Archive for June, 2008

Getting the language right

This wonderful world of the web is littered with jargon and buzzphrases. Terms like internet, world wide web, online, new media, digital, virtual, social media, web2.0, semantic web, collaborative web, conversational web etc etc get used – often interchangeably – to the point at which it can all become thoroughly confusing even to those who think they know what they are talking about.

I’m a marketer by background, and I love the challenge of playing with words to try and demystify something. Of course the opposite is what normally happens in that you just end up in creating new jargon to confuse people more.

The other side is to get all ‘expert’ in an attempt to educate people about the true meaning of the terms, but that’s often not much use either (just get a few drinks down me for a pedant’s explanation of the difference between the web and the internet… guaranteed sleep inducer).

None of this confusion helps.

All this is particularly pertinent for me right now. I’m having more and more conversations about the potentially transformative nature of the web, and helping non-web colleagues to identify how the tools and opportunities can help them do their jobs better.

One project is working with my press office. A project they called the ‘New media Working Group’. My immediate response was to blanch at the title. But that is really missing the point (because the actual project is great).

You can gauge a lot about the level of knowledge of a person or a group by their use of terminology.

Knowing which terms have resonance and currency with those you seek to influence or work with is a real boon, rather than demonstrating your own ‘superior’ knowledge.

Whilst it’s tempting to educate others, it’s only worth it where its important. Its equally important not to patronise or appear to be pedantic.

But even talking ‘tech’ can confuse the matter – it’s much better to talk in terms that your audience understands. For me that revolves around problems and finding solutions rather than talking blogs or wikis.

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How do we solve a problem like gov2.0?

Had a great evening tonight discussing how government can embrace the opportunities of web2.0 with a bunch of interesting people – including ministers, senior officials, entrepreneurs and IT providers.

Hosted by the ever-genial crew from Ideal Government, the imposition of the Chatham House rules forbids me from going into detail about the discussion.

But the fact that we were even talking about it, and the fact that the group of people around the table all had a pretty sophisticated view on the subject, was to me a major step change. Twelve months ago I doubt we would have even been having the conversation at all.

Ideal Government will be posting a summary of the discussion shortly, and I don’t want to abuse their hospitality by stealing their thunder. So here are just a few thoughts that chimed with me:

  • A real recognition that innovation doesn’t have to cost a lot but we just need to just try things. I’d add that we also need to ensure that the good stuff that is already going on is identified and surfaced so we can learn better from each other.
  • A feeling that incumbent IT providers have little to gain from promoting free, open source (market leading) collaborative tools as it threatens their business models. Must admit I hadn’treally given much thought to this before but it certainly feels right.
  • We need to recognise that government won’t always be best place to deliver innovation around public services or information. We need to be prepared to cede control and create the environment for others to act as intermediaries or have access to our data so they can create value from it. This is crucial, we have enough to do just improving our basic services online and not be distracted by the cool stuff (I’m regularly guilty of this, new betas are sooo seductive…).

Thank you Ideal Government for hosting the dinner. The more conversations people have, the more often, the better.

Interesting2008: fascinating and inspiring

When Russell Davies first floated the idea last year of holding an event full of interesting speakers, I was hooked. Unfortunately I couldn’t go due to holidays so when Interesting 2008 was announced, I was determined to go (I don’t know Russell, but am in awe of his energy and his imagination. “How to be interesting” really inspired me when I was in a creative rut”).

Yesterday was the big day and I went along to learn some ‘interesting’ stuff. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact it was great. I’m not going to give a comprehensive review here of all the speakers (others have already begun doing that) just a few things that stuck in my mind (The Guardian will be uploading videos of all the speakers in the next few days. They’re well worth watching if you couldn’t make it).

  • There’s enough Lego bricks in the world that each person could have 62 bricks. Why isn’t Lego made out of wood rather than nasty chemicals? (a great example of pace and brevity from Roo)
  • Horses have a blind spot in front of their noses.
  • We need more creative generalists rather than specialists (moot point for me, plenty of generalists in the civil service, creativity is often at a premium).
  • The ecological footprint of the world would need to expand by two and a half times if we all lived in Salisbury (which has the third best carbon footprint in the UK) – and children need to explore more.
  • The history of popular music and graphic design is interlinked and both inspire each other (phew, this one was a riot).
  • Exploration is not finished, its online.
  • Patagonian mirrors – an amazing method of long distance communication (now sadly long gone).
  • The best time to slaughter calves for ethical veal – “when they stop looking cute”.
  • The cure for insomnia – trash crime fiction (must try this). Can I add, I find a sound asleep pillow to assist in this regard :-).
  • Churchill’s leadership style – improvisation and dare (I’ll go along with that).
  • Funny words are more likely to contain a K than an L in them.
  • Old computers make great musical instruments
  • Turntables make amazing zoetropes

All in all an amazing day. Not perfect by an means. The start (a communal rendition of “The Final Countdown“- you had to be there to appreciate how absolutely effective this was) had everyone pumped up, the meditation after lunch almost sent me to sleep and left me drowsy for the early afternoon set of speakers (though the two pints I had around the corner probably didn’t help). Running longer sessions straight after lunch didn’t help either and didn’t feel as punchy as the morning.

But these are minor quibbles. My real takeaways were:

  • You can learn an awful lot from seemingly random subjects to apply to your own work and life, provided they are interesting. Personal passion from the speakers went a long way in this regard.
  • Not really knowing what’s happening next, and a healthy dose of chaos, makes a conference many times more exciting than the usual corporate dross.

I’d love to see something runalong these lines inside Whitehall to inspire and educate decision makers about the opportunities of online / digital / web and creativity. Who knows, it may happen…

Two more quick things: Lloyd really does have the most amazing voice, and hello to Arthur.

Woo hoo! Social media guidelines for civil servants finally published

Goodness me, hard to believe that civil servants finally have a published set of guidelines on how to participate online. This is a piece of work I really hoped would come out of the GCN social media review I was involved with last year.

Since then, a great deal of effort has gone into drafting guidance on participation online generally, and using social media / web2.0 tools specifically. But as time has drifted, so the guidelines got more and more complicated to the point where they threatened to become unhelpful.

A recent sense check around Whitehall, with support from the egovernment minister has resulted in a much slimmed down set of principles for participation. They’re not perfect, they’re not comprehensive – but its a jolly good start and much welcome.

I understand that some of the denser draft guidance will soon find its way online as supporting information, perhaps on wiki, to allow organisations to develop operational guidance that support the principles. I look forward to seeing that.

In the meantime, the Power Of Information Taskforce are seeking feedback on the guidelines. Please help them to improve this first crack at creating the conditions for civil servants to communicate online safely by letting them know what you think.

Reminder: teacamp this Thursday (19th)

I don’t often post announcements about the teacamps here, but at the last event somebody asked me to do so.

Teacamp is an informal get together of people interested in government web and other online shenanigans. There’s no membership list, no agenda, no obligation to hang around (or even turn up). It’s simply an opportunity to meet other people working on (or interested in) government websites, intranets or other digital/web things. Its a great way to find an expert, discuss a problem or just meet others doing what you do.

If you’re interested, we meet in Cafe Zest, on the top floor of House of Fraser in Victoria Street between 2pm and 4pm. Pop in for half an hour, grab a coffee and chew the fat with us.

There are various websites and services we use to communicate information about the teacamps. One of them is here: http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/691145

There is no obligation to sign up to attend, just roll up whenever it suits you.

At the web2.0strategies conference



At the web2.0strategies conference

Originally uploaded by Jeremy Gould.

I’ve been speaking here today as part of a panel discussion on innovation in the workplace.

One observation – the sheer number of laptops and iphones being used during the sessions.

These aren’t people coming to learn about web2.0 / social media, these are people who do it already and are trying to work out how to do it better within their organisations.

Social media in government – can’t we lead by example please?

There’s been an amusing series of posts published over the past few days about the status of various pieces of government web guidance being developed by COI.

First Jack Pickard noticed that the Delivering Inclusive Websites guidance, for which he had valiantly led a response on behalf of the embryonic Public Sector Web Management Forum, had been published – after six months of radio silence from COI (though to be fair, they did take on board a fair number of Jack’s excellent points).

Then Emma noticed that some of the other guidance documents were ‘in consultation’ and mused how one could become involved in ‘consulting’ on the drafts.

Nick Booth pointed out the faint irony of describing something as being out for consultation, without indicating how any kind of conversation could take place (I’ll ignore the double irony that one of the documents in question is social media guidance aka participative online media).

So Nick put a call into COI’s press office asking how he could respond to the consultation.

Oh dear, today Emma checked the COI site again. Guess what? The documents in question are now simply marked as being ‘in preparation’.

It would be easy to laugh, cry, criticise or bitch about this situation. I’ll do none of them.

I will point out this: government webbies have been waiting a long time for these different sets of guidance to see the light of day. Some of us have been involved in helping to put them together even. But the pace of development has been tortuously slow (the previous guidance was published in 2003 if I remember correctly and work on their replacements has been going on for over a year). The fact that some of them are still ‘in preparation’ is very disappointing.

I’ve said this before to some closer to the work than I – and I repeat it here – why or why didn’t someone take the previous version of the guidance, upload it to a wiki, and invite anyone who wanted to contribute to producing a new version to do so (within reason, perhaps requiring them to register or even restrict it to those whose work would be subject to the guidelines).

I’ve been given a couple of answers:

  1. They want to have something produced that they can upload once they are complete.
  2. Various mutterings about developing cross-government social media platforms that could host this content.

Both of these answers seem a bit misguided to me. Take the second one first – Steve Dale nailed this the other day when building on a post from Euan Semple: there is no one technical ‘solution’ that will work for all requirements. The reason why there are a myriad of wiki and blog platforms is that they all have different functionality and ways of working that suit different needs. Waiting for the magic ‘enterprise’ solution is not only costly, but misguided and wasting time.

In terms of producing the guidance, then publishing it in some kind of controlled collaborative environment – isn’t this rather missing the point? One of the greatest benefits of the social media/web2.0 bandwagon is the ability to collaborate and draw on the ‘collective wisdom of the many’. Trying to backfill ‘collaboration’ onto something signed off and published doesn’t really send the right signal.

Here’s my two’pennth: before anyone drafts any more guidance, take out your credit card and head over to Wikispaces (or a similar hosted wiki service). $1000 (pretty reasonable given the current exchange rate) will buy you a nice hosted wiki which you can rebrand and give a dedicated sub-domain so its nice and official (about half a day’s work?). Upload the drafts as they are now and invite anyone who wants to to help make those guidelines as good as they possibly could be. There are plenty of people out there, right across Whitehall and further afield the wider public sector, who are itching to contribute for everyone’s benefit.

If us webbies in government cannot demonstrate the amazing benefits of social media by our own actions, its a bit rich of us to go round telling anyone who will listen how great the latest online innovations are. Please, lets demonstrate our competences by our behaviour.