Friday, December 5, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: Running the IT/IM and Work Culture Gamut

Some of this may sound familiar, but it is a discussion that is happening all over the public service right now. The first part is a mix between new information and some recycled content from a previous weekly, so bear with me if some of this seems repetitive.

The Speech from the Throne

When it comes to information and knowledge management, many departments face a number of interconnected challenges surrounding human resources, information technology, siloed activities and siloed culture.

I mentioned in passing last week that I found it encouraging that the recent Speech from the Throne (SFT) offers public servants the opportunity to implement measures that will allow them to work more effectively and streamline the way they do business. More specifically:

Part of a solid economic and fiscal foundation is the sound management of government. To make Canada’s national government more effective, our Government is committed to reform and streamline the way it does business.

Our Government will pursue innovative reforms to the administration of programs and services, drawing on the successful experiences of other governments around the world. It will build partnerships with third parties and the private sector to deliver better services at a lower overall cost.

I think that these statements are the most important ones from the SFT for anyone in the field of Information Management (IM), Information Technology (IT) or at their confluence (IM/IT). It may also be the most important statements for Gen Y public servants or anyone looking at recruitment, retention and renewal strategies.

The Challenges

As a member of Gen Y, I can attest to the fact that we have grown alongside IT. We remember when the web was entirely text-based, what it was like to wait more than a few seconds to download a single still image, and a time when ‘Google’ wasn’t a verb. We have seen the exponentially increasing rate at which information can be found, managed, packaged, repackaged and shared. We have also seen the similar growth in the breadth and depth of the tools and services with which we manipulate this information. For us, ubiquitous access to information is now the norm.

Herein lies the challenge: the IM/IT infrastructure of our workplaces simply cannot satiate our technological customs. Outside of the workplace, we continue to live our entire lives being able to appropriate new technologies as they emerge. We organize our lives in such a way that technology blends seamlessly into it. Yet, at work we are forced to do things the way we used to do them 5 to 10 years ago.

We are stuck using outdated operating systems; using antiquated tailor-made applications and unintuitive interfaces; we can’t install our own software applications; we lack the physical capacity to view streaming media; and we are routinely frustrated by filters that limit our access to legitimate information.

In short, our use of technology at work is completely counter-intuitive to our use of it everywhere else. I can’t help but wonder how much of the problem stems from an inability to provide the physical capacity and how much of it stems from an inability to trust the end user to act responsibly with their IT resources.

New Hope – But Questions Abound

There are a number of us out there in the public service working towards better practices in IT/IM across departments. One only needs to look at the Government 2.0 Best Practices Wiki to find out exactly who these people are, and what they are doing.

I know that we have written extensively on GCPEDIA already but it represents one of these new hopes. Yet, it also raises a very big question – one that came out in a number of conversations I recently engaged in at a wiki-workshop at NRCan. Namely, if Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) already built this, should we build our own, or simply leverage what is already there?

To that I say two things. The first is that I am pleased that we are no longer stuck on the question of if we should do it, but rather have progressed to the question on how we should do it. The second is that your choice of how to proceed is really based on the depth of your vision and your evaluation of the risk.

For example, if departments choose to implement their own wikis they are working to break the siloed culture within their own departments, but if they choose to leverage GCPEDIA then they are showing others that they are ready to blow not only their internal silos, but also interdepartmental silos, out of the water. Obviously, my preferred option is the latter, whereby public servants mobilize across all departments and allow the maximum amount of participation while minimizing the duplication.

The Lack of an Official Communication

People I speak with are also worried about how they will be perceived for using GCPEDIA. Given that TBS is not actively marketing the use of GCPEDIA, many public servants don’t even know it exists, so people who do know don’t feel safe using it. Instead they fear being scolded for ‘playing around’ on the internet when what they are actually doing is working with a legitimate work tool provided by a central agency (as long as they are using the tool properly).

So what are the departmental policies around using GCPEDIA? What? Aside from those set out by TBS itself, no department has any? (At least to my knowledge – correct me if I am wrong)

Alright … but do they need any?

Do I need an approval to engage in GCPEDIA? Do I need an approval for every article I create there?

Well if we put the question on its head, we could see that since anyone across the government could edit and contribute to the content, having the approval of a senior manager in one department really doesn’t accomplish much other then perhaps ensuring that the content is relevant and that commas are in the right places (in their own view). I think that the preferable option is to have senior managers encourage their staff to engage in GCPEDIA more broadly. An interesting caveat may be to challenge a manager to change the content themselves and offer them the support they need to do so.

For this reason, I believe that some sort of communication needs to be made about the legitimacy of GCPEDIA and its viable uses as a transformative work tool. I understand the need for organic growth and the process of self selection (FYI, Mike and I have self-selected and are planning on inputting something into GCPEDIA in the near future) but there needs to be a high level endorsement of some sort to communicate to senior managers across the public service that this is the future of collaboration and information management within the public service (if that is, in fact, the long term goal of GCPEDIA).

Final Remark

As one of those people who have self-selected to take the (for now) ‘calculated risk’ of engaging in GCPEDIA I can always justify my actions by arguing that the simple fact that TBS has provided this tool for us to use makes its very use legitimate.

Besides, I don’t know about you but I have never asked permission or for approvals to use an application installed on my desktop – Word, Power Point, Outlook, etc – or use the departmental intranet? Nor do I need approvals for documents that are still in draft status – the same status that GCPEDIA affords its articles. If we want a collaborative work culture across the GoC, then we need to start creating a culture where turning to and engaging in GCPEDIA is the norm.


  1. Nick/Mike, I say GET ON WITH IT...what are you waiting for? I find that, as usual, you tend to put your obstacles at the feet of the senior management (i.e. we are not that bright or adept when it comes to WEB 2.0) rather than forge ahead on your own. I'm a DG and I launched into GCPEDIA the day it was announced! Check out my page under users, Katherine Parker, and under projects, Prospectors and Developers Association....this is an inter-departmental wiki site for several departments at the senior management level. So no more excuses okay?

  2. We're coming up with our "Information Sharing" policy. When I started with the government, our security briefing included a 2 hour discussion on our then-policy of "Need to Know" basis. We're turning that on it's head now.

    Our Guide to Information Sharing: Who Should Know?

    1. Everyone should know = post it on the Web.

    2. Only people within the Canadian Government should be privy to this information = post it on GCpedia, GCblogger (when it comes...), publiservice, etc.

    3. Only people in our Department should be a part of this discussion = Intranet, Departmental wiki (we don't have one yet; just preparing in advance ;) ), Internal newsletters.

    4. Only people within our branch or unit = shared drive, e-mail link to shared drive to people involved with note to say it can be shared with anyone affected/interested.

    5. Only a few people = e-mail.

    Hope this helps...maybe someone could develop this into a proper policy.