Archive for October, 2007

How to respond to customer needs for innovative tools

I’ve bleated on in the past about the virtues of experimenting outside the confines of the corporate hosting infrastructure – both to protect the core web services and to pilot new tools and ideas. As organisational online requirements increasingly extend beyond the corporate domain, its essential that new ideas are developed, channels investigated and knowledge and skillsets built up.

There’s been some debate in the blogosphere over the last few days about the difficulties of experimentation and innovation in corporate environments – pointing out the inability of corporate IT functions to respond to user needs through a combination risk averseness and bureauocracy amongst other things.

The debate seems to have been kicked off over at the 37 Signals blog. If you don’t know who 37 Signals are, they are worth investigating because they build online business tools (project management, CRM, billing etc) for small businesses. They’re particularly popular with US web companies for their ease of use and flexibility.

Dave Winer and Jeremiah Owyang both chipped in with their respective takes on the reasons users in large organisations bypass IT and embrace some of these tools, and how IT departments need to respond.

I couldn’t sympathise more. I was recently consulting for a customer who essentially required a small intranet for a geographically disparate group of users that don’t have access to the GSI (the government secure intranet). To provide them with that access would be prohibitively expensive – they’d never be able to justify it on a cost basis – so building content on our intranet was out. A bespoke extranet was also out, just too expensive to build for such a small group of users when the security requirements were introduced into the mix.

But something like 37 Signals’ Basecamp costs peanuts in comparison to set up and provides all the functionality they need – document sharing., project tracking, collaborative document working and even live web chatting. For $50 a month we can set up a number of these group work spaces with industry standard encryption and minimal set up or ongoing intervention required by the web team.

There are some issues that need resolving before you can use these kinds of tools, such as data security and how you can extract / export data for the corporate record. Equally, you may find that your corporate firewall prevents you from accessing some or all of the functionality. But that’s the whole point of experimentation, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t.

These issues are in no way insurmountable though. I can certainly recommend Basecamp and similar products (such as central desktop) as a low cost and effective way of deploying collaborative workspaces.

I’ve referred to the work Simon Dickson recently did in setting up a blog for the NHS Darsi review. Another good example of using best of breed tools at little cost. If you don’t have the skills required in-house to set something like that up reckon five to ten days of your favourite freelancer’s time to sort it out for you (I know it doesn’t take that long to set up a blog itself but there is plenty of associated work required, especially if you want to make it look as integrated with the corporate domain as the NHS blog does).

But I also have sympathy with the position the IT departments find themselves in (you don’t know how hard it was to write those words….). One commenter on Jeremiah’s post summed up how the perceived intransigence can be overcome.

“Any organization actually looking to deploy social media technology needs to have the IT department support them. Not doing so would be a waste of time, money, and resources. If you can’t get the support than you are selling the wrong people.

Step 1. develop social media concept

Step 2. implement pilot on your own time

Step 3. sell your management on the idea

Step 4. leverage you management buy-in to develop corporate strategy

Step 5. use corporate strategy to get funding and prioritization for IT

Step 6. bring project to IT for company wide implementation

If you make it to step 6, you are well on your way to a good implementation. Keep in mind step 4 & 5 are the hardest!! Convincing senior management that your little social media/collaboration project is just as important as business continuity or an ERP implementation will be hard. The data from the pilot will be critical. The buy-in will also be critical.

Then again, you could skip the IT department, implement it yourself, and become an IT support person yourself instead of a strategist or innovator….”

I think that’s absolutely right. There’s simply no point in trying to experiment within the corporate environment. Its too expensive and they won’t recognise the real value of using these tools initially until somebody proves it (what doubting Thomases that lot are). I did try and get quotations for deploying social media tools on the corporate infrastructure so that we could use them on the intranet. The prices quoted would have bought me a few nice cars. But for those tools to work long-term you can’t ignore the IT department and our role is to prove their value to the business so that IT want to work with you to deply them.

There is a real tension between best of breed, open source tools such as blogging platforms, that cost little to set up and use – and so called enterprise solutions that attempt to do everything but never seem to work as well (but cost the earth in comparison). That tension can only be overcome with proof that the cheaper tools deliver better value, not because they are cheaper but because they perform the function better.

Interested to know if others are using online tools and applications to deliver services, what they are using and how successful they are. I know you are a shy lot commenting here .so an email would be good. I’m interested in anything that you’ve used hosted away from your corporate hosting environment or that’s provided online (surveys, forms, blogs, wikis, project management tools, using social networks etc etc).

Putting ‘increasingly irrelevant websites’ in context

Valuable comment from a local government webby following my post about visiting the public sector web manager’s group conference a few weeks back.

James from East Devon raises issue with me about Lincolnshire council’s plan to turn off their intranet in three years time. I said that it was ‘an obvious extension of the ‘corporate website is increasingly irrelevant‘ mantra’.

James responds that the Lincolnshire ‘intranet’ isn’t really that at all, its a knowledge management tool with no integration to online systems or directories.

“All of that, of course, is an internal issue for Peter and his council but I wouldn’t want anyone reading your blog to think that it was an endorsement of “corporate websites being increasingly irrelevant”. I believe they’re more relevant than ever and can be used in increasingly creative ways to improve delivery of information, systems and communication.”

I agree with James that corporate websites and intranets are valuable and relevant tools. They’re not going to disappear in a hurry. I think there’s a difference between ‘increasingly irrelevant’ and ‘dead as a dodo’ so perhaps I should explain what I think it is.

For many organisations up to now, including in the public sector, ‘web’ has meant their internet and intranet sites. Companies have recognised the need to be online and responded by resourcing teams or outsourcing requirements for a corporate presence online. Those sites have typically expanded over the years; some strategically and user-focused, others sprawling with legacy content and design.

The point that Jeremiah Owyang makes is that, for most organisations, owned and controlled domains – and the desire that they rank high in search results – has been their only requirement for online activity up to now. That has to change as new methods of online marketing, outreach and engagement develop and mature.

Corporate domains will continue to be important (and for government there are specific issues around being a trusted source for information) but they will increasingly exist as part of a wider mix of digital channels that organisations will need to appropriately utilise. This is nothing new, its fairly classic marketing and communications theory – audiences, needs, messages and appropriate delivery channels.

The ‘irrelevance’ stems from them potentially becoming less important if your audience is elsewhere online. Why put all your resources into your corporate domain if engagement would be more effective elsewhere? We use this line of thought at MoJ to support our use of Direct Gov:

The corporate domain is primarily for stakeholders. We get between 300,000 and 500,000 unique visitors a month. Direct Gov is primarily for citizens. They get between 10 and 15 times our monthly traffic. Why create online content and services for citizens and locate it on our domain when the chances of reaching the very people that want them are massively increased elsewhere?

Similarly, if your staff have internet access why spend large sums of money procuring collaborative tools for your intranet when similar (and often better) tools exist online and cost very little to use? (assuming there are no data security issues of course…)

Of course, many public sector organisations are only resourced to manage their corporate web presences and intranets at present. That’s what makes the challenge interesting and more difficult – how to respond to the opportunities with limited resources and build a case for doing it.

Does that make sense?

Govt webbies – the next generation?

Congratulations to Neil Williams, web manager at Communities and Local Government, whose wife gave birth to their first child at the weekend. Enjoy the paternity leave Neil, a few weeks of sleep deprivation and dirty nappies will make website rationalisation seem positively simple after that…

At the public sector web management group conference

Back from Birmingham, and from solving a few ‘local difficulties’ with my broadband supplier, with some observations on attending the inaugural meeting of the public sector web management group.

I travelled up the evening before on the back of a pretty grotty illness so I wasn’t expecting much in terms of my contribution or what I would pick up. I was right on the former but on the latter, the event was very enlightening.

The key (but I suppose unsurprising) thing was how much central government and local government webbies have got in common – similar concerns (central control, lack of budget or resources, great desire to improve things for the citizen) and a great deal of goodwill about sharing knowledge and expertise. Whilst our perspectives might be different our aims are pretty aligned.

It was good to finally meet up with people I only knew previously from their websites, blogs or rants and get their slant on the issues affecting public sector web. There was a genuine commitment to  try and improve our lot collectively and a small committee has formed to try and harness the goodwill and  keep the momentum going.

The things that stood out for me:

  • Strong desire to use our collective voice for putting forward an ‘industry view’ on matters of consultation and debate around the development of public sector online
  • Revelation from one of the speakers that the next stage of their intranet development is ‘turning it off in three years time’ – an obvious extension of the ‘corporate website is increasingly irrelevant‘ mantra
  • Good mix of visionaries and pragmatists – ‘Second Life is the future, you should give it a go’ vs ‘You cannot justify spending a single penny in Second Life until you get your email distribution and website usability right’ (couldn’t agree more…)

All in all, an excellent event. Credit to Dan Champion and Public Sector Forums for putting it on. Hopefully next time I won’t feel so crap and remember to take more notes.

Quick reminder – public sector web management group

I’ve mentioned this before, but a gentle nudge in your direction.

Next Wednesday (10th) is the inaugural meeting of the public sector web management group in Birmingham. If you think its important for public sector webbies to work together to share experience, best practice and improve standards then you should be there and get involved.

There’s an awful lot we can all learn from each other – I’m always rather chastened in the presence of local government webbies, they seem to be much more sophisticated in managing and developing their domains – and its important to support initiatives like this.

If you really can’t make it, you might be interested to know that the conference will be broadcast live in Second Life (is that still going? 😉 ). You’ll need to register in advance so check the details if that’s how you’ll participate.

Hope to see you there. (P.s. they’re not paying me for this ad!).

Social media isn’t the tools

Might sound blindingly obvious to webbies.

No doubt some of you experience the same conversations with policy colleagues. They’re desperate to have a shiny blog/wiki/forum (delete as appropriate), not interested examining interaction online with existing communities or partnering. They just WANT A BLOG, NOW!

Then you mention resourcing the initiative. Facilitation, moderation, community management. Whatever. This is the point at which you often lose them. When the realise the true scale of online engagement. They thought it was easy…

Anyway, this isn’t some rant about educating customers about the correct interactions, tools and uses of social media I promise. That can no doubt wait until another day (and another, and another…).

No, its a simple observation about how generating and keeping momentum in online engagement is absolutely paramount and not to be underestimated in its resource intensity.

Remember my post a few months back about the civil service network in Facebook? (do people still use Facebook..?). When I wrote about it, the network had reached a massive 13,022 members and was growing at a rate of around 200 per day. Full of thrusting young new faststream entrants who live online. Digital natives, if you will.

As the community built a head of steam. One of the wiser, (slightly) older heads in government who ‘gets this stuff’ asked a particularly pertinent question:

“Wow! 13,000 civil servants in one place! What do we do now?”

The response was staggering in its response – just a few dozen suggesting, variously, starting a new union, having a party, changing a lightbulb and (my favourite) forming a committee (how mandarin like)…

Can’t say I visit the network’s page very often given the staggering depth of conversation that goes on there but tonight I dipped in for a minute to discover…..

Nearly 8,000 members of the network have disappeared. Now I appreciate there’s staff turnover and all but that’s a drastic reduction in the numbers. It just goes to show that you can deploy the tools and create the spaces but without energy and enthusiasm you’re going to face an uphill struggle.

Even in Facebook with its exposure and scale. It just took me a minute to find the ‘leave this network’ link (bottom left of any network homepage if you’re interested) which leads me to conclude two things: its harder to leave than just to stay a member so its a real conscious decision to depart and I can’t believe that all those 8,000 have left Facebook in its entirety. Perhaps they really didn’t want their other ‘friends’ to know they are civil servants?

Another government webbie blogging

Darren Taylor, head of the central web team for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, has recently started blogging. Darren’s got a particular interest in accessibility so it will be interesting to follow his thoughts, especially as his technical knowledge appears to be light years ahead of mine.

He’s already posed a few thoughts in response to my recent post about government beginning to get social media, including a social networking site for MPs and a pan-public sector wiki for publishing FOI releases. Like the last one in particular and have heard others mention this before as a good idea.

Darren also makes a pertinent point about the flavour of the month social networking sites (Facebook et al) and asks ‘has much changed since Geocities’? Thinks may be a bit more sophisticated now and there’s more scale to the audience but I think the nub of his point rings true.