Social media tools slow to take root
Everyone is talking about it, but only some agencies are moving forward
Everybody’s talking about Web 2.0, but only some are using it. Although agencies are adopting collaborative and social-networking tools to work smarter and faster, they are doing so only in pockets.
However, some of those pockets are deep. This spring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will launch a social-networking Web site, named Spacebook, for employees. The site will mimic Facebook and feature individuals’ profiles, expertise and personal interests, said Linda Cureton, chief information officer at Goddard.
But that’s a rare ambitious effort in federal agencies because many managers are reluctant to use the tools. However, the willingness of other agency employees to use them does not reflect a consistent generational or organizational split, say federal executives who are promoting the use of Web 2.0 tools at their agencies. Some people are simply more comfortable with digital technology than others, they say.
Some agency leaders are trying to help career executives learn and become adept at using blogs and wikis. But broad acceptance will take time, said Rick Martin, acting director of the Office of Information Analysis and Access in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Information.
President Barack Obama is likely to increase the pressure to adopt the tools because he is an outspoken proponent of them. The department and agency heads that he chooses will probably share his enthusiasm, Martin said. EPA has had servers capable of handling Web 2.0 technologies at its national computer center for a year, and officials are now trying to move existing activities along.
“We believe there’s going to be a big interest in these technologies, starting with our administrator and with the governmentwide chief technology officer,” Martin said.
So far, using Web 2.0 technology has been optional for federal managers, but using it might become a necessity because the technology can enhance their ability to solve problems and accomplish mission goals. The tools can help leaders communicate quickly with all parties involved in a project to notify them of changes and let them share ideas or build agreement on an issue, Martin said.
“The benefit to management is that [Web 2.0 technology] improves transparency and collaboration,” he said. “It has the potential to speed up management processes because unnecessary bureaucracy gets cut out or is not required. The actual people involved in the work are involved in the communication and collaboration.”
EPA has developed tutorials for career agency executives who want to learn how to use collaborative applications, but they are not part of a structured campaign, Martin said.
Executives who are early adopters can lead by example so others will take the plunge, he added. EPA’s previous deputy administrator was excited about the tools’ potential and started a blog about agency activities. The blog was originally intended to communicate with the public, but as it attracted reader feedback, it proved to be valuable to those inside the agency, too, Martin said.
“His desire to do that and lead the way sent a strong message across the agency,” he said.
That agency is now developing a governance process to institutionalize the use of the tools. It has created an informal committee as part of the agency’s Quality and Information Council to discuss Web 2.0 technologies. The council is comprised of assistant administrators and other key staff members who guide information technology and management programs. EPA officials also plan to develop policies for using the technology and have added a workgroup on social media to the policy framework process, he said.
CIOs should lead IT change by example, NASA's Cureton said. For her, that meant learning to write a blog.
“Every leader should want to continue to learn,” she said, adding that eventually managers and staff will use the technology without thinking about it.
Cureton started her blog to communicate with and get feedback from her employees and other colleagues. She opened the blog to the public to attract more readers and tweaked her style to generate comments and feedback.
“When I started blogging, it scared me,” Cureton said, acknowledging that policy questions can make some managers hesitant to use the technology. Executives who write blogs have to be clear about whether they’re speaking for themselves or their agency. Cureton said she believes that as agencies provide more encouragement for adopting Web 2.0 tools, more executives will use them.
EPA has used wikis, another popular Web 2.0 tool, to gather ideas on issues. For example, in November 2007, officials held a symposium and created a wiki so EPA employees and members of the public could collect ideas for a Puget Sound water quality revitalization and restoration project in Washington state. The agency shared the findings with the Puget Sound Partnership, an effort by citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses to restore and protect Puget Sound.
In a similar approach, employees and other partners used a wiki in December 2008 to share ideas on how the agency could improve access to environmental information for its various constituents, Martin said.
A research group in EPA’s central policy office uses a best-practices wiki to support good management of environmental matters. In the past, they might have used a management tracking system or a traditional database. But now, instead of having someone feed information into the system, the researchers interact with it directly, he said.
“What you end up doing is cutting out the middle person,” Martin said. “We’ve got lots of work to do and limited resources, and we have to maximize the value.”
To prepare NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to use Web 2.0 tools, Cureton’s office redesigned the internal Web site so it would be more conducive to some of the collaborative and social-media capabilities.
Spacebook will open new doors for the agency by revealing who has specialized expertise that is so far untapped, she said. “With the constraints we’ve had in hiring and our workforce issues, you want to know who knows what, such as experts on batteries or encryption,” Cureton said. “There may be certain skills, abilities and talents that exist throughout the center, and you want to be able to tap into that knowledge to know areas of expertise of people.”
In one situation, Cureton used a wiki to get support from employees on reconfiguring the IT organization. In the past, many IT employees felt they weren’t part of the design process, and it took a toll on morale, she said. To deal with the problem, Cureton posted organizational function statements on the wiki and invited discussion on other aspects of the issue.
“It was moderated, but we used it to get input from a couple of hundred people really fast,” she said, a process that would have taken a lot longer without the technology.
Simply using a blog or other Web 2.0 tool won’t make an ineffective executive or manager more effective. The power of Web 2.0 depends on a person's leadership skills, Cureton said.
CIOs can advise agency leaders about how IT, including Web 2.0 tools, can be used to help them achieve their missions. They must be able to communicate with agency leaders “to say we can use this to do that better as demonstrated by these outcomes,” Cureton said.
Agency executives who are hesitant about using collaborative tools to help manage a business problem should know that there might be risks involved in not using them, said Steve Radick, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton.
“If you’re not on board now, you’re already behind,” Radick said. For example, there might be a Wikipedia entry about the agency, but if the agency executive doesn’t know about it, he or she can’t act on it.
“It’s not about the tools but what the tools enable,” Radick said. Executives should be striving for an open, transparent and collaborative communications stream, and they need to know how Web 2.0 tools can help them achieve their strategic objectives.
“If we can show them how, for example, a wiki can supplement their knowledge management practices and show elsewhere in government where that has been successful, that’s what piques their interest,” Radick said.
For example, Radick developed a one-page guide to help executives get started on blogging. “We know their time is limited, but it’s important that they set a good example,” he said.
Executives should use Web 2.0 tools to help solve business problems, said Lena Trudeau, program area director of strategic initiatives at the National Academy of Public Administration, including the organization’s Collaboration Project.
The tools can help executives and new leaders communicate right away, set the tone of their tenure at the organization, and share what they’re trying to accomplish. Web 2.0 will let them reach broadly and deeply into their organizations to spread their message.
“It can be a way of shifting the agency culture to be more adaptive and flexible,” Trudeau said.
Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.