I spent the weekend at CityCamp London, a three day unconference aimed at making London a better place. Brilliantly organised by Futuregov, this was the latest in the worldwide series of City Camps since the movement was started by Kevin Curry earlier this year.
The first day was billed as “Stimulate”, and the speakers certainly met that brief. Leo Boland, Chief Executive of the GLA, began by exploring the concept of ‘the good city’, drawing on the work of geographer Ash Amin. Amin describes the city as a machine, and technology as the life support system of the city. It changes how we look at the city. It helps inform our ideas of past and present, and changes how we appear in the world.
He was followed up by John Tolva’s mind-bendingly brilliant talk on Unmaking Urban Mistakes, looking at system design and the networked city. You can (and, in my view, should) read the whole talk here. I took away a lot of lessons from this session, particularly on unintended consequences of systems and how we can learn from system failure.
Central to Tolva’s thesis is the role of data. An involved community equipped with data is better able to ask the hard questions. To my mind this applies to any community – whether in a city, an organisation, or a geographically dispersed interest group. Data-centred consultation allows people to interact and debate around a common set of facts.
Next up, Matt Jones from Berg on ‘Vertigo: standing on top of the 21st century in one of the world’s biggest cities’. Vertigo, in this context, is not fear of heights but fear of scale; the sheer scale of the city and the complexity of its systems frightens us. He proposed the concept of a ‘macroscope’, something which will allow us to see the aggregated whole as well as the detail. Technology allows us to see the detail as well as the whole system; he gave the example of Here and There, a horizonless map which shows the whole plan but where the perspective changes as you approach.
What Jones is advocating here is pragmatism. So for instance he talked about Clay Shirky’s essay on situated software, which suggests we make software good enough for its own context if you want to make it happen. Make software for *your* street, not *the* street, and it stands half a chance of getting off the ground.
We also need to solve vertigo problem if we want to engage people with the issues. Here Jones borrowed the concept of synecdoche from the world of literature. Synecdoche means making the part represent the whole; we need to make big, terrifying data digestible by real people if we want them to engage with it. By making it human scale, we take away the vertigo that disengages.
Later we moved on to an interview-type session with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor talking to Cllr Steve Reed from Lambeth Council, Caroline Pidgeon from the London Assembly and an opposition councillor from Harrow Council. This was probably the low point of the day, and not just because of the parallel debate about Twitterfall which was taking place on the twitter back channel at the same time.
The conversation seemed to get stuck on the idea that councillors have so many more ways to get in touch with people than they used to – e.g. email, text, Twitter, Facebook. That’s true, but what they were really saying is that there are so many more ways for councillors to talk TO people. At one point we were even on the topic of why email is better than letters – which, given it was a room full of 200 geeks few of whom have sent a letter in the last decade, was simply bizarre. The panel admitted politicians are now putting up barriers to deal with the deluge of communication. To my mind this is a move in exactly the wrong direction; what we need is to move to open platforms and actually have two-way conversations.
Consultation surveys and email do not equal web 2.0, however much councillors like to think it does. In the Q&A following I asked what we can do to improve the understanding of IT amongst those leading local authorities – both elected representatives and leading officers. Bad websites cost councils in the UK £11m per month in abandoned transactions and unnecessary phone/in person-contact. In my experience one of the main reasons council websites are bad is that those procuring them don’t understand online and don’t know what they need to do to make web work. It was disappointing that the panel didn’t really answer the question.
To close up we had three lightning-fast talks from Anne McCrossan, Nesta’s Philip Colligan then Nathalie McDermott, who I could listen to all day. These events can often end in navel-gazing as we lazily assume others think and do things just like us. Talking about her work with disengaged groups, such as men in prison and the gypsy traveller community, was an essential reminder that for many groups there are significant barriers to adoption, access and engagement which have to be overcome.
Sydney’s CivicTec gave us an international perspective on using technology to meet social need. This highlighted some cracking projects, such as a project to connect refugees across borders.
Finally, we heard from Lambeth’s Youth Mayor and the borough’s Member of the UK Youth Parliament. Taking a campaigns-based approach and setting aside a budget, this is a refreshing example of proper youth consultation rather than the box-ticking exercises so many local authorities are guilty of. Other councils take note.
All in all, a highly stimulating afternoon, and an excellent point to kick off the collaborative discussions the following day. If I were to sum up what I learned, it’s probably that literacy plus agency equals active, engaged communities. The role of technologists and communicators is to make this simple – to identify needs, to consult with communities and users and develop solutions to social problems that are tailored to their contexts.
I’m aiming for two more blog posts in the next couple of days, one on the “Collaborate” day (specifically, the sessions I went to), and another with my thoughts on the event as a whole and some esoteric stuff on our relationship with place which I’ve been thinking about since. But I figure if I don’t publish this first post now I never will. So here it is.
CityCamp all over the internets:
- City Camp London site including agenda and so on
- City Camp content aggregated on Posterous
- Twitter stream on the #ccldn hashtag
- Futuregov the group that organised City Camp London
- CityCamp worldwide site
- Photos from Paul Clarke on Flickr, including the now-traditional unflattering shot of me engrossed in Twitter
- Presentation from John Tolva on Unmaking Urban Mistakes
We’re all familiar with the concept of silly season in the media. With the World Cup well and truly over, politicians on recess, schools on holiday and the courts shut for a few weeks, the papers are left scratching around for something to fill what the Germans call sommerloch – the summer [news] hole.
And so, too for internal communicators. With so many colleagues away, decisions aren’t being made and there’s a dearth of campaigns, updates or announcements. This means publications are unfilled and intranet pages reek of last week.
But while the papers have an endless supply of celebrity trivia and the annual parade of attractive a-level students picking up their results, corporate communicators have no such luxury. So how do we deal with slow news days?
Catch up with old news. With some space and time to spare, have a look back at the past few months and think about projects or initiatives which didn’t get as much attention as they deserved at the time. Are there any updates? Can you report on progress? You might earn a few brownie points by giving them some publicity now.
Recognition. Hertzberg’s work on motivation found a significant proportion of people are motivated to work because of the recognition they get for it. With budgets tightening and under-inflation payrises talked about for many, now’s the time to focus on those non-financial rewards and motivations. By taking the opportunity to recognise the hard work our colleagues have been putting in, we can better motivate them to say, stay and strive.
Admit defeat. Silly season is an international phenomenon – one familiar in offices around the globe. With so many colleagues – especially those with children – away, making significant changes or announcements is always going to prove difficult; any important communications made now might be missed by those colleagues who are away.
Why not take some time to focus on some housekeeping tasks, to make sure your intranet is running smoothly, ready to hit the ground running in September (I’m tidying up our A-Z, which is proving more interesting than it sounds!)
How do you deal with slow news days on your intranet? Does it even bother you? Post your comments.
Ok, so I’ve been a bit rubbish at keeping up with the blog lately. I’ve been kinda busy, you know, with that whole election thing. And launching a new intranet. So nothing important or anything…
Now things have calmed down a little I’m looking at where we go next. Now we have a proper platform in place the options are – while not exactly unlimited – certainly wider than before. But where to start?
One of the (many) difficult things about intranets is that they’re behind closed doors. With websites you can just take a look at what other organisations are doing and nick all their best ideas build on best practice. With intranets, it’s not that simple – but it’s certainly possible.
I’ve been making a real effort to do this lately. First up was IBF24, a 24-hour live webcast from the Intranet Benchmarking Forum. This blended interviews with industry leaders with live intranet tours from some of the world most prestigious companies, including British Airways, Ernst & Young, Thompson Reuters and the BBC.
This was an ambitious but hugely successful event, with over 700 practitioners joining in from 16 countries. According to IBF, around 100 questions were asked (though imho this number would have been a lot bigger if they’d engaged the Twitter stream more actively from the start).
Then last week I attended the Mastering Intranet Management course run by industry experts Melcrum. This was an excellent two-day event covering some of the key issues for intranet managers today, from building a business case to creating a governance model, and from communications planning to evaluation. It was delievered by Sam Marshall from Clearbox Consulting and John Baptista, a professor of Information Systems at the University of Warwick. My only criticism was that it tried to fit too much into two days, but that’s perhaps inevitable given the wide scope of intranet management work.
Fellow delegates came from a broad range of public and private sector firms in the UK and abroad – and once again a highlight was the chance to take a look at other intranets and ask questions of those managing them.
At both IBF24 and the Melcrum course, a key theme was the need to tailor your intranet offering to your organisational culture. The intranets I took a peek at offered widely varying functionality and style – but each were successful as they met the needs of the company. So Clifford Chance‘s expertise finder and Ernst & Young‘s dynamic org chart people were both impressive pieces of kit, but not at all suitable for my own organisation (or, most likely, in each other’s).
Another frequent discussion was the evolution of the intranet. There was a strong feeling amongst many taking part that the term ‘intranet’ may not be sufficient anymore, with the scope of our work now encompassing collaborative workspaces, transactional services and much else besides.
IBF’s Paul Miller suggested that the intranet is on the way out, to be replaced by a broader ‘digital workplace’.
Whilst it’s true that intranets continue to evolve beyond their original one-way communication function, it’s probably too early to say the intranet is dead. Again, culture is king; in some organisations the digital workplace brings significant competitive advantage, but in others it’ll be a long time before online collaboration replaces old methods and face-to-face meetings.
The role of the intranet manager is to look at business objectives and organisational culture, and work to implement technologies that suit both.
It’s this marrying of technology and culture that makes looking at other intranets so interesting
I’ll be walking the talk tomorrow, presenting my own workplace intranet at IBF’s Intranets Live along with people from UNHCR and Oracle. Join us live online, and follow the Twitter stream – I’m guessing the hashtag is #IBFLive. (EDIT: wrong! It’s #intranetslive)
I’m following that up next week by taking my turn to present at Intranetters, a small regular gathering of London-based intranet types, and have arranged a few reciprocal show-and-tells with intranet teams in other companies.
Intranet management can be a solitary occupation; most organisations have one (or fewer) people with responsibility for the intranet, and even the biggest firms have only a small team. But by networking with other intranet managers and sharing ideas, problems and strategies we can all learn a little to take back to our own organisations.