Amidst the near deafening roar of chirping and tweeting, to say that we're living in the age of the conversation might seem obvious. However, when information scientists, like Bob Boiko take the line, it's generally worth a listen.

Here at the J. Boye '11 conference in Philadelphia Boiko started the day with a talk entitled Social Media and Information Strategy. The lens he's looking through is comprised of the fundamental elements of human conversation and how these are playing an increasingly important role in extracting value from enterprise information. 

Information Has Value. Conversations Are Information.

Here's the premise underlying Boiko's approach to information strategy:

If we deliver the right information to the right people in the right way, it will help us meed our goals.

Who can argue with that? Not many do.

Bob went on to associate content strategy with web strategy, which raised a few hackles. The point was to differentiate content strategy from information strategy, in that the latter is a broader domain -- one in which you might ask, "Why do I want a website?" rather than, "By what processes do we get content into the website?"

Definitions aside, his real point was to get to the social aspect of modern business and assert that when it comes to social media -- unlike with content strategy and information strategy -- there's a lot less strategy and a lot more knee-jerking going on. Amongst the knee-jerking, he says, much value is being lost, simply because few information management practitioners understand the new conversational paradigm.

Paradigm Shift: This is Not a 140 Character Book

Thanks to social media, we have gone beyond thinking of information from the perspective of a book. Social media and social business realities have changed the way we live and work. The new paradigm, according to Bob, is the conversation.

Bob Boiko at J Boye '11 -- Social Media and Information Strategy

The Elements and Types of Conversation

If we're going to have a paradigm shift, a good academic gives you a framework and a vocabulary with which to grapple with the new terrain. Boiko comes through, resetting the audience by walking through the base elements of a conversation. 

The three elements of conversation are:

  1. Speaking -- Literally or figuratively, someone must be sending signals.
  2. Listening -- No audience, no conversation, no information flow.
  3. Responding -- Responses of any kind are key. Retweets and Facebook likes have brought the barrier down, and trained hundreds of millions of people. Thankfully an op-ed in the NYT is no longer required. But in Bob's model, if there's no response, there's no conversation.

As humans with more or fewer social skills, we kind of get the three elements. He builds on this by defining four different types of conversations:

  1. Two speak, listen and respond
  2. One speaks, many listen, few respond
  3. Many speak, listen and respond (synchronously)
  4. Many speak, listen and respond (asynchronously)

Why Social Engagement Fails

The biggest problem with social business initiatives, according to Boiko, is a failure to recognize what kinds of conversations are happening in your environment and what kind of conversations are possible in your organization or community.

Facebook, as an example, is a "many speak, listen and respond asynchronously" type of conversation. Twitter is a mix of "One speaks, many listen, few respond" (low friction broadcasting) and "Many speak, listen and respond" conversations. The latter are the ideal types of social media conversations -- vibrant and engaging with many participants.

How You Can Make It Work

To realize your information's potential and begin harnessing conversations as part of your information strategy, Boiko insists that you must facilitate information delivery via both traditional broadcasting and conversational means.

It's all about understanding that delivering information the "right way" implies not only using the right formats, but the right conversation types. Forcing square pegs into round holes won't work. Put your energy into understanding the behaviors and potentials of your would-be participants, tie the information delivery back to organization goals, and then find the technology and practices that bring the two together.