Targeting for open government

In building open government services, we often focus on work that delivers fantastic value to the public. But what comes before that? We need to decide who we’re talking to. How we’re doing it. Why we’re doing it. What our expectations are.

The slides below accompany my talk at the Social Media in Government conference in Canberra on 13-14 December 2011. The text below the slides is the “official” version, but is unlikely to resemble the talk as delivered.

For the past 15 months, I’ve been working with a small government organisation with the most forgettable name, but perhaps one of the most interesting missions of any organisation with a domain name.

It’s mission, as stated, is to “improve Australia’s effectiveness in civil-military collaboration for conflict and disaster management overseas”.

The Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence is a multi-agency collection of people seconded from the uniformed military, civilian Department of Defence, DFAT, AusAID, Attorney-General’s and Emergency Management Australia, the Australian Federal Police and the NGO sector. The Deputy Director is a secondee from the New Zealand Government.

It’s a fairly top-heavy organisation. Everyone there is an expert of significant standing in their area of expertise, from the former AFP representative to Afghanistan, an Ambassador or Deputy Head of Mission in several countries, experts on international relations, women in conflict, disaster management, and their just retired Executive Director, Mike Smith, who was a senior General in East Timor and former CEO of Austcare Australia (now ActionAID).

On any given day, the Centre can be delivering training to the civilian, police or military staff bound for overseas peacekeeping or disaster recovery deployments, conducting and funding research into strategic policy on civilian-police-military collaboration in conflict and disaster zones or hosting Ambassadors, inter-governmental delegations, senior UN and 3rd sector staff on visits to their salubrious Queanbeyan headquarters.

These people are great at working with each other when deployed and living in demountables in Oruzgan or sub-Saharan Africa, and they’re great at getting together in formal situations such as conferences and high-level meetings – and believe me, these people live for that stuff. What they’re not so good at, and what they pretty much had no idea about when I got there a year ago was open government.

These people are used to dealing in the Chatham House Rule. In diplomatic negotiation. In strategic talks. In their every day work.

And, for that reason, they weren’t good at getting the message out. My mission, in my time at the Centre, has been as part of a two person strategic communications team, to focus on online communications, on stakeholder outreach, on knowledge sharing and on bringing these people slowly and gently into a world where open government and 21st Century communications exists.

Let’s say from the start, this hasn’t been easy. And there’s a long way to go.

So, to set the scene… when I arrived at the Centre, not including me (I’m a little different to the norm) there were, from a 35 person staff:

  • two Twitter accounts
  • four Facebook accounts
  • five people on LinkedIn
  • no Flickr users

Today, it’s a little bit different. There are a few more Twitter users, several more on Facebook and so on. But these people are so busy with their regular workload it’s unreasonable to expect them to be rapid adopters of social tools for their day-to-day work. That stuff just doesn’t fit in with their regular way of operating, and it’s unreasonable (no matter how much the Chief of Staff, the Strat Comms Manager and I want it to be different) to expect otherwise.

So, in a place like this, where getting the message out about what you do and why it’s important is your key task, what do you do? Especially if you’re the only resource with the necessary knowledge and skills?

At the Centre, we took a look at a number of elements:

  • What is the overarching strategic communications goal for the Centre? Who do we need to influence? How? And why?
  • Where are we already achieving those goals? Where are the gaps?
  • Who might we be missing? Who were the “known unknowns”?

What this all led to were a number of short and long term goals, tied into the Centre’s strategic communications plan, that had open government elements attached to them. I have strong management support, all the way to the top of the Centre, and, even though we belong to the otherwise conservative VCDF Group within the Department of Defence, and we need to manage that relationship carefully, there is support there as well.

So, what did we do at the Centre to make open government and social media a part of how the Centre does business? We did a number of things:

  • we reserved Centre identities on a number of social networks
  • we wrote a short, clear, staff social media guidance and had it approved by VCDF and the Minister for Defence
  • we began using Twitter to put out notices about things the Centre was doing and also use Facebook to supplement those messages
  • we started doing project management using Basecamp, allowing us to track project activities and to bring in the frequent external collaborators we work with
  • we redeveloped what was a pretty terrible web site into something more flexible, rebuilding using WordPress. We’re still the only Defence-based organisation with a blog that allows open comments
  • we made a deliberate decision that all future publications released by the Centre would be licensed CC-BY. We’re also publishing all papers produced by Centre staff and our funded researchers online as HTML and PDF on our site as well as on SlideShare
  • we started posting Centre imagery to Flickr. Sure, it’s mostly people at meetings in suits, but it’s a record worth having
  • we started a YouTube channel off the back of our major event last year. It now includes video interviews with a number of leading authorities on civil-military interaction and will shortly be getting several new additions
  • we refreshed the Centre’s newsletter, formerly an email-attached PDF to a couple of hundred people, to be a Campaign Monitor driven email newsletter to over 1000 opt-in subscribers. It largely directs readers to full length content on our site, but also includes newsletter-only content to keep people interested

Now, none of this is terribly different to anything many organisations have done. However, I like to think we’ve done one thing a little differently, and that’s audience targeting.

The Centre has a fairly small, highly specialised audience. It’s mostly very senior people. They’re often not terribly familiar with open government or social tools. They work all over the world and usually have on the ground, “dirty boots” experience. They work for the UN, the African Union, or 3rd sector organisations like the ICRC, or Australian Government agencies, or one of the several near-equivalents to the Centre based in other countries such as the UK Government’s Stabilisation Task Force, Sweden’s Folke Bernadotte Academy, Canada’s START or the US’s Centre for Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs.

We also have a growing group of people interested in our work from the academic sector, especially the security and defence colleges, and from policy and security think-tanks like the Lowy Institute.

We decided pretty early on that these were the people we most needed to focus on in our open government and strategic communications efforts. Unlike a lot of the open government case studies about public-facing efforts we see at the gazillion conferences that now cover the subject, the decision to focus on “people like us” has paid real dividends.

We’re measuring as much as we can as efficiently as we can (and it needs some improvement, no question) but here’s what we’ve noticed (qualifying all this with the fact that our audience is small and highly focussed):

  • our web site receives more than twice the traffic the old site did. We don’t get too many comments yet, but as with everything, it’s a work in progress
  • we have several people who now chat to us on Twitter and Facebook (and we chat back)
  • we’ve improved awareness of our work with all our “parent” stakeholders with Australian Government and with those stakeholders elsewhere who care about our subject matter
  • we’ve begun to pay attention to a raft of new and emergent activity in the civil-military sector that wasn’t even on the radar before we began looking online. In particular, the capacity for online volunteer communities and social media to be a part of the conflict and disaster management first response is an emergent and growing part of the work the Centre is looking at

We’re still not quite a year in to our open government efforts. We have a very long way to go to be anywhere near where I think we could and should be. But, for an organisation that had no idea what was possible a year ago, the fact that we’re doing all this is a big step. Not to mention (and I haven’t mentioned this before now) that we now have a deployed and richly developing wiki-based social intranet that all staff are using.

Conflict and disaster management in a hyperconnected world – cooperative, collaborative, real time

This paper was delivered at the Regional Senior Leaders Seminar in Cairns, Australia on 19 May 2011. A referenced version suitable for printing is available.

Port-au-Prince Left Devastated by Quake

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

– EM Forster, Howard’s End

Engagement with connected networks of volunteers outside the official civil-military sector has the potential to see a measurable increase in situational awareness during ongoing and emergent crisis situations. These networks, their culture and the tools they use offer civil-military actors a set of opportunities to improve conflict and disaster management only rarely taken advantage of in current responses.

In the 21st Century, active and ongoing participation in a diverse and connected network, the use of social tools and a familiarity with the culture of sharing and openness that accompanies them should be no less core skills for members of the civil-military community than use of email or the web; digital literacy, active digital citizenship and involvement with relevant networked communities is a key competency for knowledge workers and field operatives alike.

A brief history of hyperconnectivity

The term hyperconnectivity refers to individuals, communities and organisations becoming a part of near-constantly connected networks facilitated by tools such as mobile telephony, email, the web as well as face-to-face presence, where awareness of situation and availability of information and knowledge has reached a near-commodity state.

Hyperconnected individuals (in which I include the organisation and community as identifiable individuals in their capacity as actors) rely deeply on their networks of connections – both close and weak – to ensure their awareness of the world around them is constant and pervasive, that they can contribute to and receive input from their networks to solve problems and that they are equipped with the capacity to actively participate in a universal public sphere.

Hyperconnectivity is exhibiting emergent effects we could not have been aware of before we had access to the network; its very existence, and the connections it affords, is changing the way we do things. We now have the capacity to distribute, share and leverage information and knowledge in ways and at a speed inconceivable only 10 years ago.

In his book, Cognitive Surplus, New York University academic Clay Shirky states of our post-industrial world that we have spent a generation soaked in a stupor of passive television watching. He points out that the capacity for us to spend those idle hours producing some form of value was diminished for nearly 50 years through the use of television as social surrogate, replacing time performing active roles in our communities and with friends and family. He goes on to note that the availability, certainly in the West, of pervasive fast Internet connections has permitted us to emerge from that stupor and spend those hours building things of value to humanity – things such as Wikipedia, the single greatest source of knowledge we have, the English language version of which has been built on 100 million hours or thereabouts of human effort and is recognised as being as valid or more so than the gold standard, the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Sharing information is a quintessentially human act – a thing buried so deeply in us that we do it without thinking, and often forget that many of the structures around us, especially in recent times, are explicitly built to prevent us from sharing. Those structures – rules, policies, organisations, management – perpetuate what is now a myth: that knowledge is power. In a world where access to factual knowledge is approaching commodity status, sharing, collaboration and making sense of knowledge is the true root of power.

Civil-military actors and hyperconnectedness

National and international responses to conflict and disaster are highly interdependent and need to be connected. A combined civil-military response where government and non-government organisations across several sectors work collaboratively in a whole-of-sector way in order to achieve the best possible outcomes is critical. Directly involving the wider connected networks of the volunteer technical communities (VTCs), leveraging the capacity, skills and availability of them, is an addition to the mix still not widely understood or used.

Civil-military actors belonging to agencies in the government, police, international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and in the non-government organisation (NGO) sector often have low familiarity with social technologies beyond personal use of tools such as Facebook. These include a lack of skills; organisational policies with respect to access and permitted use; and over-zealous security (often about the perceived danger of social tools); and unhelpful or misinformed official or even informal opinions about the value volunteer and other communities with a technical bent bring to the disaster and conflict management sector.

There is a general lack of awareness of what benefits and advantages social technologies and engagement in their accompanying networks might bring and the familiar, path-dependent ways of operating can preclude the more agile approach that is seen in the way hyperconnected networks are able to respond in their operations.

Their organisations are unaware of or not able to make full use of social tools in their business-as-usual work for a number of reasons. In many cases, agencies are not, or do not, consider themselves a part of a hyperconnected community that exists online. It is not apparently a deliberate position, it simply is a matter of perception. It is a perception that would benefit from change.

Effective communication means using any available channel that offers an operational advantage. If civil-military personnel and their agencies made an active effort to understand and become a part of this global, connected community, they could open themselves to a world of information, knowledge, technology and skills that has the capacity to source, gather, identify and validate information on a scale and with a rapidity previously not possible. Certainly, in relation to conflict and disaster situations, the capacity to gather, filter and act on emergent information from a wide range of sources in what are inevitably difficult circumstances makes the work of first responders more likely to be successful.

In recent US Senate hearings before the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs, Administrator Craig Fugate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency notes:

“Previously, we have had the ability to communicate AT the public – whether it is radio, TV, web pages and even billboards, but our ability to communicate with the public and have two way conversations has been limited.”#

He goes on to note that the earliest and best reports in a crisis situation come from the public, often before responders have arrived and at times before they are aware of the event at all. In Fugate’s view “the public is a resource, not a liability”.

In the past several years, it has been an observable fact that news breaks first, and much detailed information can be gleaned, through the network of individuals in our online social networks; first via our connections on services such as Twitter and Facebook, then outward, as more detail is collected through online analysis from subject matter experts and then, finally, via the traditional news media. While for most of us, it is rarely first- or second-order connections that are the news breakers, or sources of primary information, very often it is those strong ties from whom we hear news first, as they pass on information from weaker ties further out in our networks. This is a well-researched matter of fact, most notably identified by Stanford University’s Mark Granovetter as far back as 1973 in his paper The Strength of Weak Ties and subsequently through his later research and that of others.

With respect to the recent outbreak of unrest in Libya, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) explicitly requested that the Standby Task Force (SBTF), a volunteer group with expertise in crisis mapping and information management, be activated. The SBTF raised a global team of more than 150 trained volunteers and created the Libya Crisis Map to provide live mapping of emergent information about the conflict coming from the international news media, social networks such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, blogs and other sources including telephone and SMS. This knowledge, validated and managed through SBTF’s well-understood processes, was then provided back to OCHA to facilitate knowledge gathering in a situation where the UN had few feet on the ground. OCHA’s Andrej Verity states:

“In addition, we requested the SBTF to help with collection of Who’s-doing-What-Where (3W) information and baseline indicators values.  Within 48 hours, we had 100+ activities collected and compiled. Let’s put that in perspective: the same amount of data took about 4 weeks in the Philippines, 2 weeks in Haiti, and 2 weeks in Pakistan to be made available.  See an improvement? Combining this data with Libya Crisis Map, we can now overlay the reported health needs with the actual health response – gap analysis. In regards to the baseline indicator compilation task, it had never been done before so I cannot even compare it to past experience. More future potential.”#

People involved in the connected community have for some time been aware of the power of social networks to support and inform action in times of disaster and conflict. As early as the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the 2007-2008 post-election crisis in Kenya and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake there are well-researched examples of connected communities coming together to respond in what has been referred to by Harvard academic, Yochai Benkler as the “networked public sphere”.

Many of the networking tools currently in use to assist in crisis management such as Sahana, Ushahidi, SwiftRiver and Medic Mobile for example, have emerged not only from the crises they were built to help with, but also from individuals and groups who are a part of already existing communities involved in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) sector. It is for this reason that these tools remain open source and free of charge today and continue to be built or improved thanks to the cognitive surplus of the communities around them, put to good use for the betterment of humanity.

When shown the range of skills, information and knowledge brought by the unofficial contributors to disaster and conflict responses such as Haiti, the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing Libyan situation and other events in the Middle East, there is a tendency amongst many civil-military authorities to accord little value and credence to what has been gathered and made sense of by communities such as CrisisCommons, CrisisMappers, the SBTF, and others. There remains a view that information and knowledge from unofficial sources lacks validity, despite the substantial governance effort surrounding the manner in which it is collated, managed and verified or attributed. This view seems rooted in the previously noted lack of familiarity with networked culture and tools and may be exacerbated by a lack of time available to civil-military personnel to pursue new ways of accessing information, even when away from deployments.

During the US Senate hearing mentioned before, Heather Blanchard, co-founder of CrisisCommons made the observation that:

“We were… dismayed to find that many agencies have stringent security policies blocking their workforce from using social media tools for operational purposes.  Without this capability emergency managers could be missing critical information in their operational picture. We recommend that emergency management infrastructure be fully modernized. We also recommend that policy and incident management doctrine be modified to allow emergency management personnel to engage outside of their own organizational networks to take advantage of social media tools and capabilities.”#

This is not universally the case; the Libya Crisis Map and OCHA’s involvement has already been mentioned, FEMA in the US is an increasingly mature user of social tools, and in the case of the recent Japan tsunami and earthquake, the initial Ushahidi map created by OpenStreetMap volunteers, is now a recognised tool in use by the Japanese government. Similarly, the flood map created by the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC, has been recognised by authorities including the Queensland Police Service (QPS) as an invaluable resource.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, there is more than a passing relationship to the way in which knowledge and information is aggregated and understood by VTCs using tools such as Ushahidi and the well-understood concepts of network-centric operations. Information gathering is pushed to the edge of the network, right where the action is, and aggregated and understood through the use of networked tools to significantly enhance situational awareness. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) stated explicitly in its Force 2020 paper that:

“Network-enabled operations will provide us with a new type of advantage. This advantage will enable our commanders to achieve ‘decision superiority’ – the ability to make better, faster decisions, based upon more complete information…”

The low level of awareness of the VTCs, the culture of hyperconnectedness, the power and capacity of networked communities to add significant value to efforts in many endeavours, and the generally low level of skill associated with use of social technologies are glaring gaps in the official civil-military community. While there are certainly many individuals with strong skills and general digital literacy, involvement with relevant online communities is anecdotally low amongst civil-military officials in government organisations, in policing, and in NGOs. It is a matter that requires remedy.  And it is a remedy that is not overly difficult to implement.

A report in FastCompany magazine in early May 2011 outlines actions by the US State Department to embrace the culture, tools and communities working with and around conflict and disaster mapping in an effort to ensure that the US Government is in the best possible position to leverage knowledge held by professional civil-military officials and the technical skills, knowledge and willingness to act in the various VTCs.

After running a test event, The State Department  is adopting what is known as the BarCamp model – a collaborative “unconference” where any attendee may contribute a talk up to 20 minutes. The State Department will run several events around the world in order to bring together officials and volunteers as well as organisations such as the World Bank and USAID in order to try to find the next Ushahidi or Sahana. Only this time, they intend to do so outside the pressure cooker of an emergent disaster – the catalyst for the creation of many of the existing tools.

State’s Director of eDiplomacy, Richard Boly notes of this effort:

“We saw the ability of digital natives and the networked world, using lightweight and easily iterated tools, to do something rapidly that a big organization or government would find difficult, if not impossible, to do. The question is: Can we get that same magic to happen when people aren’t dying?”

Understanding the various unofficial actors

The UN’s Disaster 2.0 report and others such as that by the World Bank’s research facility, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), gather the various groups acting in networked crisis management as “volunteer and technical communities”. While VTC is useful as a generalisation, it is no more than that. Each of the identifiable communities is quite different and fulfils equally different roles.

In a response to the Disaster 2.0 report, Ushahidi Director of Crisis Mapping and Partnerships, Patrick Meier notes this conflation, seeking to clarify the confusion:

“CrisisMappers is a horizontal network of humanitarian practitioners, technologists, researchers and volunteers. Ushahidi is a 501c3 organization that describes itself as a non-profit technology company. OpenStreetMap is a volunteer project, while Sahana is a software company that creates a Free and Open Source Disaster Management system. CrisisCommons is a technical community of volunteers and so on. Placing all these actors in the same basket is not particularly appropriate since some of these organizations/networks are not volunteers.”#

As noted, OCHA has recognised that in the case of the Libya Crisis Map, actively collaborating with the volunteer communities offers them the capacity to build intelligence and respond significantly faster than was ever previously possible. In this and other examples including Haiti, the Pakistan floods, floods in Queensland, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and several conflicts including the Kenyan elections and the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings throughout the Middle East, the VTCs have proven capable of gathering large amounts of data, filtering and validating it and making it available both to crisis responders and to the public.

There are significant opportunities to be realised and much to be learned if official civil-military actors build familiarity and collaborations with these communities – they are well-trained, highly motivated and have a notable skill set that responders can utilise to measurably increase the effectiveness of responses. Heather Leson, a Toronto based crisis mapper and volunteer leader with both CrisisCommons and the SBTF notes:

“Volunteers exhibit respect for existing institutions, they follow protocols and hierarchy (essentially, they want to work within the systems to share their knowledge).”

The tools of crisis coordination

So too, the various tools of networked crisis response are very different to each other, though many of them will interoperate, enhancing each other and ensuring that responders are in a strong position when gathering, analysing and interpreting the rapidly emerging and frequently changing information inherent in conflict and disasters.

While already richly used by the networked communities, and in increasing use by OCHA, the US State Department and others, there is far too little knowledge and little to no use of these tools amongst Australian civil-military officials. More than anything, this represents a significant missed opportunity; we could be building real technical skills in the use of these tools, and in concert with the interaction with the volunteer communities already mentioned, making significant gains in civil-military intelligence gathering and data management capacity.

Bringing the civil-military community into the networked world

It is critical that the individuals and agencies in the civil-military sector become mature users of these technologies, familiar with the concomitant culture and active participants in the various VTC networks. There are a number of  relatively well-known individuals and agencies who are or are becoming highly competent, but they remain isolated.

In Australia, the QPS remains the sole agency with a significant role in the civil-military sector that has exhibited any real competence and experience with, and trust of, social technology. Their response to the recent Queensland floods, actively using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to both disseminate and gather intelligence about a rapidly changing disaster situation, is a textbook example of how an official agency can effectively use social media to engage a community. Indeed, use of social tools is now the first point of call for the QPS with respect to “getting the information out there”, to quote the Head of QPS Media, Kym Charlton, a self-admitted former social media skeptic. Equally, Charlton notes that QPS rely heavily on incoming messages from social media and the diverse community connected to them through social networks in order to make better sense of rapidly changing events such as the recent Queensland floods.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the international civil-military community would benefit from the capacity to collaborate and interact beyond the bounds of meeting physically around the world several times each year. An online community, let’s call it CivMilNet, would enable civil-military officials from across the various sectors involved to come together and discuss issues and ideas outside the limits of physical meetings. The technology to do this already exists and is in place, operating globally and realising real benefits for a number of communities including NGOs and public servants. Outside official civil-military actors, the various VTCs already have active and functional communities that coordinate and analyse their work online.

Such a community has been proposed by several civil-military officials in Australia and elsewhere. As an example,  the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs has an active and functioning social network, PTSC-Online, used for sector collaboration.

Should it be realised, CivMilNet has the potential to overcome the gap between being good at collaborating while on deployments and writing up post-action reports and the implementation of lessons learned. In particular, it potentially provides an ongoing place for issues to be argued and new ideas to be mooted as a complement to the formal exercise and conference/roundtable approaches that are current practice before lessons learned are folded into doctrine.

Such a community should not be formed without actively seeking to involve the various volunteer technical communities such as CrisisCommons and CrisisMappers, OpenStreetMap, and the Standby Task Force as well as the organisations developing crisis management tools such as Ushahidi. Beyond Australia, these organisations are already interacting closely with government and NGOs and have built strong trust relationships.

Linkages with Australian Government policy agenda

Engaging with the networked crisis management communities and building capacity in the use of the tools used by these communities has strong linkages with many of the reforms currently underway in the Australian defence and public sectors. The Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence’s own conceptual framework notes the need to adopt flexible and collaborative approaches, tying such activities into the wider innovation reforms proposed in the Moran Review of the Australian public sector, Ahead of the Game. So too, developments and forecasts for change in Australian defence capability in documents such as Force 2020 and the Defence White Paper 2009 highlight the need for increased networking and collaboration capacity within Defence and between Defence and its partners.

What now?

In Australia, the US, the UK and elsewhere, including on a multinational/UN basis, there are painfully few examples of truly skilled individuals and agencies with an official civil-military remit using social and collaborative technologies in either disaster or conflict management. Nor are they actively participating in networks of expertise and collaborating with them in order to improve their capacity to act.

A number of events are already taking place around the region; events the civil-military community are not engaging with. These include Bridging the Gap Think Tank, in Sydney on 21 May and the global Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) in 16 locations around the world in early June. Not actively participating in these events represents a singular missed opportunity for the civil-military sector.

Many Australian organisations across the conflict and disaster management community are now increasingly aware of the value of the use of social technologies and hyperconnectivity to improve the way they work, including during times of crisis. Several agencies, including the Attorney-General’s Department  have signalled they intend to investigate these approaches and a number of events to discuss experiences, research and views have been held.

Investigation, however, is not enough.

There is more than adequate academic and organisational research and use-in-practice evidence to show that organisations involved in official civil-military response gain measurable insight and response capability, even in the face of emergent, rapidly changing and significantly complex events when they engaged and working with technologically adept networked communities such as CrisisMappers and SBTF. In the words of GFDRR manager, Saroj Kumar Jha:

“The use of Volunteer Technology Communities (VTCs) made possible by new Web 2.0 technologies present a fundamental shift in how we can support Disaster Risk Management programs and intervene in disaster situations. We are only at the beginning of this story. The seeds planted through initiatives like the Crisis Commons and Random Hacks of Kindness hold great promise for the future.”#

Australian civil-military agencies, and in all likelihood their equivalents elsewhere need to act to improve their capacity to engage with networked communities around crisis and disaster management.

To build skills and knowledge, as the US State Department is doing in at home and globally, so too DFAT, the Department of Defence and AusAID could actively engage with the volunteer technical communities, building relationships and expertise on both sides.

An international research effort as well as events akin to RHoK and CrisisCamp, should be sponsored by civil-military organisations such as the Asia-Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence and their international peers. This activity would explicitly seek to involve the various communities – VTCs, academia, the innovation sector, CrisisCommons, The Standby Task Force and others – with an aim of fostering good working relationships and incorporating culture change, tools and practices and lessons learned with respect to the inclusion of networked communities in disaster and conflict response into civil-military doctrine by July 2012.

Building trust and strong relationships is an important first step. These actions could facilitate collaboration between the official and volunteer actors in the civil-military, disaster management and crisis response sectors, would improve knowledge amongst all involved and would certainly improve the capacity to respond effectively and efficiently to events in the future.

Why are we even arguing about this?

Presented to the AGM of the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship and for the product launch of IntranetManager.NET.

It was just lucky that two groups asked me to present on essentially the same content on consecutive days.

Just 10 or so years ago, we were arguing whether email was necessary for our staff to do their work.

Not long before that we were arguing over the value of giving them phones on their desks. And Heaven forbid we give them long distance access!

At the same time, I doubt any of us even considered the corporate web site as a critical business asset.

15 years ago, the public Internet and the web were in their infancy, and we weren’t certain at all what we should be doing with them.

So why now, are we arguing about the value of social media for our businesses? There’s a wealth of good research on the returns for business on factors such as customer service, product development, innovation, findability of information and brand reputation.

For no good reason many businesses seem highly reluctant to allow staff to participate in social media activity – either internally or in public. I doubt there’s anyone in the room today that gives a second thought to the importance of the corporate web site, staff email and personal phones for all staff.

Why is this?

Today, we live in a world where almost everything about your business is public information. Not only that, the world is now hyperconnected in a way that makes discoverability and conversation about you a trivial exercise.

A few seconds of effort at Google and I can discover who your management team are. Shortly after that, a slightly more diverse search on Google, Plaxo, LinkedIn, Facebook and perhaps MySpace will give me a pretty intimate window into the business.

It’s quite possible that I’ll have a window into personal lives of many of your employees and probably your management team and board of directors. I’ll know where they’ve worked and when. What people thought of them. I might even know what they wore to the last New Years’ Eve fancy dress party and whether I think they have a sense of humor.

With not much more additional effort, I’ll know what your customers think of your products and of your business. What’s good, and what’s bad. And why.

I’ll be able to consume a vast range of opinions – a conversation – around your offerings.

Are you participating in that conversation? If you’re not, there’s nothing you can do about it. It will go on regardless.

In the end, you have two choices, and I’m not being extreme here – join the conversation and thrive, or die.

And to join the conversation you need to cede some control. Not all of it. Just some.

It’s actually highly likely that your staff are already taking part in this conversation on your behalf. Wouldn’t it be better if they had your backing?

The emergence in the past five years of blogs and wikis, of social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and of empowering publishing platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and similar tools have fundamentally changed the way you and your business need to interact with your customer base.

They have also shifted the power base – away from the PR flacks, the marketers and the heritage media into the hands of the people formerly known as the audience. Today, the audience is no more. They are your collaborators and your users. Whether you like it or not.

The Obama campaign used these tools – the tools of social media – to groundbreaking and groundswelling effect. Have no doubt that a significant and measurable part of the success of the Obama campaign was due to the grassroots empowerment of the volunteer community through the use of social media. Let’s look at some of the numbers:

Platform Obama McCain Difference
Facebook 2379102 supporters 620359 supporters 380%
MySpace 833161 friends 217811 friends 380%
YouTube 1792 videos since Nov 2006
114599 subscribers
Channel views 18413110
329 videos since Feb 2007
28419 subscribers
Channel views 2032993
403% more subscribers
905% more viewers
Twitter 112474 followers 4603 followers 2400%
Branded social network
Numbers not available but estimated in millions
McCain Space
Numbers not available

The use of social media for both Presidential candidates was significant, yet the Obama campaign, appealing directly to a part of the constituency that voted strongly for it, leveraged social media as an incredibly powerful medium to reach out, appeal to voters and garner both contribution and volunteer support.

And now that he has been elected, President-Elect Obama isn’t dropping the ball on social media. He has already released the first of what is to be weekly updates via YouTube.

And now, we have the Greens, Malcolm Turnbull himself, and just last week, the Prime Minister’s office using these tools to conduct an ongoing conversation with their constituency. Canvassing opinion. Discovering previously unknown issues. Connecting and having a meaningful, rich and human conversation.

In Australia though, we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in business adoption of these tools. And even further behind in government use of them.

In the UK for example, Downing Street uses social media tools to allow the PM’s office to speak directly to the constituency. And public sector workers, at an individual level, are expected to engage on subject matter within their are of expertise.

The same approach is being used by a number of successful businesses.

In Australia, Telstra has taken significant steps in the right direction this year after paying attention to the connected, social media using community. Formerly very old-school push-message focused, Telstra has fundamentally changed. Their customer service channel via social media such as Twitter and their Now We Are Talking blogs is arguably a more responsive, easier, more direct and most notably, more human way to get problems fixed than the robot call center that must be navigated in order to talk to someone on the phone.

Beyond our shores, brands such as SAP, IBM, Dell (Dell Community, Twitter), Comcast (video interview, Twitter) and the worlds largest online shoe retailer, Zappos (blogs, Twitter), rely on the reputation and innovation channels they have established via social media channels to get things done quickly, canvas opinion on product development, learn about issues and solve problems easily and in a way that builds reputation rather than customer dissatisfaction.

It’s critical that you empower your staff to be communicators and evangelists for your business. Understand and expect them to take part online in conversations about you and let them do so as a part of their jobs. Right now, stop passing everything through Legal and the Marketing Department and allow the conversation to be real, responsive and human. Your customers and staff will respect you for it.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. Mistakes are human. In today’s social media empowered world, mistakes are expected. So make them fast, cheap and early, and then be real about admitting them and fixing them.

All of this applies equally to efforts inside the wall as it does to external communication. The use of social media tools within your walls provides your business with a wealth of opportunities you simply did not have access to five years ago.

A recent study by McKinsey found that deploying the tools of social media within businesses can be used successfully to address issues such as attraction, engagment and retention, locating expertise, building teams, enhancing flow, understanding workload, flattening communication and organisation structures, transforming leadership and management practice and increasing ability to innovate and change according to market demands.

Significant numbers of businesses are transforming their ability to communicate across the organisation, marshal staff, drive innovation and discover previously unknown expertise within their organisation by using social media tools within their walls.

In Australia, companies such as Janssen-Cilag, Cochlear and Westpac have made significant investment in social media tools to empower their staff to be more efficient and productive.

In today’s financial climate, where customer spending is trending sharply down and the need to be increasingly innovative and competitive is rising, can your business afford not to look closely at these tools? To identify issues that might be solved by them and build and implement a strategy that introduces these tools to make your job easier to do?

A word of warning.

These tools can’t be a bolt-on and nor can they be implemented without some strong strategic analysis.

You need to consider them as an integral part of your strategic plan and of the working life of you and your staff. You must evolve from bureaucracy to infocracy. This move is fundamental to building the conversation, collaboration and community your business needs to ensure ongoing success in the 21st Century. Social tools are not going away and your competitors are adopting them now.

Imagine your business if this was the way you worked.

Enterprise 2.0 – Enabling change or part of the problem?

This is my slide deck and script for the The 6th Annual Enterprise Architecture Conference in Sydney on 3 September 2008.

We all know the world of business is experiencing massive change. The nature of how we do business itself is undergoing a groundswell that redefines work for the early part of the 21st Century.

We can no longer push messages to a passive consumer base, or an equally passive workforce. Customers, stakeholders, consumers, clients and particularly our employees expect, quite rightly, to have a hand in the way your organisation operates. We need to be aware of that, and of the growing power of each of those groups as consumer activism and personal branding become significant considerations in our interactions with them.

The need for collaboration throughout our organisations and effective management of knowledge workers is a driving force for change and innovation. As is the need to attract, engage in meaningful work and retain over time a skilled (and skilled in the right things) workforce.

Continuing to operate by Taylor’s outmoded rules – where the employee is a simple and uninformed cog in the machine – is setting ourselves up for failure and a spectacular and messy crash as we rush headlong into what looks like the light but is actually the onrushing train of progress.

We are at a tipping point. One where we have just two choices; business as usual and the accompanying inevitable crash, or a reboot.

That reboot will change our businesses dramatically.

That change will bring about organisations where empowerment, sharing and open communication are watchwords for this new world. Where walls, gates, silos and unnecessary control are collapsed in favor of a more human place that envisages our businesses as exciting, collaborative, engaging places to be.

Continue reading “Enterprise 2.0 – Enabling change or part of the problem?”

Slouching towards intertwingularity

UPDATE: and now, there’s video! Thanks to the guys at StickyAds and MediaHunter.

These slides and the accompanying text are my presentation from the PubCamp events in Sydney and Melbourne. Enjoy!

If you’re listening in, apologies for how fast I talk. I was on the clock!

Through the Looking Glass

So, the Internet’s a teenager now – 16 years old and quite the rebel. As it hit puberty, we all started taking real notice of how it was behaving. Not all that notice was good. Traditional media – television and newspapers – have made a point of highlighting that the ‘net is apparently full to the brim of pedophiles after your kids and scammers trying to expatriate your hard earned dollars to Nigeria.

But really, if we take a long, hard gaze into Alice’s looking glass, what we see is neither a meadow full of flowers nor a dark wood full of impending danger. What we do see is a tool, perhaps more powerful than we have ever had before, for connecting people and leveraging the almost infinite power of those connections. . The power of, as my friend Mark Pesce puts it, hyperconnectivity.

Let’s first wind the clock back a little for some perspective. Just five years ago, most of the social networking tools I rely on in my business today didn’t even exist – LinkedIn, Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, Twitter, Dopplr, Slideshare. Just five years ago, pretty much all I had was web browsing and email.

Now, the web and email were pretty powerful tools, but not nearly as powerful as the social networking tools I now use all day, every day. One of the very greatest benefits these new tools have afforded me is to be able to connect with a vastly greater number of people who think like me, do work like me, like the same things I like, than I ever could before. The thing is now, that group I connect to – that I used to have to attend a monthly meeting of eight or a dozen of the same people every time and ultimately get bored by… That group is now spread over the entire planet. Despite that geographic dispersion, I get the distinct privilege (and frankly, enjoyment) of working, collaborating and just gossiping with them every day of the week using social networking tools like Twitter.

Humans, ever since the earliest of us could communicate with each other, have banded together in social networks. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means. But now we have, literally at our fingertips, a network that truly makes our village global. With no more difficulty than stepping next door to my neighbor’s house, I can connect with people that share interests with me – professional or personal – no matter where they are in the world. And I do.

Now, with a lot of those people, my connection is pretty loose. This type of connection is known as a weak tie and was initially described way back before the Internet, in 1973, by Stanford University sociologist Mark Granovetter. What Granovetter was describing is a loosely connected network, bridged by two or more people who know each other mostly in passing, rather than intimately. At first blush, this doesn’t look like something that can induce an “a-ha” moment. But if you look a little deeper at weak ties, you discover something a little earth shattering. And it’s something we should all be paying attention to, particularly in the context of the businesses we work in.

Weak ties have a special superpower, you see. Because what happens when people that come together based on weak ties – a project team from across a company, for example – is pretty special. Those weakly tied individuals act as bridges between the various strongly tied networks each individual represents. These bridges perform a number of functions – they import new ideas, they foster innovation through diverse opinion, they solve problems. Much more so than strongly tied networks, which tend to homogeneity – a death knell for innovation.

The thing about weak ties, as opposed to strong ties, is they take very little effort to maintain. Consequently, there’s no reason to not make a lot of weakly tied connections with people. Social networks make this weak tied connection incredibly easy to do. The cognitive hurdle imposed by the Dunbar Number that limits your ability to maintain strong ties is mediated by your ability in a social network to maintain weak, but easily accessible ties to potentially hundreds, or even thousands of people that might be able to help you solve a problem (or you solve theirs) at any moment.

What you’re doing at a time like this, is engaging in what’s termed participatory culture. Participatory culture is a break from the Taylorist Industrial Age model many of us have become used to in our complacency – a culture where value is derived from what you’ve already produced, endlessly re-produce like a factory widget and are carefully protecting, hiding and resting upon in the vainglorious hope that others will continue to perceive your value based on your past.

This is not participatory culture.

What participatory culture is – whether at work or in our social, non-work lives – is based upon not only what we have established our reputations on given our ability to produce, and more importantly openly share in the past, but what our reputation in this new economy builds expectation for us as yet to produce. The economy of participatory culture is based on sharing, on distribution of expertise and knowledge and on social capital, traded amongst the geographically and informationally dispersed members of our communities as we exploit the power of our weak ties to solve problems, innovate and drive quantum leaps in knowledge.

Tick Tick

It’s a fact that the past few years have seen a marked drop off in the number of hours each week people are listening to the radio and watching television. Just a few weeks ago, NYU professor, Clay Shirky, described the past 50 years of Western humanity’s passive consumption of media as an enormous “cognitive heatsink“. I couldn’t agree more.

While TV certainly has its place – and I’m no stranger to vegging out on the couch – there’s probably no argument that passive consumption of media – TV, radio, newspapers – is pretty unproductive.

Shirky’s prime example was Wikipedia. Recent research has established Wikipedia to be as or more accurate than the previous gold standard, the Encyclopedia Britannica. And, for the English language version, it’s estimated that around 100 million hours of human effort have gone into its production. While that seems like a lot, it’s actually equivalent to just the number of hours Americans spend each weekend watching ads.

Does that make you feel a little ill? Because it does me. Think about it for a moment… Humanity in North America alone, could be producing work of the value of Wikipedia every weekend, if people just participated on subject matter in their area of expertise during the ads!

Our kids get this. They expect to be able to participate. To interact. They don’t respond to pushed messages. They produce their own media and post it to YouTube for their friends to enjoy. They watch measurably fewer hours of television than many of us did at their age.

It doesn’t much matter if today your 15-year-old is playing a few hours of Grand Theft Auto a week, because he’s also probably contributing to and sharing in a vast pool of player knowledge about it that others also share and contribute to. In a few short years he and his classmates of both sexes will be in the workforce – and the kids ahead of them already are – and they’ll expect to share, to participate and contribute and to build social capital and recognition through their ability to do this.

If your organisation isn’t geared up to let this happen, sadly, you’ll be well behind the 8-ball. You need to make it happen now – break down silos, encourage open participation, treat staff like grown ups and stop using the firewall as a stick to block access to social networking tools. The fact is, if you don’t encourage participatory behaviours at work, you stifle innovation, reduce employee engagement and risk huge value in tacit knowledge walking out the door as valuable employees leave in search of clued up employers who do encourage participatory culture within and across their organisational walls.


So, I’ve been rattling on about participatory culture, and social networking and how much value I think there is in all of this, but where’s the real world story? Well, it’s here.

Just last week, I attended a major conference on Enterprise 2.0 in Boston, Massachusetts. The conference covered issues, success stories and tools that can be used in business to forge the types of communication and knowledge sharing that many of us are already doing in our personal lives by using social networking tools. The 1500 delegates shared four fairly intense days together – hearing stories, seeing demonstrations and doing face-to-face social networking.

One of the major benefits to me was the chance to meet in person over 50 people I’ve been collaborating and communicating with online for as much as the past two years. These people came from as far away as the Canary Islands, Germany, the UK and across the USA. I didn’t need to meet them in person to be able to continue to collaborate with them, but the chance to do so was too good to pass up. It really was an opportunity to crank the dial to 11.

So, how did I meet these people in the first place? The answer, as you’ve probably guessed, is social networking and participatory culture. There’s a constant pulse of conversation, collaboration and participation with the people I consider, in some cases, my extended family – as I’ve forged relationships with them as strong as any I have in my local circle of friends.

When I get up in the morning, the Aussies are all rising with me – I get to talk to Ali, Jodie, Jed, Mark and a bunch of others here on the east coast. But at the same time, I get to talk to the Americans who are close to the end of their day – Tara in San Francisco, Laura and Chris in Boston, Paull in New York and others and, as the day progresses, I begin to encounter the Europeans – Luis in the Canary Islands, Mark in Germany, Justin in London. And every day is like this! It’s almost a privilege to be involved with all these smart, engaged and engaging people.

We heard a bunch of amazing, real success stories from organisations as different as the CIA (I met two real life CIA analysts), Lockheed Martin, Goodwin Procter (a 1500 person full service legal firm) and others. All of these organisations are realising tangible benefits by encouraging an open, engaged corporate culture where use of social networking tools is encouraged – sometimes completely inside the wall, sometimes across corporate boundaries.

And in your personal and professional lives, too, there are great stories to be told. Stories of experiences, knowledge, adventure, relationships.

You all have the power to return tomorrow to your organisations and communities and encourage people to start working this way. To build relationships, to establish weak ties, to share and participate and to build your reputations based upon the next big thing you’re going to come up with, rather than that which you’re resting on today.

For our society to take the next big step, the power of participatory culture; a culture where everything is intertwingled, needs to be exploited. It’s not 2020 Summits that are going to fling us forward, it’s the power in the network of opportunity we immerse ourselves in.

Go forth and participate.

Conversation. Collaboration. Community.

Here you go… My talk from Interesting South 2008.
Unusually, I was incredibly nervous before and during this talk. I’m dreading seeing the video, as I don’t think it’ll be at all flattering or indicative of my usual style. I guess it was a combination of factors – really wanting to present at this event, being late in the schedule (which ran well over time), there being so many great talks on the night with me being third last and having so many people in the audience that I respect highly and whose opinions I value (thanks for being there – Jodie, James, Mick, Mark, Brad, Annalie, Jed, Kate, Gavin, Hans, Alan, Seth – you made the night for me, despite possibly adding to my terror).

By now, many of you will have seen Clay Shirky’s great Web 2.0 Expo keynote, Gin, Television and Social Surplus. The link is in the slides. If you’ve not seen it, you need to; it’s inspiring, transformative stuff. I’m actually a little cross at Clay. He obviously sent aliens to steal my ideas for this talk.

When Clay speaks about the collective societal bender we’ve been on, he’s talking about us failing to make adequate use of the cognitive surplus we all have and are wasting by failing to participate actively. That said, it’s my view that some of the structure business has imposed upon society’s activities since it took the form it currently has during the Industrial Revolution actively work to make it difficult for groups of people throughout society to come together in a meaningful, productive way.

Bastard children of the Industrial Revolution

As humans, we’re social creatures. Beyond core physical and safety requirements, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is largely about integration into society; love, esteem and self-actualisation. We crave association; a community of some form, with others through family, work, school, sport or other interests. Yet the structures that we’ve built into society post-Industrial Revolution belittle those needs. At work in particular and in groups of all sorts, the needs of people have been bastardised into a corrupt form that meets the supposed needs of the of group at the expense of individuals.

We’re dumped into cube farms, or onto factory lines and told to work as a team. Yet it’s often the case that in working this way, our ability to converse and collaborate effectively with our fellow beings is removed from us. They’re removed through the imposition of bureaucracy, through command-and-control structures we’re forced to navigate and through being given work that fails to engage us.

Often, too, the tools we’re furnished with work as if some Infernal power gleefully watches as we’re forced to work against logic and against the way humans are naturally inclined to function. The storyteller in all of us is subjugated in favor of the need for us to be “productive” and our community stops being smart and becomes another dysfunctional cog in some dark satanic mill. In this situation, getting anything done becomes an issue. Our ability to collaborate and have a useful conversation goes the way of the committee. We get wrapped up in the Hell of email and Word documents as track changes and minutia rule and we suffer the pain of never being able to know which version is the latest, or which decision the group has made. We become massively inefficient. We’ve had it hammered into us by our archaic, Industrial Revolution functional model that the org chart rules and bureaucracy is king.

I am not a number — I am a free man!

Communities, by their very nature, engage in conversation constantly. But community by committee is a death by a thousand cuts. Under this model, your community becomes Desperate Housewives; the cognitive heat-sink where conversation and collaboration go to die. Where innovation is consumed by the Cthulhu that is bureaucracy.

It need not be this way. Your community conversations can be amazingly fruitful if the DNA of your community is lightweight. By introducing a culture that facilitates communication, that flattens hierarchy and breaks down organisational silos so that anyone, anywhere in your organisation or business can easily work with anyone else you can route around the damage inefficient tools and process impose.

By rocking the boat a little culturally, engaging in a little organisational entrepreneurship and using the tools of participatory culture; social networks like Twitter, wikis and blogs for example, you can introduce an environment where individuals can converse, groups can collaborate and an engaged, active and productive community can flourish.

Making the leap

Here’s a really simple example of how this approach can work.

I’ve driven this change this year at my daughter’s school. I was elected to the school board at the end of last year and went through a minor level of Hell as I was inundated with emails and processes that were almost gleeful in their inefficiency. At the first meeting I attended, as the new Secretary, I simply declared my opposition to the inefficient, bureaucratic processes being used and noted I was going to show everyone a new way – using a wiki for documents and communication and using Google calendar for keeping track of school events.

I got a few knowing nods, a few “so show me’s” and three or four “what’s a wiki”. I asked for a week to show everyone and got agreement. In two days, they had full meeting notes – every member of the board had logged on, most had added comments or notes and in subsequent months, we’re down from 20 to two emails a month – a “thanks for coming to the meeting last night” from Mark, the Chairman and another from him the day before the next meeting reminding us to turn up.

By changing the tools and focus of the group, we’ve now got near-instant conversation. Much easier collaboration and a stronger community. The staff and board members are so excited by the opportunities this simple change has wrought that they are now seriously talking about expanding wiki use into the classroom and between teacher groups for professional development. This from a group of people who previously largely used computers for email, document writing and web browsing. Now, everyone’s involved and participating.

The Desperate Housewives heat-sink is being militated against by the introduction of a tool set that makes it easy for people to have a conversation; even though we all work in different places we can access it from the Internet. We can collaborate on action items and ideas and we have a stronger community as a result. And were making a difference for the school.

It’s just as easy to do this for the communities you’re involved in; whether they’re at work or somewhere else. Imagine the gains in productivity and engagement, in knowledge sharing and distribution and in the ability to work together effectively without bureaucracy if you did this.

The sooner you do it, the better off you’ll be.

I Am Knowledge Worker 2.0

My brain is very full ¾ of the way through Office 2.0. There are some amazing things being discussed here, and I think there’s enough of a business presence (rather than vendors and those who live in the Web 2.0 echo chamber) for some changes to take place. There are also some astounding new products on show – almost too many to take in in any sensible way.

I’ve just given my presentation – I am Knowledge Worker 2.0 – Hear me roar which went really well. I got some great feedback from the audience and lots of great questions. The video is already available at the conference site (choose the On Demand Video tab and select Knowledge Worker 2.0 and then look at some of the others, or go to the direct link).

The presentation discusses the work style, motivation and some of the issues around the modern knowledge worker and how they can be managed in your organisation.

Power to the people

Here’s the deck I presented at the IIM National Conference yesterday. It’s a look at the shift in the nature of KM, knowledge work and knowledge workers and what their organisations can do to make their own and their employees’ lives easier.

The presentation went over really well. It’s always good when passionate but friendly discussion takes place after you give a presentation. It’s even better when you have audience members approach you and let you know that they were delighted to see a more visual, story-focussed presentation.

The presentation was videoed and recorded, so some time soon, I’ll have access to audio. In the meantime, if you’d like my speaking notes, I’m more than happy to give them to you if you leave a comment asking for them.