Canadian Interview: Niall Cook

Niall Cook, the worldwide director of marketing technology at Hill & Knowlton, discusses the impact, now and in the near future, of social software on internal and external communications.

Niall Cook is the worldwide director of marketing technology at Hill & Knowlton. Cook is based in London, but his new book, Enterprise 2.0 How Social Software Will Change the Future of Work, has a few Canadian connections. For one, the University of Toronto's Robert Campbell was one of its lead researchers and the foreword is penned by Don Tapscott, best-selling author of Wikinomics, who raves that Cook advances the conversation on how social software will transform the nature of work-based communications. PRWeek caught up with Cook about the impact, now and in the near future, of social software on internal and external communications.

What is the biggest impact of social media to an organization's communications today?
The implication is that there is a whole hierarchy that is going to be disintermediated. Traditionally, it was all very hierarchical, about cascading messages down the organization. And what happens to companies that put social media in place or who find their employees putting them in place perhaps without their knowledge is that the layers of the organizations become disseminated and intermediated—and effectively the whole organization becomes more collaborative than it was before.

How does that impact internal communications?
We're generally more externally focused so we're interested in customers and stakeholders, and that's really where the social media activity has been so far. But don't forget a lot of these same people are also employees of companies, and they want those companies to communicate with them in different ways in the future. We should be thinking about that even if we don't consider ourselves to be internal communication specialists: What is the difference between internal and external communication in the future? Is there a difference, when social media is breaking down the boundaries between the conversations taking place inside the organization and outside of it?

Does a company risk its reputation by failing to adopt social media software?
The difficulty at the moment is from those who are blissfully ignorant, and that's where the danger lies. Senior managers may be ignorant, but the employees aren't. If they've been given a task and they want to start using blogs and wikis, they'll do it. They're not going to ask permission first, or wait 12 months for the IT department to make it happen, because they're already familiar with public tools like Facebook and delicious. Suddenly, you may find people using those kinds of tools for work purposes and that's where the organization needs to sit up and take notice. For instance, the tag you use on delicious can be extremely revealing because it tells the world what the content means to you.
How do you go about measuring social media initiatives?
A lot people ask me, what's the ROI of social software? To be honest I say, "Who cares about the ‘r' when the ‘I' is zero? This isn't like putting in a complex, two million dollar system. This is downloading software that is freely available because it's open source and spending a couple of days getting your IT guys to set it up…To do the ROI calculation is pointless. You'll probably spend more time and money calculating the ROI than you actually invested in the first place.

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