Organisational communication 2020

This was the 50th meeting of the London Communicators and Engagement Group, an informal monthly meetup of (mostly internal) communicators. After 50 meetings you’d think organiser Matt O’Neill would be out of topics to cover – but you’d be wrong.

This time, Matt invited David Galipeau (from /United Nations/Academia) to deliver a mini exposition into the future of communications. In a futuristic spirit he delivered his talk – on where he sees communications of the future heading – using a Skype video link from Geneva.

David Galipeau off Red Dwarf

In practice, this gave him the disjoined, disbodied appearance of Holly from Red Dwarf. But it worked surprisingly well – so that’s another nail in the coffin for international business travel, perhaps.

As Matt said in his introduction to the event, communicators are focussing on how we can use social media tools to improve organisational communication now and in the immediate future. But are the implications for the future? ‘Is this just the start of an emerging pattern that will fundamentally change the way organisations talk internally and externally?’ asked Matt.

He’d also suggested we take a look at some of Galipeau’s work ahead of the event. Alas, I was in a rush, and when I took a look at this, I thought ‘arrgh!’ and closed my browser tab.

Galipeau’s talk was almost as difficult to digest. I know he’s an academic, but I suspect I was one of the more geeky communicators in the room, and still quite a lot of what he said went right over my head. I’m not sure whether those who weren’t digital natives really knew what he was talking about for much of the time.

For example, Galipeau talked about the implementation of IPV6. For the lay reader – that’s most of you, I suspect – our IP addresses are currently based on IPV4, but we are fast running out of numbers. IPV6, Adrian Short told me via the Twitter back channel, will give us gives 6.5 x 1023 addresses for every square metre on Earth.

The arrival IPV6 will enable an ‘Internet of Things’ in which everything down to your slippers will have its own IP address. Your TV will speak to your fridge, and your supermarket trolley to your bank.

This, he contended, means the interweb is entering a new and much darker phase, quite different to the hippy free-for-all we’ve come to know. The internet is already slowing down thanks to tens of thousands of DOS attacks taking place daily. This, he said, is an early sign totalitarian nutjobs are engaged in cyber attacks and counter hacks, and the threat of industrial and political espionage is growing.

He gave groups that protested against Scientology as an example of this – yet didn’t really elaborate what was new about this threat other than giving people the ability to self-organise.

What was odd about the talk was that the speaker achieved the rare feat of going right over people’s heads while at the same time getting some real basics completely wrong. For instance, he talked about ‘crowdsourcing’, giving the example of “bringing people together to all dance in the station at the same time”.

This isn’t crowdsourcing, it’s flashmobbing. Crowdsourcing means drawing on the wisdom of the crowd in order to inform your own decision-making. It has a purpose, and increasingly it has real value for individuals and corporations. It can be as simple as putting a shout out on Twitter to gather some lazy reasearch, or as complex as wiki-style policy formation.

Simply framing it in terms of simply bringing people together for no discernable purpose really undermined Galipeau’s credibility, and this was reflected in the Twitter stream.

Galipeau went on to argue strongly what organisations are becoming more centralised, and in particular decision-making is becoming more centralised within organisations. But as he didn’t elaborate on why he believed this to be so, or what evidence pointed in this direction, I wasn’t convinced (particualrly as it doesn’t chime with what so many of us internal communicators are working towards).

I was glad, then, of the surprise appearance of engagement guru John Smythe. His excellent book – CEO: Chief Engagement Officer – focuses on how organisations can deliver increased engagement, and improved productivity, by opening up and moving towards a culture of co-creation.

When Smythe asked the speaker to give examples of research that proved the opposite, Galipeau muttered something about unpublished research commissioned by the US military, which didn’t convince me at all.

I am far more convinced by Smythe’s thesis than Galipeau’s, not least because the latter appears to run contrary to so much of what I see going on in government and business. There are already countless examples of companies successfully democratising decision making both with employees and customers.

Smythe has challenged Galipeau to a debate on this, which he very grudgingly accepted. I really hope this happens.

My objections to Galipeau’s thesis are, I admit, partly emotional. He presented a remarkably gloomy vision of the future, in which the individual is powerless and the corporate centre is an omniscient Orwellian beast.

Nonetheless, it provided an interesting counterbalance to the the highly positive future envisaged by theorists like Clay Shirky and Charles Leadbeater. Shirky, as I’ve blogged about before, sketches out future in which technology enables public participation on a scale never before seen. He says that ‘for the first time, we have the tools to make group action truly a reality. And they’re going to change our whole world.’

So there’s a concensus that techology will radically change our relationship with organisations and the state. For me, at least, the balance of evidence would suggest Smythe and Shirky’s culture of co-creation is on the rise.

If Galipeau’s talk got you reaching for the anti-depressants, check out Us Now, a film project about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet. It’s a rather more cheerful view of the digital future.

UKGC10 Session two: Socialising Internal Communications

The second session of the day was the one I was looking forward to the most, having discussed it ahead of the event with Kim Willis and Mark Watson.

Kim took the lead on facilitating, but as it turns out the discussion managed to veer though the full swathe of internal comms issues without the need for much facilitating at all. It seemed like we covered an awful lot in under an hour, and could have talked for at least another hour.

Almost everyone agreed  social media could play a much bigger role in internal communications, but within the public sector at least there hasn’t been widespread adoption yet.

Someone described social networking as “what intranets are supposed to be” – enabling you to connect and collaborate with colleagues, share information and improve communication.

A social intranet enables the recording and sharing of organisational knowledge. But while knowledge management looks at how we manage our intellectual capital, we need also to look at how we record, share and pass on social capital too – that is, sharing that knowledge of people and processes that we all build up over time.

Shane Dillion said we rely too much on traditional, top-down methods of communication that no longer suit the way we work. To become more effective, everything we learn outside the organisation should be bought back in and shared.

By enabling colleagues to connect with one another, and by making working lives a little bit easier, good social intranets have a positive impact on employee engagement too.

Many cited middle management as a barrier to adoption of social media. In some ways this is understandable, as social internal comms reduces the middle managers role as a gatekeeper of information.

Our current organisational structures are built for command and control, not collaboration. So the success of internal social media  depends on moving management towards a culture of co-creation.

The question of culture is a very important one. Technology cannot itself create a collaborative culture; if people aren’t talking to each other already, introducing social tools isn’t going to make them.

Other common barriers include silo culture and concerns around security, particularly in relation to things like Government Connect. Platforms like Yammer are incredibly simple to use, and have some great functionality, but sitting outside the firewall are considered too risky by many.

(As an aside, while I like Yammer, I find its default email setting – which emails for every notification – begins to grate remarkably quickly and is itself a barrier to adoption).

But as I blogged about recently, the business case for internal social media is strong and growing. Carl Haggerty gave an update on the Devon County Council social networking pilot he talked about at LocalGovCamp. They branded this ‘business networking’ to counter accusations of frivolity and timewasting. This succeeded in winning hearts and minds, and in evaluation recently he found it produced considerable (but non-cashable) savings.

So what do we do to hasten the adoption of social media inside the firewall?

  • JFDI. The old adage that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission is true to some extent, but it isn’t that simple when it’s your job on the line. But start with a small, agile pilot that can be scaled up if successful. If it works, the organisation will buy into it. If it doesn’t, you won’t have lost much.
  • If you want to promote new ways of working, switch the old ones off. Carl Haggerty said his team made a commitment to use their Business Networking tool for discussion rather than sending group emails. People like their tried and tested methods, so you need to provide incentives to change.
  • Dave Briggs said change needs to be dramatic to work – new tools have to do the same thing at least nine times better to win people over.
  • Get buy in from leadership, and encourage them to use social media internally to communicate, listen and lead.
  • Don’t focus on the negatives. Yes, some people will misuse social tools, but most will not. Posts have real names on, so are self-policed.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Adapt your code of context to say how it applies in an online context rather than write a new code from scratch – that way you avoid protracted negotiations.
  • Hug your CIO. Work with ICT to reach solutions to problems like security rather than focus on barriers.
  • Demonstrate value. Budgets will be tight for many years to come, so we need to set out the business case for social tools, though improving flexibility, sharing knowledge, and improving productivity.

Internal social media sits at the intersection of culture change, innovation and knowledge management. It has the potential to deliver innovation and collaboration, but to do that we need to adapt to the cultural and technological barriers in our own organisations.

This was a vibrant and varied discussion, and we could all have talked for ages. Phil McAllister suggested an internal comms barcamp, which a few of us have begun to discuss in more detail. Watch this space.

UKGC10 session one: Web Professionals

The first session I went to at UKGov Barcamp 2010 was led by Vicky Sargent from SOCITM, who is looking at how we can develop a framework for professionalising web careers.

Vicky began by explaing that historically SOCITM have been the industry body for senior IT managers in local government. But they’ve begun looking at how we can better support people working in and with web technology – that is, not just the guys providing the infrastructure, but the content too. And not just in local government, but in the public sector more widely.

People in digital roles come from a variety of backgrounds, which is a reflection of the broad spectrum of work that falls under the umbrella of ‘digital’. These include:

  • Communications: people from PR, marketing or publishing backgrounds with a focus on producing content for the web
  • IT backgrounds
  • Web developers
  • People who’ve fallen into it as they happened to be there when this whole internet lark took off.

As the digital sector grows, there’s a real need for a recognised skills and competencies framework. There’s also a call for greater recognition of the profession, so those working in it get the training, recognition and support they deserve. 

This debate is timely for me. My background is in communications, and as such I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and their sectoral group for Internal Communicators, CIPR Inside. But I recently moved into an intranet role, and as my CIPR membership expires I am wondering if there’s any point in me renewing it.  CIPR is – as the name suggests – focussed on public relations. But while my new role is certainly internal communications, I am not a PR practitioner and I’m struggling to see what CIPR can offer me.

The extent to which CIPR supports and understands Internal Communications is the subject of much debate within the internal comms trade of late, with Communicators in Business voting to become the Institute of Internal Communications in order to focus on internal communications as a discrete profession in its own right. CIPR have responded by beefing up its offering for internal communicators.

But neither seems to offer a great deal for those with a focus on digital. And that’s why an  industry body dedicated to raising the status and skills of the web profession would be really valuable for me personally, and no doubt for many others.

There was universal agreement in the room about the need for professionalisation. All too often, noted Alastair Smith, the task of managing web content is given to the most junior member of the team, who recieves little training in how to do it. Job descriptions can often be poorly written or out of date, which has meant many web officers have lost out in the job evaluations required as part of Single Status initatives.

Another common problem seems to be a lack of recognition web professionals get within their own communications teams. Web officers are generally given lower pay grades than junior press officers, even though their jobs are arguably more skilled. Heads of Communications almost always come from Press Officer or Marketing Manager roles, and see digital communications as something of a poor relation.

Senior managers often say the web is their most important customer service channel, yet this isn’t reflected in the way they recruit, train and pay their web officers. Web skills ought to be seen as an investment in improving service quality.

So for instance, Socitm found that bad websites cost councils £11m a month in abandoned transactions requiring attention by other, more expensive means like face-to-face or telephone. Yet few councils have people skilled in studying analytics or improving user experience, and so are unable to tackle this.

There are countless examples of this lack of foresight and understanding.  The value of moving services online is clear, with enormous potential to reduce costs. But for this to happen, we need to focus on giving web teams the skills and resources they need to cope with this channel shift.

There are a number of other initiatives with similar aims, such as the COI’s Web Academy and the GCN. But the former is largely aimed at top civil servants, giving them a brief overview of digital and its potential, while GCN focuses on career paths for web professionals in government comms. 

Most in the room felt that while the GCN was useful, they don’t have enough focus on digital and Socitm was well placed to continue this work. However, digital communicators need to work closely with those working in press and marketing, so should keep their general comms skills up to speed too.

Vicky noted particularly the need to develop a skills framework for web, as these roles aren’t recognised in the national skills farmework. She hopes Socitm can bring web skills into the Skills Framework for the Information Age.

Those with most to gain from raising the status of web professionals are those devolved editors and authors. Too often they’re isolated and lack training, get no additional pay or support, and don’t have their web responsibilities written into their job description. A professional group and a widely-recognised competencies framework could force their managers to understand the work they do.

All of those in the group felt this would help web teams convince senior management that professional web management requires a skill set; it isn’t just something you should devolve to anyone with a half-day’s CMS training. Producing good web content is about a lot more than copying and pasting.

I also think communications teams, and particularly press officers, will be forced to develop broader content production skills, as  the news outlets they serve demand a full package of rich media content rather than simple press releases. But this is something we covered in much more depth at a session on how journalism is changing, and I’ll blog about that later.

Socitm are part way through their project, working with consultants to scope the remit of a web professionals group and draft skills profiles for common roles.

Their preliminary report is already out, and they’re holding a workshop on February 4th at the DCLG. The main output from the day will be a set of defined skills, and a draft will be circulated to those coming beforehand. If you’d like to attend, contact Vicky for more details. 

SOCITM have a web community of over 600 people on the IDeA’s Communities of Practice site (called the Web Improvement and Usage Community). This is one of the most popular groups on the CoP, and has three people faciltating it for a few hours a day each.

Vicky hopes that this group will help to identify where we go next and help to take this forward. Socitim will provide the neccessary admin support, but they people need to join in order to signal their commitment to the project and give them the funding they need to deliver this.

In my view this is something webbies would benefit from getting behind. If web becomes a recognised profession, it gives those working on the web greater credibility within their own organisation, so that their professional opinion is respected and valued, and they are given the recognition, pay and support they deserve.

Intranets and urban sprawl: a postcard from down under

This month I’m taking a bit of a break before starting my new job  in the new year. In desperate need of some sunshine, I jetted off to Sydney, Australia.

After spending some time lolling about on the beach, throwing shrimps on the barbie and wandering around town wearing a hat with corks on, I decided to head out of the city for the obligatory bush walk.

As I drove out of the city in search of some bush to hike in, I realised that Sydney is huge. It takes literally hours to reach the city limits. My (Australian) host explained that this is a result of Sydney’s short history.


Sydney: this is where it all began

You see, although the area around what’s now Sydney Harbour was home to Aboriginal settlements for many hundreds of years, the modern city is a relatively new one.  The roots of today’s city began with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. This was a ragtag band of soldiers, convicts and a few entrepreneurs looking to make a few quid.

They set up camp in the area that is now central Sydney, naming it New Albion. From these humble beginnings the city has grown. And grown. And grown.

As a city built largely in the age of the car, on land that is seemingly limitless, Sydney has  become characterised by urban sprawl. In fact, it’s now the third-largest urban agglomoration in the world.

It struck me that the story of Sydney is very much like that of your average corporate intranet. Most began life, like New Albion, as a bit of a side project, with no clear aims or objectives.

Sydney's urban sprawl

Sydney's urban sprawl 1917-2031: a bit like your intranet

And just as land and resources seemed limitless to those looking for their quarter-acre plot on which to build a family home in Sydney, so too does seemingly limitless server space encourage intranets to grow exponentially.

An explosion in car ownership enabled Sydney to grow to its present proportions. Similarly, the emergence of piss-easy CMSs meant that anyone can be an intranet’s content author, allowing them to add to the urban sprawl of your corporate intranet.

So, just like Sydney, the history of many intranets means they’ve become bloated and difficult to navigate.

But this is where my metaphor falls down.  Sydney householders would certainly be a bit miffed if you were to knock their homes down or move them to somewhere a bit more sensible. But for intranets, that’s certainly possible.

Here’s are some ways to prevent or fix urban sprawl on your intranet:

  1. Decide what your intranet is for. An obvious point, perhaps, but it’s important to set clear objectives for your intranet.  Think not only about what you want to achieve, but how the intranet will help you get there. Be both specific and realistic.
  2. Get to know your audience. The intranet should reflect the culture of the organisation. Adding discussion groups to your intranet will not make people want to participate if there is no existing culture of participating within the organisation. Find out what users want, but speak also to those who don’t use the intranet much to find out why.
  3. Best before end. Set expiry dates for all content pages, with owners or authors required to review them at set intervals to ensure they’re still accurate and up-to-date.
  4. Is this yours? Pages without owners are the intranet equivalent of those boarded-up houses along the North Circular. If no one cares enough about the content to take responsibility for it, it’s likely few would miss it if you were to delete it.
  5. Remember the law of diminishing returns. Every additional piece of content added to your intranet makes it a little bit harder for the user to find the actual information they need.
  6. Help people find their way around. Investing some time and money in getting your information architecture right will soon pay for itself.  Don’t just rely on the main menus, though: use the left-hand navigation lists and the footer of each page too. Help people get back to the section home,  the home page, and to other related pages. But people have different ways of looking for things, so a good search engine and A-Z are needed too.
  7. Raze your city to the ground. It’s not an option that’s open to city planners, but there are strong arguments for scrapping your intranet and starting again. A clean slate gives you the chance to get your information architecture and governance structures right, before developing your content from scratch so it really meets the needs of your audience. This nuclear option is an expensive one, but one that shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.

Over the coming months I’ll be thinking a lot more about intranets and how we can make them better. What are your tips for keeping your intranet fit for purpose?

October’s dead tree reading list

I love books. I always said when I grew up I wanted to have my very own library. And now I have. I’ve got a ladder and everything.

Granted, my need for a ladder is greater than most.

Anyway, inspired by Sarah Lay and Dave Briggs, here’s my Dead Tree Reading List for this month:


Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (Dan Gardiner): At work I’ve been thinking lately about how we handle risk. Does our perception of risk create organisational paralysis? Often potential risks prevent us from innovating and trying new things. Do we need to get more used to taking risks?

Most books on risk look at the gap between statistical likelihood and perception of risk; this one goes into the psychology and politics of fear, so hopefully is a good basis on which to look at these questions.

My Invented Country (Isabel Allende): In this book, Allende explores her own perceptions and understandings of her home country, Chile. I admit I’m a little obsessed with South America, but I picked this up as it reminded me of Benedict Anderson’s concept of nation as imagined community.

We Think (Charles Ledbeater): This book explores how the web is changing our world, creating a culture in which more people than ever can participate, share and collaborate. That’s why the web is such a potent platform for creativity and innovation and has the potential to transform our democracy. I love this stuff.

Here Comes Everybody (Clay Shirky): This looks at organising without organisations. The social web gives us the tools to make group action a reality. That, in turn, could change our whole world.

The latter two are part of the growing body of literature (digital as well as dead tree) on the potential of the social web to transform the way we live our lives.

By lowering transaction costs and allowing people to self-0rganise, the web makes possible a whole raft of activity that was previously impossible or simply uneconomic.

So, for example, if you love reading and regularly buy books, you’ll know that new books are expensive. Even when you buy secondhand books, you get charged a fortune for postage and packing.

The social web makes alternatives possible. ReadItSwapIt is a book exchange website which allows users to simply swap the books they no longer want for ones they do want – for free.

Once you’ve finished a book, just register it with ReadItSwapIt and then find a book that you want to read. If someone has a book you like, you can arrange to post them to each other. All you pay is the cost of postage.

In my years of living in poky flats with shelf-space at a premium, I operated a strict(ish) one-in, one-out system using ReadItSwapIt that kept my bursting-at-the-seams shelves at some kind of equalibrium (and saved me a fortune).

A fine example of the way the web can transform the way we do business with each other, if you ask me.

Anti-Disclaimer: Links above aren’t affiliate ones, so I don’t make any money if you buy the books. However, I am probably obliged by my employers to point out there are more free books than you can shake a stick at available at your local, council-run library.