Archive for the ‘ digital strategy ’ Category

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.


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.

Things I learnt at the barcamp

So, after lots of planning and stress, the Govweb barcamp took place last Saturday. Just over 80 people – a mix of civil servants, contractors, consultants, freelancers, hackers and critics – gathered at Google’s offices in London to talk government online.

BarcampUKGovweb logo

Big thanks are due to Google for hosting us and snacking us up to the gills, ICELE for providing the lunch, Cable and Wireless for the polo shirts, Hudson for buying the after-event drinks, Emma Mulqueeny for the badges and bags, and all the helpers on the day who made sure the event ran smoothly.

It was a great experience for me: catching up with good contacts, finally putting some names to faces, tech demonstrations, interesting conversations, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream sandwiches courtesy of the Google fridge.

Dave Briggs has very helpfully set up a Pageflakes page to aggregate content about the event from a variety of sources including photos, videos, blog posts, forum discussions and tweets. This will no doubt develop over the coming days.

Now its all over, its difficult to know what to take away from it and what will/could happen next. So here are some initial observations:

  • There was a great deal of goodwill and willingness in the place to work together to improve government’s online stuff. Opportunities to connect, like this event, build relationships and break down mutual mistrust.
  • There are so many simple and good ideas floating around to improve online communication, tools and transactions. Cool stuff – and we need to find better ways to know about them and make them happen.
  • We need to find ways to make partnership between those inside and those around government easier – and promote it as as an alternative method to trying to do everything ourselves. We don’t know all the answers individually, but as a collective we can get closer to the ideal solutions.
  • If we in government want to innovate more, we should also behave more like innovators. The format and style of the barcamp was great and encouraged collaboration and thinking differently. There are other types of gathering and ideas generation techniques that should consider trying – like mini-barcamps, open coffee meets, social media clubs, geek dinners etc. Anything that gets us all out of the day to day work environment is a good thing (probably).
  • Ther is no shame in being called a geek. Im a geek and proud of it. I like the company of other geeks. There I said it.

Question is, how do now we sustain the momentum generated on the day?

Just over a week to the barcamp…

…and things are beginning to hot up, which is one of the reasons why this blog has been so quiet over the last week or so.

A group of volunteers are frantically trying to tie up all the arrangements – including trying to find a benevolent sponsor to pay for the lunch on the day. If you have a particularly friendly and generous corporate IT provider who’d like to support the event, please do let me know quickly.

Over the last week or so debate has been building up on the Google group about the format of the day and kinds of things people want to lead sessions on, or hear about. If you’re planning on coming to the barcamp and you’ve not visited the group, please join in the conversations and help to influence the day.

Most important: only those who signed up on the barcamp wiki page before we closed registrations are currently down to attend. If you only joined the Facebook group or the Google group then I’m sorry, at the moment you’re not on the list. You can apply to join the reserve list but I cannot at this stage guarantee you’ll get a place

If you ARE on the wiki list, then you need to check the page. A special email account has been set up that you need to send a message to. In return, we’ll check your name against our list and send you a ticket that will get you through the door at Google on the day. If you are on the wiki but you don’t email us by close of play next Wednesday (23rd) then we will give your place to someone on the reserve list. We’ve been forced to do this because we don’t have everyone’s email addresses.

That pretty wraps up this message. Hoping to post over the next few days one of the other reasons why I haven’t been updating this blog much over the last few weeks….

Gov Barcamp is coming together at last

BarcampUKGovweb logo

After much running around, fingers crossed, and baited breath, the barcamp is finally starting to look like a proper event. I’ve had quite a few messages recently asking for updates on the organisational details for barcamp, I’m sorry I’ve not been able to confirm things before now.

So, let me tell you that:

  1. The event is going to run on one day only – Saturday 26th January from about 9.15am until 5pm (and maybe afterwards for a drink or two)
  2. Google has kindly agreed to host the event (small company, you may have heard of them… 🙂 ). This is particularly excellent news given many public sector organisations’ involvement with them to improve searchability of their content, use of YouTube to publish video etc. Its a great fit.
  3. To help the many barcamp virgins across government (me included), and based on the areas of interest indicated plus subsequent conversations I and others have had leading up to the event, we are suggesting a structure for the day based on five rough ‘streams’ of interest. These are:
  • Creating web strategy – government-wide, organisational, channel/initative etc – a vision for future government web
  • New platforms and technologies – e.g. use of data, semantic web etc
  • New channels – how to use blogging platforms, YouTube etc, case studies of usage across government
  • Using social media tools in your organisation – practical stuff around requirements, guidelines, engagement, governance, getting approval
  • Government vs the private sector – lessons we can share, approaches to collaboration, what is good and bad about our sector etc

These streams are not meant to be prescriptive but designed to give a framework around which you can decide where and how you can contribute to the days’ success.

There are currently around 75-80 participants signed up to the event. With 25 slots in the day, it means that at least three individuals can be involved in the running of each session. Hopefully this reduces the pressure on some of the participants to contribute and will encourage collaboration amongst everyone attending.

If you are planning to attend, and you haven’t yet joined the Google group (thanks Dave) set up for the event, I encourage you to do so now.  What you need to do now over the next week is indicate what you plan to contribute to the day and identify others via the Google group who you could share a session with.

The nature of the discussion forum means that we can all peer review each other’s ideas and between all of us we should be able to collaboratively create and shape a schedule for the whole event fairly easily.

The number of people who have already indicated they wish to participate is now quite large (but what a cast!) and we may have to limit entry to the event to those  who are actively contributing to the day. So please begin the conversation as soon as possible.

As we get closer to the day, please update the schedule on the barcamp wiki page with your proposed session(s). Ideally we’d like to get that all finalised before Friday 18th January.

If you are a government webby, and still haven’t decided whether to come, hopefully the details above are enough to convince you. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have a good mix of those working inside the government web sector, as well as all the great people around and outside our work.

BarcampUKGovweb links

If you are a government webbie, and you got the information sheet sent round about the upcoming barcamp, here is the collection of links the sheet refers to:

What is barcamp?

Why are we running a barcamp?

How does it work?

When and where?

What can I do at the barcamp?

The initial reaction to my announcement of the government web barcamp has been great, and not so great – 56 people signed up to date, but I can only identify around a quarter of them as being government webbies 😦

Whilst its excellent that so many experts in our field have indicated support for the event, it won’t really work unless more people ‘on the inside’ contribute – it would be a real wasted opportunity if we all put the government web world to rights but the people that actually do this stuff aren’t there to influence it! In case anyone is unsure, the barcamp is being organised with the approval and support of the transformational government team. If you are interested in the future of government web, you should be there….

Several people have contacted me saying that they’d like to come, but they don’t know what to offer. A few that have signed up have realised in conversation that they misunderstood what they might be doing. So let me offer a few thoughts about how I think the event might work, and what you might be able to do.

  • I’m trying to finalise the location for the event, so that we can announce it shortly. If it takes place where I think it will happen, we will have multiple rooms (off the top of my head, around 9 + a breakout/coffee area) which means that multiple sessions can  take place simultaneously. So its unlikely that you will be ‘presenting’ to an assembled throng of people in a conference environment. More likely that you will be leading/facilitating a small group around a table
  • Sessions could last two minutes or two hours – depends what you want to share and how long it might take to share it
  • We’ll agree the running order on the day, and it will be changable, so that as much as possible everybody can take part in the bits that interest them. This might mean that we need to run some sessions more than once if they prove popular
  • Plenty of people seem to be offering to lead sessions on web strategy – its important for many government webbies that we gain some consensus about what organisational and government web strategy should look like, but thats not the only thing –
  • Some contributors have suggested to me that there’s an awful lot of piloting / proof of concept work going on across government with social media tools / collaborative workspaces / social networks etc
  • Equally its clear that there’s an awful lot of expertise between us about how to make use of those tools, and other specialisms like search engine optimisation, web metrics etc
  • It would be great if some of the people leading these pilots could share what they have done, learnt etc. This could include:
    • How you persuaded the powers that be of the value of doing what you did (or bypassed them… 😉     )
    • How long it took
    • The barriers to getting the project going
    • How you supported the business to implement a social media project – guidance, training etc
    • How they measure and evaluate the relative value of the pilots
  • Those with expertise in using social media tools could assist by:
    • demonstrating how to set up a blog on a hosted service, taking people through the process
    • show how to create a Flickr account, upload photos and embed them into a blog feed
    • similarly, create/edit video content, upload it to YouTube and embed into a blog
    • record, edit and create podcasts
    • etc etc

Feeding back experiences of doing this stuff, and demonstrating how to do it, are as much an important part of the barcamp as defining good practice in web strategy. My team is certainly experiencing an increase in demand for using these tools, and creating opportunities for online engagement internally and externally. Personally speaking, I want to learn from others who have got through the pain barrier that I am currently feeling as I try and work out how to do all this stuff.

I’m probably not best placed to do this, but I am happy to demonstrate how to set up a blog on WordPress if that is of interest to anybody. I’m not an expert, but having done it a few times I can point out some simple tips that have helped me.

If you’re still toying with the idea of coming in January, and you work in the government web world, please sign up. A few people have contacted me because they are not sure what they can contribute. There’s plenty of time to think about that, and hopefully we can start a dialogue on the associated Google Group about what others are doing – that might give you some inspiration.

If you’re reading this and you’ve already signed up, but haven’t subscribed to the Google Group, please do so – especially if you have offered to help organise the event. We need to start talking. I’ll try and contact everyone who has offered support in the next few days, but I don’t have everybody’s email address – so please drop me a line and sign up to the group.

If you’re still undecided, I recommend reading the background information about barcamps at and wikipedia, as well as searching for the phrase ‘barcamp’ on Flickr, YouTube and Google video. Together these should give you a good idea of the nature of the event. These are friendly, flexible, knowledge sharing events, not intimidating conferences.

Want to see social media tools in action? – ask COI

With all the excitement of announcing the barcamp, I forgot to mention the fun I had at a recent event run by COI on behalf of the Government Communication Network.

Entitled ‘Social networking – can Facebook or YouTube help me? And what are they anyway?’ – the event was an opportunity to see some of the main social media tools and networks in action and talk to some of COI digital‘s experts about how they are being adopted across government.

Off the top of my head, there were demonstrations of social tagging, photo sharing, wikis, data mash-ups, and social networks such as Bebo and MySpace. Everyone had the ability to test them out, ask questions and develop ideas.

Around the room being used were a number of really useful wall displays explaining – in neat simple language – the technologies,  uses, potential etc. Hopefully COI will make these available to government communicators because they look like an excellent resource.

The workshop was run as part of the GCN Live series of events designed to help communicators across government build their knowledge and skills. I don’t know whether they plan to run more of this session but if you are at all curious at all about ‘social media’ or ‘social networking’, work in government and want to know more its got to be worth asking. Maybe COI would run a session for your team/ department too if you asked nicely.

Announcing UKGovweb barcamp

Those of you who read this blog regularly, or get cornered by me in the real world, will know there are two things in particular that I am particularly passionate about

  • clarity around government online strategy, and
  • how to innovate online, especially piloting the use of social media tools

I think these are important issues for government webbies (and by government, I don’t just mean Whitehall but right across the public sector). Talking to colleagues I know that these issues important to them too.

I’ve been talking for a while with colleagues in the transformational government team (they who are driving the website rationalisation / convergence, and other related, initiatives) about how we can harness the collective knowledge and intelligence of all those with an interest in improving how government does all this web stuff. Its becoming more important as we start to explore the possibilities and opportunities of government online beyond our corporate websites and intranets.

My proposal was to run a barcamp event, where those who want to participate in  developing ideas, sharing their expertise and swapping tips can come together as a community. For those not familiar with the barcamp concept, check out the wikipedia page. The key point is that you come if you have something to offer and you participate, rather than simply observe.

I’m delighted to report that they agree, so I’m pleased to seed the message here that we aim to have the event run across the last week of January 2008 (Saturday 26th/ Sunday 27th). I say ‘aim to have the event run’ because it will only work with the input, energy and enthusiasm of the participants. We have suggested a proposition and date, we’re hoping that enough people will want to be part of this to come along and also to help organise the event.

A page has been set up on the website. Please visit it, and sign up if you want to be part of this event.

If you know others who might be interested, let them know about it. In particular, if you blog then please point your readers to the page on the barcamp website.

I really do hope that together we can work together to get a common sense of purpose, and share some innovative ideas about government’s approach to all things online.

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).