Regardless of what the HR manual says, people working in digital need to live and breathe it.

You don’t have to be obsessed with social media, or a coder, or been doing whatever-it-is-you-do for that long. But you have to be passionate about something to do with the web.

That gets you started. Then you have to throw yourself in at the deep end, regardless of your seniority or experience. There’s no point pretending anyone ever knows it all, or can afford to ignore something they are not sure about.

I was in at the deep end when I started growing the #nhssm community with Alex Talbott, Colin Wren and Gemma Finnegan.

When Alex introduced himself and pitched the idea of a weekly Twitter chat for healthcare workers interested in social media, I was sceptical. It sounded like a void that didn’t need to be filled and would suck up more time than it was worth.

Happily, I was very, very wrong. A trickle of NHS communicators, nurses and doctors grew into a steady stream of health professionals, expanding to cover mental health workers, people working in private healthcare, academics and managers. Within a matter of months 8pm on a Wednesday evening became the most hectic part of my working week: dash home or stay late in the office, promote a topic or theme, seed some questions, then help facilitate.

Alex, Colin and I ended up meeting in a pub most Wednesdays, with Gemma Skyped in from Cornwall or on IM. The social side of it was no hardship, but the chats were so busy that it was nice to have each other there for support.

We were all learning a huge amount too: the spiky characters; their passion, arguments and tone all colliding in one short 60 minute burst of energy. Some nights there was a huge amount of useful information to curate and share, but it was also a steep learning curve knowing how to moderate conversation, to ensure people with useful contributions didn’t feel left out or were put off altogether.

I failed over and over. Topics that were of no interest, over moderating some people, ignoring others. Obsessing about branding and formalising this community, while at the same time dodging the occasional sniff from a compliance or security team.

Is this official? On your own time or the public’s? Who cares? I was learning more about online conversation and helping to manage a community than I could have experienced in a lifetime of courses or tuition.

The scary part was when we realised that this was not a true sandbox that we could afford to mess up. Exciting but serious opportunities came along: running an #nhssm conference with the Guardian, presenting to NHS Directors, talking to European health professionals.

And all the while the weekly chats continued to be the bulk of the work and the mainstay activity.

My own confidence to get involved with online conversations, to contribute, participate and defend a view, developed immeasurably. I now see those same situations I faced on Wednesday evenings, each time I look at a feed, forum or comment thread.

The best bit is that #nhssm is still out there and for Alex, Colin and Gemma it has helped them earn money for their expertise. Most of all it has helped make the NHS more open to social media. Things have moved a long way since that first phone call.

Want to really understand the value of conversations online? Get stuck in.

I wonder how much better work could be if we all started to use this email auto-respond (because it isn’t in fact an out-of-office):

Hello,

I try to keep email to a minimum so that I can spend more time with my clients, partners, team and my family.

If you need to speak to me urgently then phone is always best – my number is [blank].

Otherwise, if you’re a client or partner of [company name here], I’ll always aim to reply to any urgent messages within 24 hours.

Thanks.

I received this from a contact of mine today, and it’s really made me think about my original approach to him, and how much of a problem email culture is.

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