Putting together your toolkit

I love technology. Actually, no I don’t. I like the idea of technology, and the potential of it. Actual technology generally makes me swear. Anyway, where was I?

So you’ve decided that you need to do something exciting, using technology. Let’s focus on social stuff, as that’s really all I know about. Maybe you’ve put your strategies and policies together and are ready to actually get into some doing. There are a number of approaches you could take:

  • Do your best with what you have
  • Cobble together free stuff
  • Buy something to do it all for you
  • Build something yourself
  • Some kind of weird hybrid of all the above

What should drive your decision on which route to go down, and what tools you use should depend, of course, on what you need. That sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how few organisations really understand their needs, which are dependent on

  • What it is you want to do – in other words, activity
  • How you are organisationally set up to approach this

The first point is another classic bit of Briggs stating the bleeding obvious, but it is worth writing this down and being clear about it. What are we talking about here? Replacing meetings with something more useful? Getting greater benefits than you are currently getting from email discussions? Creating a new community of people who are going to help you do all kinds of cool things?

The second point might be worth delving into in a bit more detail.

Issues that should be considered when looking at how your organisation works needs to take into account factors such as:

  1. Skill levels in the organisation
  2. Desire to share, collaborate and work together amongst staff
  3. Security issues around access and data security
  4. Hardware people have available, including speed of access etc
  5. How much money you have to invest
  6. Whether you need to work with and involve other organisations

All of these things may have as big an impact on your eventual choices as the activities bit. If you decide you need an enterprise collaboration platform, and go and procure something really amazing, but nobody in your organisation knows what it is, how to use it, or what the point of it is, then you’ve got a car crash on your hands.

Likewise, if you decide the future is in the cloud, and set up a system to do just that – but only find out from the IT security guys that it’s not possible for the organisation to host its files on various different servers across the globe at the very last minute, again, you’re ending up with egg on your face.

So before deciding on what tools you want and how they are going to work, it’s a good idea to spend some time figuring out the capacity within your organisation to deal with the technology you want to throw at them first – these are just as important as functional requirements and all the other stuff.

Quite a bit of inspiration from this post came from bits of the book Digital Habitats by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D Smith. Well worth a look.

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.

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.

On non-professionalism

David’s blog post reminded me that I have been banging on to a lot of people about some vague idea which I’ve been calling ‘non-professionalism’.

Basically, non-professionalism is the culture required to work effectively on the social web.

If you are professional, then there is a danger that you will be perceived as formal, stuffy and no fun to be around. People don’t engage on a particularly meaningful basis if you appear too polished.

But unprofessionalism is a bad thing, too. You don’t want to appear like you don’t care, or that you simply aren’t very good. People won’t want to help you because it doesn’t appear that you want to help yourself out all that much.

But there is a grey area in between these two stances, where you can be effective, yet informal and engaging too. So, your communications get the message across, but in a human way that people can respond to and build a relationship with, for example.

This, for me, is non-professionalism. It’s vital for any organisation that wants to succeed in using Twitter, blogs or online communities, be they forums or social networks.