Is government a knowledge business?

Enterprise 2.0 is a label Andrew McAfee coined to describe the use of collaborative tools within large organisations, focused on the benefits this offers to non-technical managers rather than technology-for-technology’s sake enthusiasts. In other words: blog, wikis, forums, and social networks are nice, but what does it mean for a service manager? As always Wikipedia is your friend.

McAfee’s book, helpfully titled Enterprise 2.0, is a great read. I’m halfway through it myself.

This ties into what will be a key theme for me in 2010 – that the interesting bits around social software is not the software but the implications of it: sharing, openness, transparency, collaboration, co-creation.

Dennis Howlett posted a while back that enterprise 2.0 is a crock:

Like it or not, large enterprises – the big name brands – have to work in structures and hierarchies that most E2.0 mavens ridicule but can’t come up with alternatives that make any sort of corporate sense. Therein lies the Big Lie. Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes that you can upend hierarchies for the benefit of all. Yet none of that thinking has a credible use case you can generalize back to business types – except: knowledge based businesses such as legal, accounting, architects etc. Even then – where are the use cases? I’d like to know. In the meantime, don’t be surprised by the ‘fail’ lists that Mike Krigsman will undoubtedly trot out – that’s easy.

It’s an interesting point Howlett makes, that greater collaboration and knowledge sharing through social technology works well in ‘knowledge based businesses’ but that the business case is harder to make otherwise.

How does this fit with government and public services? It’s a complicated one because there are clear examples of where greater collaboration and information sharing would have benefits, but also there are services provided by government which have to follow strict procedure, and to circumvent that would lead to disaster.

I see a clear opportunity to blend technology to produce systems that produce real value to staff working in public services: the intranet, eLearning, collaboration tools like Huddle, communication platforms such as Yammer and more traditional forums, knowledge sharing systems such as wikis. Carl hints at this in his recent post:

the intranet is now just part of what many people are referring to as Enterprise 2.0

The focus on the use of interactive web technology has been on external citizen engagement up til now. But many of the real wins might be behind the firewall.

Is there a conversation already going on about this? If not, let’s start one. I’m tagging this post – and any other relevant ones here on DavePress – as entgov. Feel free to do the same, or if someone comes up with something better, let’s use that.

Update: John Suffolk, UK government CIO, has posted this:

So if the customer/citizen becomes the CIO what does the CIO become… time for a new TLA; How about CCO, the Chief Collaboration Officer? In our world of ever decreasing time to launch our products and services and our increasing reliance on global supply chains and a multi supplier (IT and business service) world, increasingly our roles demand substantial collaboration to get the job done.

21 thoughts on “Is government a knowledge business?”

  1. Thanks for dropping by, David. A lot of what you have written over the last few years has informed my thinking on all this stuff.

    As it happens, I have a copy of Monkeys with Typewriters and will be looking at it soon!

  2. Ta – thinking that this year we need the collaboration game as successor to the social media game. We should be playing with the behaviours for sharing etc … then choose your tools.

  3. Many of the concepts behind collaboration are welcomed by decision-makers, but fears over lack of ‘control’ usually stymie attempts to introduce them, or, at least, follow through the tech and concepts with training and embeddinga cross the organisation.

    ‘Behind the firewall’, it is often the case that ICT teams ‘run the show’ in terms of technology to enable collaboration. They often work with under-resourced internal comms teams (relative to external comms) who quite often don’t get exposure to the types of technology described above, unlike external-facing digital comms teams.

    Thoughts about how to up-skill internal comms teams and work effectively with colleagues in ICT teams to overcome any technical – and, of course information security – challenges would be greatly welcomed from organisations that have led the way in this area.

  4. @David – yes, a game would be very useful, I think.

    Bringing @Josh into things as well, I’m juggling a few things around in my head on how to drive adoption of collaborative behaviour within large organisations – with a focus on public services as usual. Josh is right that ICT tend to be the focus of these things, when really they ought to have nothing to do with it, other than providing the platform for the collaboration to take place.

    I’m organising in my brain a model of drivers (efficiency and improvement); enablers (collaboration and innovation); and domains (culture and technology).

    The drivers explain why we would want to do this, the enablers explain how we do it and the domain where it happens.

    Despite all the excitement around external online engagement, it seems to me that organisations won’t understand what they are doing in that space if their own people aren’t talking to each other in the first place.

  5. Dave – I really like the model you are evolving … it resonates with my sense that we need to be thinking about spaces for getting things done collaboratively: inside and outside organisations, with their customers and suppliers, and in civic space for example. As you’ll know, it is the direction the IDeA knowledge hub wants to take local authorities: latest report here. In-council, between-council, and into citizen space should be clouds of conversation, and more open data, driven by the factors you identify, supported by appropriate behaviours and tools. As you suggest, it won’t work if different approaches and tools operate in different spheres.
    Do you think that a push for greater user-focus in designing digital public services – as suggested here by Consumer Focus – would help?
    I’m particularly interested since I’ll be helping with this “Consumer Focus will be conducting further research through consumer and stakeholder workshops in the New Year, to agree recommendations on how to make Directgov and digital public services of the future fit for consumers’ needs.”
    Or maybe it’s a bit chicken and egg: can we do better digital public services without the internal changes? If no – can consumer-users usefully push for change from the “outside”. Sorry, bit lengthy and convoluted. Thanks for getting us started.

  6. Hi David

    In many ways I suspect some organisations find it easier to listen to external voices than it does internal ones. Having worked as a consultant for the last 18 months I can attest to this!

    I think there is a need to fix the internal side of things first. Make the organisation work properly, and then it should be able to interface with all the various partners, stakeholders, citizens, customers, whatevers, in an effective way.

    There’s another need here, to draw together strands of thinking and activity, which at the moment are related but disconnected. The digital engagement initiatives, enterprise 2.0, hyperlocal stuff, knowledge management, getting innovation working in organisations, social learning, eDemocracy (if it still exists), codesign, data sharing… Again, if the organisation is sufficiently adaptable, it ought to be able to respond in the right right way.

    There’s also something about empowering those frustrated innovators within organisations, who are routinely ignored and belittled. I was one not so long ago, and see these people as a great untapped resource.

    I’ve been searching for an umbrella term to describe this activity, and am almost settled on the idea of the ‘learning organisation’ which seems to cover almost everything I’m talking about. Sadly someone else got there first, but hopefully that stuff can be incorporated too so as to avoid confusion.

    I see this – somewhat pompously – as being social media growing up. It’s not an end in itself, nor an isolated bit of technology. The key for 2010 is to come up with the framework to embed the tools and the ways of thinking into non-techy processes. Am thinking of changing the strapline of this blog to ‘This isn’t about websites!’ as a first step.

  7. Hi Dave – and David,

    The issues you discuss here are important across the board and one of the key aspects of the ‘new’ collaboration is how public, private and third sectors can share, learn from and support each other. As David kindly points out, “Monkeys with Typewriters” is an attempt to tease out some of the wider implications.

    Dave, it’s interesting you mention the ‘learning’ organisation – Peter Senge’s book was the starting point for my “Leadership 2.0” research (which began in 2005 and finally evolved into “Monkeys with Typewriters”): Senge and former Shell executive, Arie de Geus (author of “The Living Company”) were largely responsible for the trend towards distributed, enabling leadership which emerged in the 1990s. Today’s collaborative technologies seem to be a natural progression – and concrete realisation – of many of their ideas.

    Sadly I didn’t interview Senge for the book, but I did speak to de Geus, and he’s very distrustful of the Internet. It may be a generational thing, but certainly a sign of the many (but not insurmountable) stumbling blocks to progress. The point you raise about social technologies always being assigned to the ICT department rather than corporate governance (or similar) is another key issue.

    Peter Senge set up SoL, the Society for Organisational Learning, in 1997, and Arie de Geus is the current UK president. As it happens, I’m due to discuss “Monkeys with Typewriters” with members of Sol UK ( at One Alfred Place on 20 January – I believe SoL are charging for the event, but I might be able to wangle a freebie if either of you were interested?



  8. Hi Jemima, and thanks for stopping by!

    I ordered the de Geus after seeing it mentioned in your book, and a copy of Senge is winging its way to me as I type. Thanks for the pointers.

    Interesting about de Geus’ attitudes to the internet – perhaps thinkers have a set view of their theories and what they mean, and when technology – or something else – disrupts them and changes their direction it can be threatening?

    I think this is such a great area for development of understanding and I’ll keep sharing my thoughts and findings here, of course. Am wondering if ‘The Read/Write Organisation’ is a better label, though it’s a bit techy…

    Would love to come to the event on the 20th, if you can wangle it!

  9. Thanks Jemima – me too for the 20th if possible. Could offer some social reporting:-). Internet distrust perhaps helps us take more seriously what we all say to each other – of course, it’s the people, not the tools … while then creating collaboration architectures around tools not people. MWT doesn’t fall into that trap, or course. Double thanks.

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