British Airways cabin crew are on strike for the second of what could be a number of strikes this year. Last minute talks were taking place over the weekend until they broke up. And BA CEO, Willie Walsh, is blaming the collapse of the talks on Twitter. Or more specifically on the Tweets of Derek Simpson, the boss of Unite the Union, the trade union representing the cabin crew, sent whilst the negotiations were happening.

These formed something of a running commentary of proceedings, with messages such as “Talks still ongoing …. Still hard going and progress hard won”, Arguments over the 8 sacked workers” and Fear of more sackings to come”.

Hardly the most revealing and confidential of information, but enough to frustrate Willy Walsh who, in his words:

[...] was shocked and angry when I found out that Derek was doing that. Sending out his version of events to the wider audience, that really did undermine my confidence in his desire to resolve this situation. It is a really serious issue.

The Tweets also seem to have caused disagreement among members of Simpson’s own Union. They served to broadcast not only what was being said (or at least one side of that story) but perhaps more importantly the location of the talks between the two parties. This led to militant protesters storming the talks later in the day, them being abandoned and the strike going ahead.

All because of a Tweet. Or perhaps, more accurately, all a consequence in part of this great example of hypertransparency.

One of the real benefits of social media tools is that they let us connect with people who share a similar interest and tell our story, share our ideas and ask questions. Twitter is a great tool that lets us reflect on and share stories about what is happening to us, what we have seen, what we think or what we find interesting. These stories are shared with anybody interested in reading them and in real time. These stories can also carry information such as the location from which they were sent.

What these social media tools lead to is a change in behaviour and communications. We share more, with more people and do so more quickly than ever before. Previously, a meeting such as this would have ended and each party released a press release giving their side of events. This release would have been written and issued after talks had ended and allow the author to reflect on the full process of talks and on the eventual outcome, and then convey this to their audience. This type of communication is reflective and allows a message to be refined and developed based on a series of discussions and decisions. Twitter is very different. It allows you to send snapshots of opinions at a point in time. Not after talks have concluded or after any decisions have been made.

This is a very different type of communication and a very different tool in the hands of people in the meeting. It means you can share an opinion formed on the basis of just a few moments of discussion. You can rely one side of a story or you can react strongly to something somebody says quickly but is then forgotten. Your messages out to the external world, those not privy to the full flow of discussion, will be difficult to interpret and evaluate as anything but a reflection on the meeting, the discussions and the potential decisions. This is a kind of hypertransparency – a powerful tool for the person sending the messages but also a difficult one. You have to think about your audience, what they will read and if they will understand what you are saying and sharing in your sporadic messages from an event. The chances are it will be difficult to portray the discussions and to share what is going on fairly of consistently. And this poses problems.

Simpson showed a great example of hypertransparency. On one hand what he was doing could be seen as a positive thing. He was sharing events in the negotiation room with members of his Union, keeping them up-to-date. Of course the reality is that his messages could only provoke a response that may not fully reflect the flow of discussion throughout the session.

So was Simpson right to send them? Hypertransparency is a dangerous thing but a growing trend. It requires the person sharing their stories to fully understand what they were doing and this new communications medium. But overall it was probably for other reasons that Simpson’s sharing on Twitter was misplaced. Sharing without the knowledge of the other people in the room could only serve to frustrate and to alienate the people he was quoting. They were playing by one set of rules (the traditional ones) and he was playing with hypertransparency. It’s not surprising they were annoyed when they found out what he was doing.

Image by griffs0000 via Flickr

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