Ceding control in the age of the connected consumer

2 Aug 2012

Neville Hobson, digital communications expert

The advent of the connected consumer means organisations and governments have to learn to embrace the loss of traditional controls, and this can be a very beneficial process for both. That is according to Neville Hobson, a long-time opinion leader and influencer in digital communication for business. I was speaking to Hobson ahead of his visit to Dublin in September to speak at the Digital Ireland Forum.

When I last interviewed Hobson some five years back, he was the first person to tell me that Twitter was going to change how we worked and communicated – and he wasn’t wrong. Consider that back in 2008, when we were all glued to the Beijing Olympics, there were just 6m users on Twitter.

Today that figure is 140m, and there were more tweets sent on the first day of the London Olympics than during the entirety of the Beijing Games.

“In the last decade, we’ve seen the slipping of traditional control processes,” he tells me. “We’ve seen the opening up, the democratisation of communications. In the previous age, it would have been media companies and other monolithic organisations with special skills, that were the gatekeepers of information. Today that is open to anyone with an internet connection.”

The empowerment of people

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Coming years will see more of the same, says Hobson. “If you think about where we are today with nearly a billion people on the planet with a Facebook account, with all the Twitter accounts, we have seen a radical shift in the empowerment of individuals and the impact that has had on organisations. Today, people clamour to talk to organisations and many are often still unprepared for that.”

Those that do not adapt will suffer as a result, says Hobson. “Those peer networks we hear of that are still only embryonic, they are going to get far more sophisticated, and we are going to see organisations, generally speaking, realise that you have to be part of this great big conversation taking place online. You’ll see more and more of them ‘getting with the programme’, as it were.”

Hobson agrees there is a particular challenge for governments, which traditionally would not be open to this loss of control.

“Any organisation that thinks you can control this is, in my opinion, sadly mistaken. Time will prove that to be the case.

“On a more positive note, the ability for citizens to be able to connect with each other and with governments through this method of online connectivity is a positive force in a democracy. It is not the only way – the traditional methods are still there, too. But the new ways provide significant benefits for governments, if they accept the fact that empowered, more informed people make a far better part of the process through which information is shared, and knowledge increased.”

Ceding control

Businesses, too, are going to look at how they cede control.

“We’re already seeing collisions in workplaces, with people in their early 20s coming into the workforce, many of whom are interested in very different things to the previous generation.

“They are not so much interested in what the pension plan or employee benefits might be, but rather in whether they can log on to Facebook, what the organisation provides by means of social forms of communications, whether the CEO is online, what’s their blog or Twitter handle?

“Therein lies a dilemma for some organisations.Where everything is so informal and instant, what do you do about processes where you must keep records for compliance or regulatory reasons? We are going to have to figure out a newer way of doing things that enables us to match the expectations of everyone, young and old, a way that is not painful – although history tells us it is likely to be.

“We’ve already seen the different attitudes, the attempts to control all of this, often being manifested in organisations trying to block social networking sites. This is all part of this ‘trying to figure it out’ process. It is going to be a challenge for some to get this right.”

However, Neville reminds us that these transitions happen in every generation.

“I remember entering the workforce at a time when desktop publishing was coming in. I remember the howls of protest from established folks who saw this as the devil incarnate coming into the building.

“I don’t think it’s that much different with these newer tools, and processes. People’s general behaviours are shifting as well, and you find people from older generations embracing these new tools. So the gaps aren’t always as wide as they may seem.”

Neville Hobson is a keynote speaker at the Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel on Friday, 21 September.

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human