The Space Race and Social Media

Funding our space program has never been politically popular. Even in the 1960s when NASA’s funding and support was at its highest, more people in America opposed its funding than supported it. The refrain is always the same too; “We have enough problems as it is down here on Earth, let’s focus on those first.” Fortunately for us, Congress and Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon decided to completely ignore public opinion when it came to our space program and everyone in the world benefitted from it.

In the summer of 1966 NASA launched a weather satellite and that fall it observed a hurricane developing over the Gulf of Mexico heading towards Texas. For the first time in human history we were able to give people in the hurricane’s path an early warning that the storm was coming and order them to evacuate, potentially saving many lives. After the hurricane hit, President Johnson famously said “Today our space program just paid for itself.” NASA’s primary mission at that time may have been to put a man on the moon but their innovations ended up creating new industries and developing new technologies that have improved all of our lives.

I would argue that social media is like NASA for many businesses. Companies that can use social media very well can benefit enormously in today’s digital economy but the path to reaping those benefits is much less clear and predictable. In business there is a tendency to think in terms of simple causality; doing A will lead to B. If B is not something that will directly benefit the business then it usually gets dismissed as something that isn’t worth doing. With social media it’s more like doing A leads to B which leads to C which leads to D. Only when you get to D is where you get something that directly benefits the business.

Microsoft recently did a study on companies and social media surveying about 10,000 information workers across 32 countries and broadly speaking it shows that there is a disconnect between management and their employees over the effectiveness of social media. 46 percent of those surveyed say that use of social tools has improved their own productivity, and 28 percent of respondents say that they know people who have completely ignored their company’s policy regarding using social media. The main concerns against its usage are loss of productivity and security concerns. Ultimately I think that the biggest issue that upper management in many companies has with social media is that it is unpredictable. Much like space funding there is no clear line that can be drawn with respect to how it improves the company and too often it gets shunned altogether as a result. In my opinion this is a grave mistake. The refusal or inability to embrace new innovations in many industries is a death sentence. Just ask Kodak, Polaroid, and Blockbuster.

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