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Book review: Social media, collaboration and collective action

Here Comes Everybody

by Clay Shirky

(Penguin Books, $17.50, pb.)

Procrastination and laziness wound up getting me connected with an audience of more than 2,100 people.

It was late afternoon. I'd just finishing pulling together a PowerPoint presentation for a talk I was giving first thing the next morning. I wanted to run the slides past some colleagues who were also part of the show. Get their blessing and some honest feedback for last-minute polishing. But the photo-heavy PowerPoint was too big to e-mail.

And I was too lazy to walk down the hall and remember how to work the fax machine, a piece of equipment I hadn't used in about nine years.

So I decided to give SlideShare a shot. I'd just discovered the website, billed as the world's largest community for sharing presentations. You can find information on pretty much any topic, courtesy of PowerPoint and Word files culled from conferences, consultants and resident experts.

I uploaded my PowerPoint presentation to SlideShare and e-mailed the web link to my colleagues. I got an e-mail later that night from the team at SlideShare, congratulating me on being chosen as one of their presentations of the day. The next morning, I discovered that, along with my colleagues, several hundred people had checked out the presentation. And the numbers have kept growing. By last week, a PowerPoint presentation I delivered in person to about 100 people has been viewed 2,170 times online by a worldwide audience. Uploading the presentation to SlideShare took five minutes and didn't cost me a cent.

Author Clay Shirky, an expert on the social and economic effects of the Internet, says social media tools such as SlideShare, Flickr, Wikipedia and Facebook are fundamentally changing the way we get together, get along and get our jobs done.

"When we change the way we communicate, we change society," says Shirky. "A revolution in human affairs is a pretty grandiose thing to attribute to a ragtag bunch of tools like e-mail and mobile phones. E-mail is nice, but how big a deal can it be in the grand scheme of things? The answer is, 'not such a big deal, considered by itself.' The trick is not to consider it by itself. We now have the communication tools that are flexible enough to match our social capabilities, and we are witnessing the rise of new ways of co-ordinating action that take advantage of that change."

It's getting easier by the minute for like-minded folks to meet, share ideas and information, co-operate, collaborate and take collective action. And we no longer need to rely on traditional institutions and organizations to make it happen and provide managerial oversight. Social media tools are stripping out the complexity associated with managing small and large groups, driving down the costs of getting together and removing barriers to greater collaboration.

Remember life before the Internet? If there was a presentation you wanted to share with a group, you ran off photocopies. Stuffed envelopes. Wrote out addresses. Licked stamps. Walked down to the mailbox. It took a lot of time and effort. Now you can fire off an e-mail with a link to a presentation. Better yet, you can post it on the web and have 2,100 folks find you.

"Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history. The scope of work that can be done by noninstitutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo," Shirky says.

The transformations won't happen overnight. But Shirky says they're coming: "The most profound effects of social tools lag their invention by years, because it isn't until they have a critical mass of adopters, adopters who take these tools for granted, that their real effects begin to appear."

So maybe we need to lay off those teens and tweens who are forever texting, tweeting and blogging. They could well be our next generation of innovators, collaborators and community-builders.

Now's also a good time for traditional institutions to start asking what will happen when customers and clients, patients and parishioners, voters, students and employees start connecting, collaborating and taking collective action with or without you. Shirky's book is well worth a very careful read.

Book review: How to succeed by really, really trying

How to Succeed in Anything by Really Trying

By Lyman MacInnis

Random House of Canada: $25

Time magazine just published its annual roundup of 10 ideas that are changing our world right now.

So what's the big idea holding down top spot on Time's list? Jobs are the new assets.

Not so long ago, we didn't think of our jobs as assets. If anything, we took our jobs for granted. We didn't lay awake at night wondering and worrying if we'd get laid off or let go in the morning. We didn't call friends to ask if they'd survived the latest round of cutbacks. We only threw farewell parties for coworkers who'd retired or jumped ship for greener pastures. And our community wasn't coming together to find ways of saving jobs and creating new jobs to replace the ones we'd already lost.

We believed our most valuable assets were our investments on Bay Street, Wall Street and on the street where we lived. We spent more than we earned because we turned our overvalued houses into ATM machines and ran up the tab on our lines of credit. But then the recession did a number on those assets, blowing out our portfolios and hammering the value of our homes. So now, our most valuable asset is our jobs. For many of us, it's our last asset standing and sole financial lifeline.

According to the folks at Time, we'll start looking at our jobs in a whole new light as a result. We'll be far more cautious and we'll avoid career-limiting moves at all costs. We'll opt for the predictable paycheque over the promise of performance bonuses, stock options and high-risk and high-reward job opportunities. We'll look at the public sector as the land of milk and honey. And instead of spending big bucks to build a new deck or buy a supersized flat-screen TV for our remodelled rec rooms, we'll be investing in ourselves. We'll be enrolling in night-school classes, weekend courses and on-the-job training to up the return on our human capital.

And we'll start paying closer attention to people like author Lyman MacInnis. Drawing on more than three decades as a senior partner with international accounting firms and as an executive coach, MacInnis has come up with a proven game plan for achieving success in our professional and personal lives.

It's a back to basics, common sense approach, with a heavy emphasis on working hard to gain knowledge and acquire the skills to put what we learn into practice. And attitude is everything, according to MacInnis. "We aren't born with our attitudes; we develop them. If you don't believe that being curious, positive and happy about things is our natural state, take some time to closely observe children at play."

If you're not happy in your job, you have three choices. Stay miserable. Change jobs. Or change your attitude. Life's too short to be miserable and inflicting misery on others is a quick and sure way to derail your career. Even if there were jobs to move to, odds are you'll simply continue being miserable somewhere new.

You can improve your attitude if you're willing to learn something from everything that happens around you and from everyone you meet, says MacInnis. "Become sincerely interested in other people and genuinely curious about events, and your mind will become too positively preoccupied to allow bad attitudes to develop or frustrations to creep in. When you're grateful for all that's good in your life, better things follow."

So if you're grateful to have a job and it's now your one and only asset, invest some time reading MacInnis's book. As he points out, "reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body."