Lee Bryant on leadership

I keep returning to this post by Headshift’s Lee Bryant, on leadership in the networked society. It’s big, meaty and good.

My starting point was the myth that leadership is somehow less important in new, networked organisations. Not so. If anything, it is more important than ever, but the focus and practice of leadership is changing; and if we are to engage leaders and involve them in the development of social business structures, then we need to be able to understand and address their challenges and issues using language that resonates with them.

He provides some slides from a talk he recently gave on the topic, which give a nice overview – though I really do recommend you read – and re-read – the whole thing:

Here are Lee’s three starting points for developing the required new forms of leadership:

  1. Identifying and nurturing future leaders
  2. Enable leaders to have presence and intimacy at scale
  3. Give everybody a chance to demonstrate community leadership

Go read the rest.

Technology is not the thing

Last week I spoke at the Online Information conference. It was a session about Twitter, where Karen Blakeman did a great job explaining the whole thing, and how organisations can make use of it. Then I stepped up and told a few jokes about government is – and should be – using Twitter.

Here’s the slides, for what they’re worth. Try and imagine a pillock gurning at you while you read them, it’ll provide some context.

Now, there is a thing here, and this is what it is: I don’t like doing tool-focused talks. One reason is that people get the impression that I am saying that everyone should be on Twitter, say.

To be swearily honest, I really couldn’t give a shit whether you use Twitter or not. I might write things that make it easier for you, but I would hate to feel like I’m making promises that it will change your life, or transform your organisation. It probably won’t. Things don’t tend to work that way.

I’m not trying to distance myself from Twitter, here. I still use it a hell of a lot, and my life would be poorer without it. The point I am making is true of any single technology, and goes back to the idea that, actually, the interesting things about the internet and its effect on society – and government – has nothing to do with computers.

Instead of encouraging people and organisations to use Twitter, or whatever, I want to encourage them to listen, to collaborate, to be transparent and open, to take notice of the things their employees say, to be flexible and agile and able to react quickly to changing circumstances.

Technology makes this easier. It provides a platform where it can all happen. In some cases it might be the key that unlocks the door to all this activity. But technology is not the thing.

The myth of engaging with everyone

When I talk to people about the possibilities of engaging with people online, using social technology, I often get questioned about the numbers issue. Stuff like:

  • How many people in our area actually use Twitter?
  • What about people who don’t have web access?
  • What do we do about people who don’t like using the internet to communicate?

…and so on.

It’s night on impossible to give the people who ask these questions the answers that they want. Really, they’re asking the wrong questions.

That’s because they are assuming that what they are doing now already covers all the bases. The fact is, that it doesn’t.

  • Meetings usually exclude anyone with a job, because even when they are in the evening, most people are too knackered to attend or have other stuff to do
  • Printed media usually goes straight into the recycling bin
  • Few people pay attention to the Council stuff in the local paper

The first thing to be clear on is that no one engagement method will reach, or suit, everyone.

The second thing to be clear on, is that you don’t necessarily want to reach everyone, anyway.

The latter point is true of the people within organisations as much as it is people outside. A small percentage of employees couldn’t give a toss about their jobs and are generally quite bad at them. The majority are perfectly competent but aren’t so into their work that they are constantly thinking of ways that things could be done better. Then there are the small number left, the committed, enthusiastic and innovative folk who care about what they do and will put effort into improving things.

My argument would always be to focus on the small number of active, enthusiastic people first.

Likewise, when engaging with citizens, most won’t be too fussed about knowing how their council does things in too much detail, for example. They might like to know that it is being done reasonably well, and cost effectively, but in terms of getting too involved, they’d rather not. But there will be a smaller group of people, those with some social capital to burn up, who want to get involved, who actively think about making things better, and who’ll give up their time to help.

Those are the people you should go after. Don’t waste time convincing people who aren’t and never will be interested to do something they don’t want to do. It’ll make everyone, including them and you, unhappy.

So when people ask about whether 100% of the people in your organisation, or who live in the area, will be involved with a digital engagement project just be honest and say no. But add that you’ll probably get more interest than through current methods, and that they’ll be different people, and people who care.



I had an interesting time at Socitm09 – a lot of the conversations I had were useful, and others fruitful. I won’t lie to you, though, a lot of what I saw and heard I found pretty painful. My Twitter followers will no doubt know the exact point at which my frustration boiled over somewhat.

One of the highlights for me, though, was the twenty minutes Mary and I spent with Adrian Hancock, MD of Socitm, and a forward thinking chap if ever there was one. His plans for the organisation are certainly going to lead it in the right direction.

We’ve already put one of the things we talked about into action, and that’s OpenSocitm. This is a simple Ning based online community for Socitm members and non-members to talk about the organisation and what they would like to get out of it. At Learning Pool, we understand community and its importance, and we’re eager to share that with other organisations that would like to work with us.

We hope it will become a space for the more forward thinking among Socitm’s ranks to get together and contribute to the ongoing discussions about what Socitm should look like in the future.

Because Socitm, like any other membership organisations, faces massive challenges in this age of self-organising and free and simple social networks. Put simply: why should I pay a subscription to Socitm when I can create a Facebook group and talk to people that way?

This is picking up on the pioneering work started by David Wilcox with the RSA (I’m a fellow of the RSA and was involved in David’s work here), which has developed in various directions, some official, some less so, based around the OpenRSA concept. Basically: identify the enthusiastic, the innovative and the people with ideas and put them in a space together – and watch and act on what happens.

My view – which David shares, I’m sure – is that for membership bodies to remain relevant in the networked society, they must learn to start listening to their membership like never before. Develop services around the explicit needs as expressed by members in social online spaces. Accept messiness. Acknowledge the fact that membership might mean different things to different people, and that just because someone doesn’t hold a card, it doesn’t mean they have nothing valuable to contribute.

I’ve no doubt that Adrian gets this, and that OpenSocitm will provide a useful channel of ideas and suggestions for the future of Socitm for him and his colleagues to act upon. He’s already started blogging about it.

Selling the benefits

I attended the session by Liz Azyan and Simon Hume at Socitm09 on social media – which was ostensibly about the blocking of social networking sites in the workplace but which was also a general discussion around the benefits of this new way of working.

As a follow up, a brief discussion took place on Twitter last night around how senior management can be engaged and convinced of the necessity of using this technology. Carl Haggerty at Devon County Council always points to the fact that he got his Chief Exec on board early on, and the role this played in getting adoption throughout the organisation.

Various web tools were discussed, then I rather grumpily responded:

I would say that if you want to engage senior m’ment on a large scale, you’re unlikely to succeed with any web tool

Which sounds very negative, but wasn’t really meant to be so – my point was more that there are more effective ways of going about things. Basically, you have to talk to them.

Get a spot on a meeting agenda, and make the most out of the time you have, by focusing on what you can achieve. Don’t go into detail about how to set up a blog, or how to tag a link in Delicious. Instead, focus your energy on whipping up some enthusiasm, and inspiring a bit of curiosity.

Also, focus on what the benefits are for them, and for their organisation. Don’t make the mistake of putting all this stuff into a box marked ‘web’ or ‘communications’. Make it clear that this is less about marketing and a whole lot more about forging a new relationship between the organisation and citizens, or customers.

In other words, before you even mention technology, make sure you have some idea of what the point of all this is. For local government, this is about opening councils to conversations between authorities and the people, businesses and organisations it serves. It’s about bringing together communications, customer service and service design into one iterative process, each one informing the other. It’s about local government choosing the right delivery method for each service it provides, whether doing it itself, getting a social enterprise involved or handing it over to the private sector. It’s about government at all levels taking a more forward thinking attitude to its information assets and making them available to those who can do useful things with them.

The web, and social media, is just a means to an end, after all. Anyone who tells any organisation that they are golden if they just start a blog, or twitter account, is doing that organisation a massive disservice. At best the web, social or otherwise, is an enabler to a bigger change and one that benefits everyone.

Because, of course, websites don’t change the world, people do.

More on culture – Getting Real

To carry on the culture theme, I’ve recently been reading 37 Signals‘ book Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application. For those that don’t know, 37 Signals are the guys behind simple but useful collaboration tools like Basecamp, Backpack and Highrise.

It may describe itself as a book about web application development, but so many of the lessons can be applied to any organisation – and that can (and should) include government of course. I ordered the hard copy of the book, via LuLu, but you can read it for free, online. I’ve picked out some of my favourite bits, and linked them below for your reading pleasure.

Social media and local government culture

I had an enjoyable time on Thursday of this week, with the rest of the Learning Pool crew, customers and friends, at the Learning Pool networking event / third birthday party. Some good pals were there, and I got to meet plenty of new people too. Some photos are here.

I did my usual turn, with one or two additions. Here are the slides:

One of the new slides in this deck asks the question “Should local gov be like Apple or Google?”.

When I road tested this question on Twitter, I got a range of responses, some being quite clear cut, others wondering what the hell I was on about. One was particularly clever.

Here’s what I meant.

Apple are closed, switched off from the conversations about them. They keep their customers at a distance and go to remarkable lengths to prevent users from giving them ideas. As far as Apple are concerned, they know all the answers.

Apple’s products are also damn expensive. They charge as much as the market can bear – and sometimes more. So how come they are so popular?

It comes down to the user experience. It’s so awesome, that people like me will put up with all sorted of crap to be able to keep using it. So, an organisation can still succeed, even if it is closed in its culture, if the product is good enough. I think it would be difficult to argue that any level of government’s user experience is up to the same level as Apple’s right now…

Google, on the other hand, take a far more open culture. They have loads of blogs, just about one for every service they operate. They have forums for users to help one another, and to get help from support. An awful lot of Google’s technology is open source, and they run platforms for others to host and share their code, as well.

Google’s pricing model is different to Apples’s, too. Instead of charging as much as the market can bear, Google charges as little as it can bear, as Jeff Jarvis explains in What Would Google Do? Google wants as many people to use its products as possible, because that makes them work better, so they make them free, or as close to free as they can. Google is more a platform, or a network, than just a company that sells stuff.

Local Government needs to be more like Google, than Apple. It needs to listen to its users, and to develop and design services around their needs rather than deciding itself what is best for them. It needs to take the time to explain itself to its users, and set up feedback channels that feed directly into service design. In fact, communications, customer service and service delivery should all be part of one single process, each element constantly updating the others.

So this is all, really, less about technology, and more about organisational culture. What a surprise. I do fear that some local authorities, having set up a Twitter account, or started a blog, will think they have this thing licked. They haven’t – it’s bigger than that, and it goes back to Steph‘s point, that interactive websites need interactive organisations. Sticking some of these web tools on an organisation that doesn’t want to listen or engage will result in car crash.

People have been talking about changing culture in government for a very long time, and not a lot has changed – I’m reminded of Will Perrin’s point, which I often repeat, that government in the UK is trying to solve 21st century problems with 21st century technology through 19th century governance. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth giving a go. I think there is a lot that government at all levels can learn from the culture of organisations like Google, and other tech firms. Take Netflix, for example, a US based DVD rental company. Their culture, as described in this public presentation, is remarkable and one that probably any organisation could learn from:

I’ll be covering some more issues around culture, and leadership, in future posts, as it’s a fascinating (to me!) topic.