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5 keys to making social media work in government

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. -- In social media, failure is one of the surest sign of success.

That proverb, which I will explain shortly, captures the spirit of so many discussions heard at the Government Leadership Summit. Like other words of wisdom from experts speaking here, it captures the notion that social media has a way of defying traditional expectations of what works and why.

In an earlier blog post, I drew on various presentations and conversations from the conference to explain how social media is certain to change how federal employees do their work, whether they are ready for it or not.

This post assumes a more proactive attitude to the technology. It captures some of the best ideas from experts here about how to make the technology work to its fullest, even if it’s not in the ways you might expect.

* Fail early, fail often.

As every expert will tell you, social media is about building and extending relationships between an organization and its constituency.

The catch is that if you are taking the technology seriously, you always will be looking to push the bounds of those relationships and foster deeper and deeper levels of engagement. And the fact is, “you take a risk by pushing a relationship forward,” says consultant Charlene Li. “You have to get used to that.”

The key is to plan for failure, says Li, author of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.” When developing an initiative, you should try to imagine five to ten worse-case scenarios and come up with plans for mitigating or responding if they come to pass. The goal is to “fail fast and fail smart,” she said.

To soften the blow, she reminds people yet again that a social media initiative is a relationship: “How many of you have perfect relationships?”

* Rewrite that job description.

Obama’s idea of making Recovery Act spending more transparent to the public through the Recovery.gov Web site signals a major change for the acquisition community.

Acquisition staffers spend a lot of their time focused on compliance issues, ensuring that any given procurement is in line with whatever regulation or statutes that might apply. In this new environment, that will change.

Now, with Recovery.gov and similar transparency initiatives, they have a new job: Collaboration. And not just with vendors, as might be expected, but with the public at large, said Edward O’Hare, assistant commissioner for information technology services at the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration.

That is no small undertaking, said O’Hare. It won’t be enough to provide them with the tools and the training. “We need to give them the space to enter into that collaboration,” O’Hare said.

* Redefine measures of success.

This point follows from the last. Social media often requires staff to learn a new way of working, with its own measures of success and failure.

That’s why Mark Oehlert, innovation evangelist at the Defense Acquisition University, suggests bringing human resource managers to the table. “If we are going to change your job, we better change the way you are assessed,” he said.

This can be especially difficult for technology managers, who prefer to keep the IT environment as clean and simple as possible, while social media is expansive and constantly evolving. “The perfect world for the IT department is no Internet and no people,” Oehlert said.

It can also be difficult for researchers who have a naturally proprietary attitude about their work, said Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “These people want to be the first ones to see results [of their research] come back.”

But in the new world, they are expected to release their data as soon as it is available, rather than holding it for publication in the scientific journals, she said.

* Give up the illusion of control.

One of the most common fears about social networking is that the possibility of scandal. What if people were to post comments that were abusive, obscene or otherwise offensive?

In most cases, the solution is not to carefully vet every comment before allowing it to be posted, several experts said. That just creates a chokepoint that ensures the application will fail.

Instead, you need to arm the community with the tools to police themselves by rating comments, with comments receiving bad scores being pushed to the bottom of the pile. In most cases, the abusive commenters will get discouraged and go away. If not, they can be blocked. 

The rules of engagement will evolve over time, says Oehlert. “If you give people these tools, there will not be chaos, there will be emergent structure,” he said. “People will create the rules.”

Li sees it from a slightly different perspective. It’s not about of giving up control, because organizations who deal with the public, with or without social media, never can control what people hear or say. Instead, the challenge is simply to give up the need for control, she said.

* Don’t assume collaboration is intuitive.

Some social media vendors often talk as if there were a pent-up demand for collaborating: Develop the right tool and people will go crazy. But that’s just not the case.

“Sign on to any forum and you are going to see the same people participating all the time,” said Lt. Ray Guidetti, intelligence manager for the New Jersey Regional Operations and Intelligence Center.

That is what happened when Guidetti provided fusion center analysts with social-networking tools. He realized that it was not enough to enable and encourage employees to collaborate. “We are going to have to train them as well.”

Li says organizations should not expect everyone to participate at the same level. She talks about an “engagement pyramid.” The enthusiasts at the top of the pyramid will share information, post comments and perhaps produce blogs or other content. But the vast majority of people will take a lesser role -- sharing information, but not commenting, or perhaps just watching.

Instead of focusing on the enthusiasts, as most organizations tend to do, “I encourage you to focus on the bottom part of the pyramid,” Li said. Without that culture of sharing as the foundation, “it is hard to build anything,” she said.

Posted by John Stein Monroe on May 19, 2009 at 12:14 PM


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