In the past few weeks I'm hearing discussion in our company and elsewhere about the potential need for social media specialists of some sort. I believe we should heed the history of technological innovations, get ahead of the curve, and skip this expensive and soon to be outdated step. Social media is on its way to becoming a required and ubiquitous skill set in several job families, not a position or department.
I see similarities between this technological development and two others I've experienced in my career; the use of interpreters and the adoption of the personal computer.
In international business the model was often that people of different cultures transacted business in some neutral third language or utilized interpreters to facilitate communication. It may seem a quaint notion if you're under 50, but there was a time in business where executives working in foreign countries actually travelled with a person who was paid to help them communicate. Early in my career, about the late 70's or early 80's, we saw a shift in that companies began to train staff members in foreign languages, or hire bi-lingual or tri-lingual graduates. The last interpreter I hired was in 1991; after that it was required that you speak more than your native language for almost any foreign assignment, and no mono-lingual staff members were considered promotable to positions with international responsibility. The bar was raised and has never lowered since. Companies then had to cope with the unwinding of interpreter staffs through layoffs or reassignments.
We saw a similar situation with the personal computer. Again, a quaint notion for younger readers is that we used to pay people just to type memos and other documents. Skilled staff and managerial positions required no typing skills. When the PC broke on the scene it was embraced by skilled knowledge workers first as a way to improve all manner of graphic and calculating work (engineering, design, architecture, etc...) and a way for the average office worker to escape the control of the Data Processing department (another quaint notion) who controlled the main frame computer.
Within a very few years the idea that a company would pay someone to type for you became as ludicrous and paying someone to speak for you. Typing became "keyboarding" and became a requirement for practically any office job. Later the integration of spreadsheets and presentation software with word processing led to the "office suite" concept of prepackaged integrated software. Now the price of admission into any career working in an office was working knowledge of Microsoft Office, Word Perfect Suite, or similar product. Within a staggeringly short period of time about half the "secretary" positions in the country disappeared as the bar was raised for skills required to work in office positions. Today you don't think of hiring someone for a knowledge-worker position who can't keyboard and use office software.
This brings us back around to Social Media. This new technology continues to develop and morph into whatever it will become. When it finally matures the communications between people who share some affinity or commonality will never be the same. Positions like marketing and recruiting, those that connect a company with those outside its own walls, will require the people working in them to have social media skills. Those companies who decide right now to hire social media staffs to help them leverage this new technology will, by the time they build those staffs, find themselves with an expensive and outdated apparatus. They will be unwinding and disbanding their social media gurus like the interpreters and secretaries of past technological periods. I won't have a social media specialist to help my recruiters search LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for talent; I just won't hire a recruiter who can't do that for themselves.
What makes the most sense now is to discern the essential skills necessary to communicate and mine for information on social media, and then teach that to our staffs. We should not consider for entry-level employment anyone in marketing, PR, publicity, recruiting, and business development who does not know how to navigate social media. If done right we'll be hitting our stride in mining on-line communities for business while others are expending energy downsizing or disbanding their social media groups or departments.