What Can Managers Learn about Social Media from the Boston Marathon Bombing?

Many communities helped authorities apprehend the Boston Marathon bombers and update the broader public about related events. This raw exhibition of the power of social media offers lessons to managers about how to use social tools.

Last week witnessed a series of surreal events in the city of Boston, with the Marathon bombings and the subsequent identification and apprehension of the suspects.

Now that the crisis and chaos of the bombings and the hunt for the suspects have passed, we can reflect on the events and what we might learn from them. While reflections upon life, family, community, and country are certainly paramount, we also saw social media playing a critical role. What can managers learn about social media from these events?

Recognize what is possible for your organization

Scholars have noted that a key feature of social media is its ability to facilitate group action. Rarely has that application been seen with greater clarity than through the events of last week. People of our community, many of whom knew nothing of one another prior to the events, organized at a moment’s notice to mobilize information and resources to those in need. What would have previously required professional or governmental organizations days or weeks to accomplish was improvised in real time without formal coordination as people connected and collaborated using social media platforms.

As cell phone service jammed from overuse, people turned to Facebook to let their friends and family know they were safe. As the major news organizations scrambled to understand the events and its details, Twitter rapidly aggregated information and images from everyday people at the scenes of the various events. People organized and synthesized information relevant to groups and communities through Google Docs, such as reporting people’s safety and coordinating lodging for those who were displaced by the bombings.

Managers should consider the events of this past week as a wakeup call in terms of organizational communication and collaboration. If thousands of unrelated people can organize on a moment’s notice and execute sophisticated group action without lengthy meetings, conference calls, and endless email threads, why can’t your organization?

In my own use, I found that different platforms were suited for very different purposes: Twitter was better for tracking rapidly changing events, while Facebook was better for care and support.

The events of this past week should lead managers to realize that there are many different — and often more effective — ways for people to collaborate than is currently the norm in most organizations. We witnessed last week a crowd of disconnected strangers who organized and executed faster than most enterprises, divisions, or work teams. Managers should take note.

Effective collaboration using social media is a learned skill

Nevertheless, the events of last week call attention to the fact that collaboration using social media can also go very wrong. Although Twitter proved an invaluable source of breaking news throughout the event, it quickly became clogged with confusion and misinformation after initial reports were in. Twitter also made information public that the authorities hoped to keep confidential, which could have easily been used by the suspects to evade capture (but thankfully wasn’t).

Similarly, although the Reddit community performed some very helpful tasks of organizing and analyzing the volumes of information generated by the event, such as identifying within minutes the details of the suspects’ hats shown in the official FBI photo, Redditors also named the wrong individual as the bombing suspect. People recognized injured loved ones through pictures posted to Facebook, but then were unable to learn anything more about their status or prognosis for many hours. Many who had been personally touched by the events also found that the constant flow of information after the event proved disturbing and overwhelming.

Managers can learn from these downsides of social media as well. Social media is only a tool for collaboration, and it can be used in both positive and negative ways. Only if individuals, managers, and organizations learn to use these tools more effectively can we begin to maximize the benefits and minimize the limitations of these tools.

I saw evidence of such a growing social media competency over this past week. For example, having been duped by people intentionally spreading misleading or sensational information during hurricane Sandy, many Twitter users reminded their contacts to “be careful what they retweet” in such a volatile information environment. Those reminders led me and other social media users to refrain from sharing certain information — including the incorrect information about the suspect’s identity from Reddit, because it was clearly premature and potentially inflammatory. I suspect that the mistakes we made with social media last week will make us even more effective collaborators next time.

This suggests that effective collaboration using social media is a learned competency. Social media competency for organizational collaboration, however, is quite different than simple facility with the tools. As someone who has taught social media to college students over the past five years, this fact has remained abundantly clear to me. Just because someone can use Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, doesn’t mean they can use it effectively for organizational purposes (even if they think they can).

As a learned skill, managers cannot expect their employees to use a new social media tool effectively as soon as it is introduced. Employees will have to learn when and how to use these tools effectively and appropriately — including learning when not to use them — and be given the time to internalize these lessons. Likewise, organizations will have to learn how and where to incorporate these tools into their processes so that trustworthy information flows effectively.

Use social media to enhance traditional processes

On one hand, we should not hold social media users to a higher standard than traditional organizations, which were far from perfect in the wake of last week’s events. The professional press also got information wrong. Numerous reputable news organizations incorrectly reported that suspects were in custody the day before they went on a shooting rampage that killed one police officer and seriously injured another.

On the other hand, neither let us forget that social media collaboration is often worthless unless used in partnership with these professional experts. Social media is most valuable when it augments traditional organizational processes and professional standards. The press has an essential role in researching and validating information found on social media; without confirmation from careful reporting, social media simply becomes a noisy rumor mill that cannot build on or verify its own knowledge. Professional law enforcement is likewise indispensable for apprehending the suspects, protecting the public, and ensuring that justice — not mob rule — is served.

Managers may find that their roles and responsibility in traditional organizations will change as social media is adopted, but the importance of managers will not be diminished. In fact, the importance of managers may grow, as effective managers can better unleash the power of the organization.

Managers in social media-enabled organizations will play a critical role in setting and communicating the organization’s vision, guiding collaboration in helpful directions, and creating effective incentives to cultivate robust and healthy collaboration. Managers may find they spend more energy on value-added activities in an organization using social media for collaboration, rather than spending countless hours on less valuable managerial tasks, such as facilitating meetings or working through ever-increasing volume of email.

#BostonStrong

I want to thank all of the servants of this great city — the police, the first responders, the press, and, yes, even the users of social media — who dedicated their time and energy, often at the risk of their own safety, to serve the greater good. That’s what makes our (and any) community great.


About the Author

Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. He has been researching and teaching social media and social networks since 2005. He can be reached at Gerald.kane@bc.edu