Alan Cann posted a comment in his blog today about communication channels that got me thinking. It’s always been my experience in a post that there are two forms of channels; officially sanctioned ones and the back channels. For me the point at which I really get into using the back channels is generally the point at which my sanity is saved. Official channels like email lists are generally okay at pushing out official bits of news that I’m supposed to aware of.

An argument I’ve heard from those less keen on unofficial channels like blogs or twitter is that the signal to noise ratio is high. The suggestion is that somehow official in-house email lists and the like only contain golden nuggets of information and awareness. Balderdash! Official channels are just as likely to be stuffed with noise and irrelevancy as unofficial ones. Though this does vary from organisation to organisation, in my experience those institutions where irrelevant information is filtered out by custom or diktat this doesn’t increase the strength of the quality signal. Far from it. It just reduces the amount of information broadcast full stop by an order of magnitude, and forcing people down the unofficial route as the only effective way of finding out just what is actually going on.

Channeling for fun and profit

Going back to the point I made at the start about the support that unofficial channels offer, and I’m talking here not so much about support for my work as support for the person who does it (that’d be me). When you start a new post the only option open to you is usually the official channels. You are aware that in-house politics and coffee room chatter are likely to have useful information you can use, as well as help you to remember you’re not the only one who feels they’re drowning in molasses on a daily basis. Helps build a bit of team ethic and empathy. But these channels are very slow to get into, and unless you’re the sort of person who routinely sits in the coffee room for a tea break you’re going to struggle to get into them. Especially if the office environment is of the open plan sort where idle chit-chat makes you look like you’re visibly shirking your appointed tasks.

And with an increasing work-place ethos against sanctioned official breaks, the opportunity to meet with the right people at any break or lunchtime is significantly impeded.

That’s why I feel social networking tools are a god send for the modern librarian or information professional. No longer do I have to wait months or even years to be able to find a supporting and helpful community. Now one can dip into a broader community more rapidly, explore links and begin to generate a professional social network that supports both personal and professional needs. Without my networks today my current role wouldn’t just be unsatisfying, it would be untenable.

And it’s a two way process. As I become more embedded and enabled within in my networks, in turn I proffer the same service to new comers to them. I’ve frankly been surprised that in recent weeks I’ve been offering quite detailed tech support and professional advice to people I’ve never even met, and may never do. And all because they’re people like me willing to make themselves known, to engage in public (electronic) debate and to provide support to their peers. They’re also without a doubt the most wonderful and non-judgemental sounding board I know. Not once, in response to a suggested course of action, have I heard the tweet “We don’t do that here”. Yet via my official channels I hear that time and again. Unofficially channels of communication are not hamstrung by conventional wisdom and ankle-locked progress – they innovate, they experiment, they consider ideas upon their own merit; shorn free of the trappings and blinkers of organisational insight.

It helps make me feel free. Or at least free-er.

Are we seeing the emergence of the successor to professional societies (2.0 if you must)? Maybe. It’s notable that professional societies are trying to engage with social networking tools of their own, but the uptake and engagement appears (IMHO) to be low. People are happier to use the broader channel, non-domain specific routes than they are professionally officially sanctioned routes once again. Unofficial and clearly fit for purpose.

Coming back to Alan’s original post, and the suggestion that by using these channels in the public domain we’re in some way exposing our careers to risk. I say bring it on! There are thousands of librarians in this country, yet only a handful willing to stand up and be counted or involved in the wider profession. I like to count myself among them. If through my blogging, tweeting and whatnot I get a certain professional reputation – then so be it. I’d rather live and work as my true professional persona than some subtended deferential persona that fits neatly into a predefined organisational shape.

The square peg in the round hole might not always fit; but they stand out above the crowd.


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