David Wilcox twittered the other week:
chat with @davebriggs making me think we need some way to reduce the networking overhead. Too much New: roles, platforms, worldviews…
Which is an interesting point. There is a tonne of stuff going on at the moment, lots and lots of noise, lots and lots of honest endeavour and lots and lots of great ideas. There is, for example, the meetups and projects following barcampukgovweb, the RSA Networks, talk around the role of the BBC in participation, the Membership Project, discussions about the future of new media in a world of user generated content and reducing trust, the OurKingdom online consultation. But how much overlap is here? How much effort is being lost because those involved (at various levels) don’t have the worldview that can cope with these discussions? How many initiatives will fail as a result of key roles not being identified and filled quickly enough?
I’m interested in how the various strands of discussion can be tied together to bring down the levels of duplication, reduce the noise levels and allow people to involve themselves in projects that interest them while making the most of what is happening elsewhere. This is very much the thinking behind the etoolkit, in creating a learning environment in which organisations can determine their approach to social media and participation. I’m wondering whether discussions even wider in scope might be necessary.
Part of this is tied into Clay Shirky and the ideas espoused in Here Comes Everybody, as well as the discussions held in various places and in various mediums about forming loose associations of like-minded folk. We need some organisation, but not organisations. With organisation can come the roles, the platforms and the worldview required to make the most of the opportunities that face us. I have to say that this notion is an exciting one, and when we combine it with the open and collaborative projects such as those which David promotes, a model for increasing participation at all sorts of levels opens up: whether local volunteers, political campaigns, nationwide discussions or within individual organisations and companies.
Let’s have a look through those three issues David identified in his tweet that set me off on this ramble.
Roles are important, and they are changing, as I wrote here. There is a key role for people who understand the notion of organised non-organisations, who can filter their way through the cast amounts of available information, who can throw up a blog or a wiki in a matter of seconds to meet a need. The increased use of online tools makes the role of online facilitator vital, but it is one that is being ignored to a hugely detrimental effect. Without the people there to drive conversations forward, to draw folk with stuff to contribute into the discussion, your platform will whither and die. You don’t necessarily have to pay people to do this: you just need to identify who they are and empower them to perform the role for you. I know this because I am one of these volunteers: make me feel that it’s worthwhile and I’ll spend hours doing stuff for you.
There are too many platforms, it is too easy to create new ones, not enough use is made of those that already exist. All of this is true, and yet there is still scope for new stuff to come through. It’s not about the technology, really, we all know about status updates, friend and follower lists and embedded video. It’s about the application of that technology in a way that is genuinely useful.
Choosing the right technology is important. Sometimes an email list is all you need, maybe a wiki or a group blog. You have to make sure that everyone is comfortable using the tools though, but most importantly that the tool fits what you are trying to achieve. Can it handle the content – and the interactions with that content – that you are likely to be dealing with? If you want discussion, a wiki probably isn’t the best way to go. If you are using a group blog, how can you ensure that outputs are tied together and the best use made of the various conversational strands? We can aggregate blog posts easily enough, but what about the comments, the responses to those posts?
There isn’t one perfect platform that will suit every purpose. With a strong idea of what that purpose is, though, it should be easier to make the right decision. And that right decision, of course, doesn’t have to happen right away. Experiment, try things, see how they go.
Now for the biggie. Even if you have the right people in the right roles with the right skills and the right platform, it isn’t going anywhere if those who are directing the endeavour haven’t got their heads right. Open, collaborative processes need to be organised by open, collaborative people. This means people who see the value in having contributions coming in from different people, with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. It means not trying to control the topic under discussion and not trying to set arbitary standards on the quality of submissions.
This worldview is the hard thing to get right. It means significant culture change, especially for those in senior positions who might not necessarily be open to such a change. But any collaborative project is doomed to fail if those who are driving it are not willing to change their own culture to open things up to others.
I’d like to add a fourth item to the list, and that’s process, which for me encompasses an awful lot of the above, and some other bits as well. If we accept that open, collaborative working is A Good Thing, and that we have people with the skills, and a platform to use, and our bosses are clued up too, then we still need a method: how is this going to be achieved? I’m not sure how much has been done in this area. On the Membership Project, everyone blogs stuff that is of interest to them, without really paying too much attention to the needs of the project (at least, that’s how I do it) and David tries to pull it all together with regular summary posts, and project pages where themes are established and work can be done to try and get some of the ideas turned into deliverable work packages.
It would be interesting to find out what other models for online collaborative working exist. Much depends on the platform, I guess, but then my argument would be that it should be the other way round: decide on process then choose the most appropriate platform!