“Have you joined the conversation?”

This is a question often asked in relation to social media. These days, I hear it in executive meetings, in team meetings, at conferences and of course, at the coffee shop. It seems everywhere I look, people are blogging, tweeting and updating Facebook. The content seems, at first glance, to be indiscriminate – about what people are eating, who they are meeting, where they are visiting and so on. There are links to websites, interesting articles and pictures. But closer inspection reveals another pattern – people using social media are building “social connections” by linking, sharing and updating people with whom they are connected online.

Ready, Set, GO!Much of what we see is personal – but with a professional flavor. There are updates from meeting rooms, from telephone calls and conferences. Sometimes there are details, sometimes not. Certain things gain currency, being picked up, copied and “retweeted” – shared amongst ever larger circles of connected people.

But for leaders, social media presents some unexpected challenges – the written word seems to carry a certain authority. A word or a phrase can be taken out of context, amplified and spread across the web with blinding speed.

Now, this isn’t particularly new – we’ve all seen how quickly news can spread within our organizations. But social media puts it “on the record”. Our challenge, as leaders, is to balance discussion and silence, participation and privacy. As Chris Dixon suggests, you need to use social services to understand them. That’s been my intention here with this blog and also with my experimentation around LinkedIn and Twitter. I am no expert – but I do draw on the expertise of people in my teams and across the IT business landscape. What I am aiming for is engagement – I am wanting to understand the pulse and energy of my teams, my customers and our business together.

Many leaders are still on the starting blocks when it comes to social media. We’re flat footed and certainly not as savvy as the interns and new hires coming into our enterprises. But it’s clear that we have some work to do, but also a vital contribution to make. As Barry Salzberg of Deloitte and Touche USA says in BusinessWeek:

Trust is like oxygen for a business. When it’s in short supply, the effect—for employees and customers alike—can be like a loss of cabin pressure on an aircraft. And never has the danger been higher than it is now in the viral conditions of the Twitter Age.

Against these seemingly unstoppable high-tech forces, I am heartened that even today, trust and transparency still can emanate from the ultimate in low-tech: a leader standing flat-footed in a room, listening and offering, as best he or she can, the plain, unvarnished truth.

Nina Nets It Out: While I have been blogging here for quite some time, I am far from a social media expert. But it is clear that the business world has shifted substantially over the last decade – and social media has an increasingly important role to play. As leaders it’s time we jumped off the start line.