Northern Futures

There’s an interesting bit of open policy work going on at the moment with the Deputy Prime Minister’s office working with the Policy Lab and Open Policy Making team, who are both based at the Cabinet Office. I’m lucky enough to be involved in a small way, too.

It’s called Northern Futures, and is all about finding ways that the northern cities in England can work together to compete with cities around the world.

The elements of open policy making here are an online ideas generation site, and a series of policy jam sessions.

The ideas site, based on Delib’s excellent Dialogue App tool, allows anyone to submit their own suggestions for answers to three questions:

The best answers to these questions will be taken forward to the policy jams. There will be eight jams taking place at the same time across eight cities in the north, each looking at their own ideas and producing iterations on those ideas, and potentially prototypes too.

I’m delighted to be helping out with the process and will be facilitating the policy jam that will be taking place in Hull. It will be the first time I have been back to the city since my graduation!

The Hull event will be taking place at the city’s History Centre, which looks like a cracking venue. I’m hoping we will get a whole range of people attending – strategists, policy experts, technologists and so on.

The other cities involved will be Manchester, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool and Lancaster. You can express an interest in being involved by signing up on the Eventbrite page. Note – signing up here doesn’t guarantee a place, it’s more an expression of interest.

If you’re up for a challenge and would like to get involved in a pretty meaty policy initiative, then this is a great opportunity. Get on the ideas site and share your inspiration, and come along to one of the policy jam sessions – especially the one in Hull, which will be brilliant and almost certainly the best of the lot.

Get rid of friction

If you want to get people to use your service, get rid of the friction.

This really hit home with me the other week, at an event I attended as part of my work at the Department of Health, which was about the patient of the future.

It struck me that what will make the real transformative change in healthcare (for example) is when people’s access to services, data and indeed connections is entirely frictionless.

Downloading an app is friction. Signing up for an account is friction. Finding a wifi connection is friction.

This is where I think internet of things stuff comes in. When your coffee cup has an internet connection, when lamposts have an internet connection, when wifi is everywhere, friction disappears.

This isn’t so far away. You can already get a coffee cup that measures the calorific contents of what you are drinking. When everyone, everything and everywhere is networked, everything changes.

The friction is replaced, of course, by a bunch of other issues – mostly ethical ones. Another, technical one, is how we handle and what we do with all this data.

Making online communities commercially sustainable

monetiseThis is a conversation I get into quite a lot, and I’ve been prompted to blog about it by a couple of emails I have recently received from the team behind the Knowledge Hub.

A bit of background, for those that need it: the Knowledge Hub is a UK government funded online collaboration platform. It has recently been spun out of the public sector and is now run by CapacityGRID, which itself is a trading arm of the outsourcing company Liberata.

Time for a disclaimer. The Knowledge Hub folks are of course free to do what they like, and they are by no means beholden to what people like me might say about the decisions they make about their platform. It’s really not much of my business, not least because, while I am a member, I’m not a very good one, and don’t get involved all that often. I’ve not been involved in any conversations about this stuff and have no idea what constraints the team are operating under. So, don’t read this as direct criticism, more my musings on commercialising online community spaces.

The Knowledge Hub is remaining free to those working in public service and what is something known still as the third sector. However, those working in private enterprises are being charged £80 a year, which equates to just over £6.50 a month – not a lot, if we’re honest. Feverbee’s CommunityGeek membership costs $35 a month, for example, and can be considered good value.

However, I don’t personally think this is a great idea, for the following reasons:

  • Lumping all ‘private sector’ people into one basket is pretty unfair. It puts (for example) WorkSmart in the same bracket as Capita, or Serco, or any giant company of that ilk
  • Making it a commercial transaction can legitimise commercial activity. If someone is being made to pay for something, they might decide they need to get their money’s worth out of it, which may mean more overt selling, and less willingness to share insight for free
  • Most networks* thrive on having lots of members and any kind of barrier to entry – such as having to pony up eighty quid before you are able to join – can  have a significant impact on growth
  • Some of those people who are now being asked to pay will have invested already in the network in terms of their time, their knowledge and their ideas. Does that investment of social capital have no value? That seems to be what this decision is saying.
  • It creates a “them and us” type situation, introducing a new dynamic in terms of the divisions of the community, which can’t be healthy.
  • It isn’t going to make very much money. The vast majority of private sector users won’t pay and will leave. They will go to free spaces like LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs and other online forums. The actual result of this decision will probably result in a net loss to the community – a few quid in revenue wiped out by a loss of members and activity.

Fundamentally, it feels to me like a somewhat lazy decision, made due to a lack of much creative thinking about how sustainability might be achieved. “We need to make some money? Let’s charge our users!” I don’t see Facebook doing that, or Google. Friends Reunited did, of course, and we know how that ended up.

So what might be the alternatives? Here’s some ideas from the top of my head:

  • Sell extra functionality – rather than charging for something that has always been free, come up with something new that could be charged for. Effectively, a freemium style model. There’s a bunch of stuff in the original roadmap for the Knowledge Hub that hasn’t been implemented yet, which would provide some instant ideas for new features.
  • Sell services – CapacityGRID already has a consultancy offer, why not develop that to meet the needs of the members of the community? Running a big community ought to give plenty of insight into what sort of support is needed and how it needs to be delivered.
  • Charge for non-intended use – there is a way I think of legitimately charging for the existing service, and that is where it is being used for another purpose than the original vision of cross sector knowledge sharing. One example is where groups are being used to manage projects, for example – effectively using it as an internal business tool. This sort of use could be charged for, I think, as it would otherwise be something those organisations would have to pay for from another supplier.
  • Training and events – similar to selling services, a business model can be built around providing events and training opportunities. After all, with all those members and all that data, it ought to be possible to find out what people’s pain points are and what support they need. The cost can still be kept low for delegates by using commercial sponsors.
  • Commercial content deals with suppliers – rather than charging the private sector for nothing new, provide some benefit in return for larger sums. Content marketing is a good option here – do a deal to produce some sponsored content on behalf of a vendor, whether a white paper, a webinar or a series of blog posts.

So there are five ideas, you can have them for free. None are guaranteed to work and I am sure big holes could be quickly poked in them all. You’d probably need to find a way of doing all of them, rather than sticking with just one revenue stream.

However, I genuinely think that any one of these would be more effective, and less divisive, than just charging a specific group of users for access.

What are your thoughts? How else might an online community be made commercially sustainable, without alienating the membership?

* there are many exceptions to this statement of course, including the aforementioned CommunityGeek. They tend to be niche networks that put a lot of value on exclusivity, though, and I am not certain that is true of the Knoweldge Hub. They also usually have the charging in place from the get-go and don’t charge people for something they had previously had for nothing

Know your company

Know Your Company, from 37 Signals, is a really interesting looking idea. As with all their products, from Basecamp to Highrise, it has resulted from scratching their own itch – in other words, solving a problem they had.

37 Signals CEO Jason Fried says that Know Your Company aims to meet the following outcomes:

  1. Every week I wanted to learn something new about how my employees felt about our business, our work, and our culture.
  2. Every week I wanted everyone to know what everyone else was working on. It’s not enough for me to be informed – everyone’s in this together.
  3. Every week I wanted everyone to share something non-work related with each other. A book they read recently, a new recipe they’ve tried, something, anything that would help form surprise bonds between people.
  4. I wanted all this information catalogued and plotted over time.This way I could spot trends and shifts in morale, hone in on longer-term insights, spot outliers that need special attention, etc.

The system they developed also met the following requirements.

  1. As CEO, maintaining a healthy culture isn’t someone else’s job — it’s my job. I had to take responsibility for knowing my people and knowing my company. That buck starts and stops with me.
  2. Answers only come when you ask questions, so the tool had to be built around questions. People generally don’t volunteer information re: morale, mood, motivation unless they’re directly asked about it.
  3. The entire system had to be optional. No one at the company should be forced to use it. Forcing people to give you feedback is ineffective and builds resentment.
  4. This couldn’t be a burden on my employees. Employees would never have to sign up for something or log into anything.
  5. Information had to come in frequently and regularly. Huge information dumps once or twice a year are paralyzing and lead to inaction.
  6. I had to follow-through. If someone (or a group of people) suggested an important change, and it made sense, I had to do everything I could to make it happen. I wasn’t creating this system to gather information and do nothing about it.
  7. It had to be automated, super easy (for me and my employees), non-irritating, and regular like clockwork. This had to eventually become habit for everyone involved. If it ever felt like something that was in the way or annoying, it wouldn’t work. It had to be something people looked forward to every week.
  8. Feedback had to be attached to real people – it couldn’t be anonymous. You need to know your people individually, not ambiguously. If someone has a problem, you need to know who it is so you can talk to them about it. This requires trust on everyone’s part.
  9. Success depended on a combination of automated, and face-to-face, back-and-forth with my team. The unique combination of automated and face-to-face communication play off each other in really positive ways.

Those nine requirements could work for any online tool, I reckon!

The whole thing sounds pretty cool and I would imagine that this kind of business intelligence tool is the sort of thing that anyone wanting to work a bit better needs to have available. Right now the Know Your Company website is pretty coy about what this thing looks like and how it works – but if reality matches the promise, it ought to be a terrifically useful tool for leaders in organisations.

Introducing Kind of Digital Exchange

It’s not the most exciting bit of technology in the world, but it could be very useful.

I read an awful lot of stuff on the web – thanks to Google Reader, it’s made really easy. Lots of people don’t have the time to do so, and are quite grateful to have useful items pointed out to them. I usually do this by putting links up on my Twitter profile, and the occasional link round up post here on the blog.

The trouble is that Twitter is a very ephemeral medium, and if people miss links, or don’t record them anywhere, then finding them again can be very tough. I’m also slightly uncomfortable that someone else has a hold of all this data! What’s needed is a way to record these things for posterity, and perhaps create a conversation around them.

So, in about an hour of fiddling, I made the Kind of Digital Exchange. It simply publishes links to stories I find interesting, with tags to enable easier searching, and the ability for people to leave comments.

As well as the main site, you can grab the RSS feed, get the results by email or follow the firehose on Twitter.

It’s very basic – just a bog standard WordPress instance and the free, open source, P2 theme. The interesting bit takes place away from the site, where I have set up the wonderful IFTTT to pump items I star in Google Reader into Exchange as posts within WordPress. This means that for me to share something via the site, I just click a single button.

It doesn’t have to be just me though. I’d be delighted if others could contribute. Using IFTTT as the spine, it’s easy to pull content in from other sites, whether Google Reader as I do, or maybe through Delicious bookmarks.

So, if you’re keen to start contributing links to the site, let me know and we can get it sorted. Of course, you can start commenting on links right away!

Will this become the digital engagement equivalent of something like the awesome Hacker News? Probably not. But it didn’t take long to put together, and if people find it useful, then that’s alright with me. Of course, if lots of people find it useful, I’ll throw some resources at it to give it a makeover and start to add some functionality. Stuff like:

  • user liking or upvoting of the best content
  • user tagging of articles
  • ability to reshare links on other networks

…and I am sure there’s a lot more too. There’s a page to share ideas.

So do please go and have a look, and maybe get involved. I was asked the other day where people in government can go to find examples of innovation and creative ideas. Other than say ‘look on Twitter’ it was hard to muster a proper response. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to say – ‘look on the Kind of Digital Exchange!’.

Consumer IT Resets the Baseline for Corporate IT

Good stuff from Michael Coté:

In moving to a BigCo job you quickly notice how different life behind the firewall is when it comes to IT. You’re often more limited than empowered. The advances in consumer IT (things like Facebook and GMail) often have created better IT than corporations provide their employees. For well over a decade, corporate IT has been chasing the old mandate of risk management through hyper-control. In the meantime, consumer IT has shot past the old bulwark of the IT department when it comes to ease of use, functionality innovations, and the resulting leaps in productivity. Consumer IT has set a new baseline for what knowledge workers need to be most effective and most corporate IT has fallen well below that line.

Portfolio: sharing council comms resources

Portfolio looks an interesting idea, coming out of Nottingham City Council.

This, from an article at LGComms:

We’re launching Portfolio, a web portal that allows public sector organisations to share marketing materials. Councils and other public authorities can sign up to it for free and save money by buying ready-made, proven marketing campaigns. It also enables them to make money by uploading and selling their own designs.

Kind of an app store but for comms resources. Cool.

Right now it’s just traditional print media designs that are available, but I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too hard to include video assets, audio and so on.

Maybe even WordPress templates and the like?

Blockers, and how to handle them

If you’re an innovative type, wanting to get some sort of new thing off the ground, you’re bound to run into people who do their best to stop you.

There are a number of reasons why they might choose to do this, and often they are acting in what they think are the best interests of the organisation.

This seems to be especially apparent when people want to do something interesting with the internet.

So, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve come across in terms of the likely blockers and what you might do to get around them.

Before I start – not everyone in the positions I describe below are blockers. Often only one or two of these groups act in that way within one organisation.

If you have all of them where you work, then I suggest you resign forthwith.

The senior managers

This is an odd one for me. A lot of folk cite senior managers – even up to director and chief executive level – as being a blocker. Whenever I’ve spoken to them personally, I find they get the need to use the appropriate medium to communicate and engage with residents and communities pretty quickly.

However, it may well be that I have struck lucky, or that when I have spoken to senior managers, it has been a case of the outside ‘expert’ being listened to while folk inside the organisation are ignored.

Either way, getting the top brass onside is vital for any innovative project like this to work. My advice would be to get yourself in front of them as soon as you can, and try and make it so it’s just you, without any of the other potential blockers outlined below present. You need to be able to pitch your ideas and project without them being diluted by others.

Focus your argument on the high level strategic opportunities and try not to get bogged down in process or what Twitter is and exactly how it works. Focus on the things that leaders are interested in at the moment, such as opportunities to save money while reaching more people, improving partnership working and that sort of thing.

The communicators

A surprising one, this, for many. I’d always thought of communicators as being forward thinking people – and of course many of them are. However, some are rather (small c) conservative – and there’s also an issue of control.

It strikes me that attempts by comms departments to claim social media as their own thing is probably mistaken and it comes from a confusion between Communications – the profession and practice, and communication – the thing people at every level of an organisation do hundreds of times a day.

Overall, I’d say it’s important that some bit of the organisation takes an overview of digital engagement activity. If that’s comms, fine. What this doesn’t mean is that this team is responsible for all the work, or all the content. After all, we don’t ask the communications team to make all our phone calls, or write our emails, for us, do we?

If your comms team are controlling social media activity with an iron fist, it can be a real problem and a number of folk have complained about this to me. To persuade them to let go a little is tricky, but not impossible. You need to both play on their fears and convince them of your competence.

Their fears are those of overwork and not being able to cope with the additional workload of managing a large organisation’s social media presence. Offer to relieve the burden by handling the work you want to happen yourself, and show them some drafts of content you have written to demonstrate you can do this without landing the organisation in trouble.

It might be a good idea to start with to play along with the comms team if they come up with a process for moderating your content or activity. Soon enough though, they’ll learn to trust you, and if you’re being active enough, there will be too much work doing so anyway, and they’ll want to give up!

The HR department

I have come across one or two instances where the HR department has got in the way of online innovation. This is usually in the area of staff usage policy and that kind of thing and can often result when such discussions happen too early in the process. I’d say it’s a good idea to know exactly what you want to do and to achieve before policy starts getting written, otherwise you’ll find it misses the mark.

HR has a role to play here, as indeed does policy, because a good policy should empower staff to get involved digitally and not create a climate of fear where people don’t want to risk participating in online activity.

So my advice is to figure out all the other stuff before involving HR and getting the policy side worked out. Have a clear plan and goals in place so that you can ensure whatever policy is produced doesn’t get in the way.

The politicians

Dan Slee has a neat phrase when he says that there’s a job to be done in convincing councillors that it isn’t 1985 anymore in media terms. When twenty times as many people in an area use Facebook than read the local news, it can be frustrating when all the politicians want to do is have their photo taken for the paper.

What I have found is that politicians tend not to be convinced by the business case. Show them all the usage stats you want, they may respond, but it’s unlikely. Instead, the best approach seems to be demonstrating the magic of this stuff to them, so they can’t ignore it.

The simple act of typing a question into Twitter, and then having the answers fill the screen is something I have done with councillors in the past and they love it – they ‘get it’ right away.

The IT department

I thought I’d leave this one until last. I have a certain amount of sympathy for IT managers – they have a tricky job that few people appreciate.

There are a bunch of corporate systems that they must keep running at all costs – think payroll, revenues and benefits, social care, even email – and so you can perhaps understand the disdain they have for people asking them to turn Facebook on as a matter of urgency.

However, the role of the IT guys is to support the operation of the council, not to stop people from doing things. I would always try a conciliatory, collaborative approach with the IT department, getting them involved early so they have time to figure stuff out.

It might also be a good idea to ask them how they would go about achieving something, rather than presenting them with the solution you want. IT people as much as anyone are starved of opportunities to be creative, so get them onside by asking for their advice and help.

If you have got senior managers on side, this should make the process of getting IT onboard a lot easier, too.

The end of the IT department

37 Signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson:

When people talk about their IT departments, they always talk about the things they’re not allowed to do, the applications they can’t run, and the long time it takes to get anything done. Rigid and inflexible policies that fill the air with animosity. Not to mention the frustrations of speaking different languages. None of this is a good foundation for a sustainable relationship.

If businesses had as many gripes with an external vendor, that vendor would’ve been dropped long ago. But IT departments have endured as a necessary evil. I think those days are coming to an end.

Worth reading in full.