new platforms and avenues for future innovation and creativity. Just how much social media, BIM/modelling, and the move towards transparent, responsible sustainability will disrupt construction and the built environment in coming years is one of the salient questions to address (and one that makes construction such an exciting industry).
Construction organisations now face a Disrupt or be Disrupted future. This frames innovation as a key business imperative, with social media being a key component of this innovation. With mobile technology within construction providing even greater communication, access and integration opportunities, we are seeing a new social media paradigm shift on the horizon. This resonates with the increased mobile social media use or “mocial” (as it is becoming known) – being mobile, real-time and social (#B26).
Social media is by no means a panacea solution for construction improvement or, indeed, a means of replacing all construction communication. It is, however, a vital tool in today’s construction improvement “toolbox”. The discussion now needs to move beyond social media as a technology to social media as a crucial enabler.
Fairsnape, Fairsnape@gmail.com, @fairsnape
NB. I have posted thousands of tweets (#B11), and interact with a myriad of people and organisations on the themes of sustainability, collaborative working, BIM and other construction improvement aspects. I am linked to interesting and stimulating thoughts, comments and links from colleagues, friends and contacts globally. This allows me to engage with, and deliver leading edge construction improvement advocacy, support and advice to a growing number of built environment stakeholders, that includes contractors, specialists, clients, academia and governmental bodies.
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