Kelman: Shocking the culture

The government's not on the leading edge of Web 2.0, but it's getting there

When you've been teaching for almost 30 years, you experience fewer surprises in the classroom. However, I was surprised once again ' electrified, really ' by what I learned during a recent executive class for civilian and military managers, mostly colonels and members of the GS-15 pay band.

As part of a sequence on organizational design, I teach a course
on the differences between traditional and team-based organizations. My students report seeing many efforts to create team organizations. When I ask whether a significant number of the people who work for them spend much of their time working in cross-functional teams, typically more than half of them say yes.

We spend time discussing the management challenges that organizations face when they stop working in isolation and start working in cross-functional teams. Some of those challenges involve maintaining the checks and balances that are reasons why some traditional organizations ' particularly those that manage procurement, finances and human resources ' are the way they are. Significantly, the challenges of cross-functional teams also involve finding ways for specialized experts to stay up-to-date in their fields, get answers to questions and share knowledge when specialists are no longer in water-cooler distance of one another.

In the course of a recent discussion, one student said his organization's technical experts generally were active members of an online community of practice that brings people together to share ideas, advice and trends.

Of course, I had heard of communities of practice, but I had always assumed they existed primarily in the hopes of academics who write about them and consultants who try to sell them. I was wrong.

What followed that student's remark was a sea of eager hands. All the students wanted to talk about Web-based communities of practice. I suddenly realized that communities of practice are not simply a theoretical construct. They are a reality. After the torrent of comments subsided, I asked the students whether they are active participants in at least one community of practice. About 70 percent of the participants from Defense Department and intelligence agencies said they were. About 40 percent of civilian agency participants said they were.

The student who started discussion started was from the Strategic Command, whose commander, Gen. James Cartwright, is renowned for his blog and his request that people throughout the chain of command send him e-mail messages. Web 2.0 is spreading stealthily through government, as recent accounts of the State Department's Diplopedia, the diplomats' version of Wikipedia, attest. We see the proliferation of blogs written by agency leaders and efforts by police to encourage young people to text-message crime information, including information about crimes in progress that they might be unable to speak about.

The government is by no means on the leading edge of Web 2.0, but it's getting there. And that's good news for good

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@

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