On non-professionalism

David’s blog post reminded me that I have been banging on to a lot of people about some vague idea which I’ve been calling ‘non-professionalism’.

Basically, non-professionalism is the culture required to work effectively on the social web.

If you are professional, then there is a danger that you will be perceived as formal, stuffy and no fun to be around. People don’t engage on a particularly meaningful basis if you appear too polished.

But unprofessionalism is a bad thing, too. You don’t want to appear like you don’t care, or that you simply aren’t very good. People won’t want to help you because it doesn’t appear that you want to help yourself out all that much.

But there is a grey area in between these two stances, where you can be effective, yet informal and engaging too. So, your communications get the message across, but in a human way that people can respond to and build a relationship with, for example.

This, for me, is non-professionalism. It’s vital for any organisation that wants to succeed in using Twitter, blogs or online communities, be they forums or social networks.

11 thoughts on “On non-professionalism”

  1. I completely understand and agree with your core point; but I disagree with the fundamental assumption that professionalism is synonymous with being formal, stuffy and no fun.

    Being professional surely means being good and expert at what you do: and for communications professionals, that means being skilled in using the right channels, in the right way, that’s right for the person you’re communicating with. So if someone’s being stuffy and formal on a social media channel like Twitter then they’re the ones being unprofessional and displaying an ignorance of what they’re supposed to be expert in.

    I’m happy striving to be professional in what I do, even (especially?) when that’s being informal. So for me, “unprofessional” and “non-professional” should still be labels that apply to those who don’t get it and screw up.

  2. I know exactly what you mean, Dave, but to me, non-professionalism is a bit too close to un-professionalism. I think I would prefer something like “informality”.

  3. @andrew
    >Being professional surely means being good and expert at what you do: and for communications professionals, that means being skilled in using the right channels,

    But not everyone who uses social media can describe themselves as a communications professional.

    Mostly they are professional in their own field, but may feel inclined to hide behind what they see as ‘professional’ language. I especially have in mind the kind of warped council speak I tried to strangle for 10 years in those around me.

    Perhaps we could develop some rules for social media, here are some I carried from web1.0 and local authorities.

    Always try to use “I” as in “I will ..” not “We will..” (I am in a group, and someone will maybe do something – so this is my way of relinquishing responsibility) or even worse “The council will …”

    In social media people are connecting to you not your department.

    If you really have to use technical terms or jargon explain their meaning when first used or link to their explanation.

    … stops. This is sounding too much like the content of the plain english classes I helped organise. πŸ˜‰

  4. “Professionalism” fundamentally meant that you are professing something principally because you were being paid to do so: lawyers, old-fashioned clergy, politicians and so on. It’s a great trick of some professions that it has come to be linked with ideas of being good and expert.

    I’d like to use “artisanism” (like artisan bakers and craftsmen) but too few people in IT know what that means. Non-professionalism is probably a good alternative, but is it too close to unprofessionalism and its misleading baggage?

  5. I have to agree with parts of what both Andrew & PaulG say. I would think that I’m seen as a professional in my work place but I’m not a social media or communications professional. I strive to speak in plain English in my blog although this can be difficult and I often have to rewrite to make sentences simpler. However personally I hope that I am professional in how I engage in my writing and aim to make it , and by default my work, as accessible as possible.

    An interesting discussion and takes on professionalism, however informal does not have to equate to non professional – ask many youth workers!!

  6. Thanks for all your comments on this. I think it is fair to say that this, like all my ideas, is half baked and not really thought through. Sharing it early, though, produces great conversations like this one!

    Andrew is right that professionalism takes different forms and it depends on context what professional behaviour entails. But I would wager that he is in a minority in being able to discern when that is required. Far too many people approach social web stuff like it is any other kind of media.

    For them, a new term is, I think useful, because it indicates that a change of behaviour or culture is necessary.

    MJ Ray’s input that professional has connotations of ‘paid for’ is really interesting and not something I had thought of. Great stuff!

    Perhaps there is a better term than non-professional. Am open, as always, to suggestions!

  7. Dave,

    I have to say that this post, or at the very least your terminology, is way off the mark. If by unprofessional you mean adopting a human voice and conversing with people, then – I think – I understand what you’re saying.

    If however, you’re suggesting that dedication, commitment and understanding (professionalism) don’t have a place in this space I think you’re wrong. You are either good at your job (professional) or not (unprofessional). There is no grey area.

  8. Ah, well i read and understood him to mean it in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek sense, a bit like “today is my un-birthday …”

    Perhaps he should have been more professional. πŸ˜‰

  9. @Justin – what I am saying is that there needs to be a change in terms of what people consider to be professionalism. You get that what professionalism entails is contextual – it depends on the situation. Andrew understands that too. But I’m not sure that everyone does.

    I never said that unprofessionalism is a good thing, quite the opposite. I think my post makes it clear that being unprofessional will turn off an awful lot of people.

    What I am saying is that many see a professional response being one that sticks to a corporate line and voice. That won’t always work on the social web, as we know.

    We’ve all seen countless examples of people taking what they think is a professional line on the social web – blog posts that are effectively press releases being one example.

    So non-professionalism to me is just a label for a set of behaviour that people who aren’t used to interacting online can use to recognise a change in the nature of professionalism.

    @paulg is right, it is kinda tongue in cheek. Just prodding and probing, trying to figure stuff out.

  10. @Dave

    I take your point – but I think there is room to be human within the boundaries of being corporate. If there isn’t, it’s the corporate line and voice that needs to change before engaging on the social web. I think this is evidenced by things like the Cabinet Office guidance on online engagement. Before this was developed we were legitimately at risk of breaking the civil service code – after this was developed we had endorsement to go out and engage. For some of us that didn’t really make a difference – we understood the consequences of what we were doing and hoped that we’d covered ourselves enough to at least make our positions defensible.

    I’m all for pushing boundaries but they need to be pushed within the context of the corporate position – if they’re not you should at least be prepared for the consequences of what happens if you’re perceived to be behaving ‘unprofessionally’. … After all, Civil Serf wasn’t that long ago…

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