Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, co-authors of Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, asked 505 people this fall about the implementation of social media by their organizations’ leadership. While most respondents said their organizations do use social networking at least somewhat, they also said that, while useful, it also can be a disruptive force, and one that could shape the way associations meet in the future.

While social media use is becoming standard—85 percent of respondents said their organization understands its value, 40 percent said their organization offers staff training on social media use, and almost half said their organization allowed any employee to speak on its behalf online—many also said social media remains a bit of a mystery, particularly how to use it most effectively and what kind of return on investment it offers. That may be why, despite 84 percent saying their organization uses social media to connect with people and not just to push product and services, 32 percent said their organization doesn’t use these channels—or any others—to routinely collect and respond to customer feedback.

While the survey didn’t directly address the question of using social media around meetings, the MeetingsNet survey of Association Meetings readers’ use of social media found that 86 percent of associations have Facebook pages, for example, but use them mostly to promote special events (62 percent) and meetings (59 percent), rather than to connect with members or post event information and photos during (36 percent) or after an event (50 percent). While 69 percent said they used Twitter to promote events, only 48 percent encourage attendees to tweet, while 70 percent said they tweet during the event themselves. Putting these two data sets together, it may be time to consider making social media more of a two-way street than a megaphone.

Leadership and Social Media

Leaders who tweet and post give their organization a competitive edge, said 84 percent. It’s also a good way to communicate core values, said another 84 percent. And while social media might be a good crisis management tool, that’s not the only thing leaders should use it for, said 96 percent.

Even though 64 percent said their leadership was using these tools, 45 percent said they were concerned that their leadership isn’t engaging with social media—or isn’t engaging enough. Among that 64 percent with social media-active leaders, 30 percent said their leaders need to do more with social networking. As one person noted, “Actually the answer is ‘kinda.’ One of our leaders is involved but is quite busy so he can't be as involved as I'd like. The other is absent.”

As Notter and Grant point out, “Given that 84 percent believed leadership involvement in social media provides companies with a competitive edge for organizations, itʼs a red flag when 45 percent are concerned about the lack of involvement by leaders in social media.”

Or is it? When asked to rate the desirability of 12 different leadership traits, “Participates in social media in his/her own voice”came in 10th place (21 percent), behind “Provides clear direction (76 percent), “Embraces change” (65 percent), “Transparent, shares information freely” (59 percent), “Values experimentation and even failure” (59 percent), “Open to diverse perspectives” (52 percent), “Holds people accountable” (42 percent), “Comfortable with conflict” (33 percent), “Brilliant strategist” (31 percent), and “Leverages best practices” (28 percent). The only traits it beat were “Charismatic” (21 percent), and “Commands loyalty from employees” (18 percent). As Notter and Grant point out, other than providing clear direction and holding people accountable, the rest of the top traits are not the old “command and control” style traits traditionally associated with leadership, but rather from the leadership school of thought they explore in Humanize (social media use also is on the Humanize list).

“I look at those leadership traits that all scored low and I see things like brilliant strategist, leverages best practices, holds people accountable, charismatic ... and it makes me think of the processes used for picking speakers!” says Notter. “I would think meeting planners, executives, and volunteers in charge of meetings should be moving quickly to stay ahead of this trend.” Specifically, think about making your meetings more inclusive, more experimental, and more transparent. He notes that these aren’t things he typically associates with meetings, “though I do see some of this out there; some are at least experimenting with formats a tiny bit.”

The study’s authors conclude that, while social media is no longer a shiny new toy, there still is a lot of confusion and frustration around how to use it organizationally—the willingness to play around with it just because you can is being replaced with a need to figure out “how to both integrate social into existing process and, more importantly, [how to] innovate their current management practices to better tap into the power of social media,” say Notter and Grant. And leaders need to get more fully on board, they conclude, including developing clear objectives for, and policies around, social media use, including how it’s used around meetings.

Social media, they say, is a “permanent disruption to our organizations. … And the conversation is quickly shifting from how we will be doing our marketing campaigns differently to how we will be running our organizations differently.” This would include, perhaps, taking another look at the usual hierarchical structure of meetings—from lecture formats to plenaries—to see if a more decentralized, transparent, reciprocal system might be more effective in this new, networked world.