Wednesday, 3 September 2008

H2O / social media in the UAE


While in Dubai recently, I had an opportunity to catch up with Steve Vaile at H2O New Media, a UAE based and focused web development company (the contact was suggested through a comment on my blog).

Steve gave me a good summary of social media and its use in the UAE:

"Web 2 technologies such as social communities allow people to create community groups based around the interest or passion.  These affinity groups can really be about anything, either art and music like also sports communities such as, but with the adoption of social media by business groups, publications and other affinity led groups people are provided with the opportunity to collaborate, exchange ideas and most importantly communicate using web 2.0 which helps people realise that they actually have more in common than they think – independent of race, religion or cultural background.  Social Media communities in the Middle East are developing rapidly, we personally have some 40 customers deploying them for various affinity, working groups, and of course business focus groups."

Steve also says that his systems help to deal with cultural barriers and different cultural sensitivities and perspectives in the UAE so I asked about how the opportunity and use of social media is different in UAE (eg from the UK), particularly because of the culture / range of cultures there:

"It’s a good question and I am not sure if I can answer it satisfactorily – the use of social media in the UAE is very different from that in the UK on the basis that it is still not really a free and liberated media.  A website can still be blocked for offensive or non conformist views.  Also there are softer cultural issues that you can only really appreciate with some time in the Middle East, these relate to the tiptoe factor – the tip toe factor really means in my personal experience not straying into areas like Islamic religion, or criticism of religion or values that may be alien to the westerner. Being based in the region and being as liberal on your blog as you wish may result in some pretty serious consequences – from your HR perspective someone with the ability to sit back and understand and enjoy the finer intricacies of peoples views without direct comment may be someone that will get on here. People do tend to be a little more conservative here when it comes to meaningful Dialogue – however less conservative when it comes to running around in super expensive cars!

I think what I am trying to say by this is that many social media / web 2.0 users in the west are using the technology to talk – whilst many in the Middle East Arabic users are primarily using it to listen.  Affinity groups tend to be much more popular here, and friend groups, where as cool social media applications haven’t seen the same rate of take up."

I had thought that lack of access to some of the more popular public social networks and technologies in the UAE eg Twitter (although I understand that these are likely to become accessible shortly) might also be a barrier to the uptake of social technologies within organisations, but Steve didn't seem to think this is a problem:

"The accessibility is mainly controlled by a software spider deployed on the internet gateways of the two main operators Du and Etisalat here in Dubai, when the software spider recognises a rude word or listed word then it automatically blocks the website.  This is so that the UAE don’t have free access to items that may not comply with the social values of the country – however its really very easy to make a case to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in the UAE and one swiftly placed call will normally result in the site being checked out and normally released."

We also discussed some of H2O's social media packages (Swordfish e-learning, Marlin HR suite and Barracuda business community manager):

"Marlin is a new product that we have – in essence it allows Human Resources companies, recruitment companies and internal recruitment departments to create a social community of people that are interested in working with or for the company – in creating Marlin what we have in effect done is to web enable the communication, testing tools, feedback and CV catchment for recruiters. The benefit to the user is that they can open threads of active dialogue with the recruiters, if they are not suitable for the job they have the opportunity to refer a friend that they may know it return for a reward that’s defined by the company, the Marlin community module is actually a bolt into our existing Barracuda business community manager which is our core application unifying all of our modules."

In previous posts, I've described why I think social media has a bright future, and in my HCM blog, I've described the huge opportunities available in Dubai so it's no surprise that Steve thinks social media in Dubai provides him / businesses there with a significant opportunity:

"The future for social media applications in this space and others is incredibly positive – with the adoption of corporate social community applications – 'Enterprise Social Media'  really is breaking down barriers, reducing costs and improving processes – we have customers that have achieved over 8000% business growth using our applications  to create marketing affinity groups for their customers – it just works."