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Business Innovation Factory

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Euan Semple

Independent Advisor on social computing for business

Euan Semple

Feeling the crowd's penetrating energy while tunes came bellowing out of his saxophone is a feeling Euan Semple has not forgotten since his time in a band. It is that energy that drives the creative thinker, technologist and consultant to connect with people all over the world.

"I have always had an unstuffy approach with people and I like getting directly engaged," Semple says from his home in the Chiltern Hills, a remote area in London's countryside.

Semple, who spent more than two decades working with the British Broadcasting Corp., now spends his time speaking about social computing, blogging about anything that is on his mind, and consulting with clients on how their employees can benefit from using technology as an aid in their social interactions.

The Scotland native is best known for his anti-bureaucratic style while head of knowledge management solutions at the BBC. During his tenure, he launched talk.gateway, an online social network for all 30,000 employees on the BBC network.

"I had no preconceived idea of what people would use the technology for," Semple says. "I wanted them to use it for whatever they felt made a difference and also wanted it to be a social space to foster the relationships that are so important in business."

To describe talk.gateway, Semple uses an analogy of trying to build a collection of Cotswold villages with lots of footpaths between them. "You know where the pub and church are, you're comfortable in the environment and you can locate yourself," he says. "Corporate systems tend to be more like Milton Keynes. On the surface they're efficient with lots of straight lines and signposting, but you get lost because everything looks the same."

To keep the forum simple and accessible to all, Semple didn't bother getting the OK from upper management and he didn't seek any assistance from the information technologists at BBC. Instead, he wanted employees to take responsibility for what was says in the social environment and for it to develop its own ways of working.

"It became clear to me that to build a new world, we would need to do it without the leaders of the old one," he says. To get the job done, Semple resisted corporateness, studiously avoided ‘real' meetings and advised his peers to seek forgiveness after the fact, rather than permission beforehand.

From the internal bulletin board grew blogging sessions and wikis, which allow people to work collaboratively on a project. Today nearly 23,000 of the 30,000 BBC employees on the network use the system Semple created, yet no one owns the technology and no one—other than the users themselves—manages the community.

After spending more than two decades inside the BBC, Semple decided he needed to break free because he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable in mainstream media. "What is actually happening is a more profound societal change," Semple says of employees using technology to connect with one another. "We are moving from a Cartesian split to becoming aware of connectedness to each other and the planet. The role of intermediaries is changing fundamentally."

Semple says he is proud of what he did at the BBC. He also believes that businesses which flaunt innovation jargon and include it as parts of their mission statements are often the same businesses that stifle it. While some at the BBC see the forum as a waste of time, others have seen it as the best way to find knowledge, connect with colleagues and get things done within an organization.

Today the ‘feisty troublemaker'—a phrase he uses to describe innovators such as himself—spends his time helping other companies develop social networks. "If you make systems too serious or too business like, people won't use them. But, as a consequence of blogs and networks, it is possible to connect your brightest and best people with each other and with their organizations. Business is based on relationships, and this way you actually talk to the people you want to talk to."