Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekly Column: New Thoughts from an Early Adopter

The first time I came across the work of Andrew Keen I was watching The Agenda with Steve Paikin. I recently picked up a copy of Keen's The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture. Thus far I must say I find it a very interesting read.

However, rather then offering you my own admittedly amateurish review of the book, I will instead point you to what Keen would most likely call an authoritative source (e.g. The New York Times):

Mr. Keen argues that “what the Web 2.0 revolution is really delivering is superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment.” In his view Web 2.0 is changing the cultural landscape and not for the better. By undermining mainstream media and intellectual property rights, he says, it is creating a world in which we will “live to see the bulk of our music coming from amateur garage bands, our movies and television from glorified YouTubes, and our news made up of hyperactive celebrity gossip, served up as mere dressing for advertising.” This is what happens, he suggests, “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule.”

I may not totally agree with everything Keen argues in his book, but I think the conversation he has started is a very important one - one that I think we have yet to have in earnest behind the government firewall. Keen is an admitted elitist and is very concerned with the erosion of professional classes and the mass amateurization of content creation that is only possible given the spread of Web 2.0. Keen’s focus is private enterprise, but some of what he says makes sense within the context of the public sector, and to be honest, his book has me thinking about some new – or at least different - things. Given my tendency for social media evangelization, you may think that,some of these questions may seem totally out of character for me to ask, but I think an essential part of learning is considering more than one side of an argument. To that end, I ask a lot of questions below, and I hope that you can help me find some answers.

Looking Around the Digital Water Cooler

I want to share some quotations from Keen's book and then use them as points of discussion. These are excerpts that made me, wearing my public servant hat, dog-ear the page:

“... we use the Web to confirm our own partisan views and link to others with the same ideologies. Bloggers today are forming aggregated communities of like-minded amateur journalists … where they congregate in self-congratulatory clusters. They are the digital equivalent of online gated communities where all the people have identical views and the whole conversation is mirrored in a way that is reassuringly familiar. It's a dangerous form of digital narcissism; the only conversations we want to hear are those with ourselves and those like us.”

As I look around the social media and government digital water cooler I see a lot of familiar faces. Those who are currently involved have both feet wet, or are moving in that direction. However, we are the early adopters, and I think we often forget that. We forget that we really are just on the cusp of this mysterious and ever-evolving confluence of social media and government. Yet we never forget to point to each other’s successes in a somewhat congratulatory fashion, or share the latest and greatest piece of writing that bolsters our position.

Are we investing similar amounts of energy in examining counter-arguments? I will fully admit that I am guilty of not, which begs the question: what are we risking by not engaging in discussions with those who would argue against us? We social media types always focus on the importance of the conversation, but what happens if that conversation is one that is contrary to the very goals of social media? We often spend so much energy convincing people (non-early adopters) to listen to us; perhaps we have forgotten to listen to them?

Professional Classes and GCPEDIA

“Becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a musician, a journalist, or an engineer requires a significant investment of one's life in education and training, countless auditions or entrance and certifying exams, and commitment to a career of hard work and long hours. A professional writer spends years mastering or refining his or her craft in an effort to be recognized by a seasoned universe of editors, agents, critics, and consumers, as someone worth reading and paying attention to. Those in movie industry submit long hours, harried schedules, and insane pressure to create a product that will generate profit in a business in which expenses are high and hits unpredictable. Can the cult of the noble amateur really expect to bypass all this and do a better job?”

The same can be said about public servants – they invest in building their skills similarly, and have traditionally profited from doing so. This is evidenced by the current competency-based group-level classification structure. Those at the top have presumably refined their skills over the long haul to get there.

I never really understood how my fellow public servants could fail to see the value in GCPEDIA until now. Our new found potential for collaboration is truly spectacular, yet I have had many conversations with people who are opposed to integrating GCPEDIA into their business because, they say, they lose control over the process and the product. They are probably right. GCPEDIA represents a huge paradigm shift in how we do business in the government. That is why I think that David Eaves is right to say that:

"This transition - the movement from a public service that is opaque by 21st century standards to one that is transparent is going to be gut-wrenching, challenging and painful, not because it isn't technically possible, but because it is going to require reversing 200 years of culture, values and modes of operation that are embedded within the public service and deeply embedded within the political class. This isn't to say that the transition will erode the power or influence of these groups, it won't. But it will be different, and that in of itself is often scary enough to create resistance and a painful transition."

GCPEDIA challenges those deeply embedded values and modes of operation within the professional class. Note the difference. In the quotation above, Eaves references the political class, but I truly think that one of the key issues moving forward is understanding how GCPEDIA challenges the professional class structure of public servants.

GCPEDIA has awesome collaborative potential, and one of the reasons it has that potential is because it circumvents hierarchical reporting structures and organizational boundaries. Yet, if the professional class structure is being challenged, then so too must be the authority of the subject matter experts whom have built their careers along the “old paradigm”. These are the very same people whose are touted as irreplaceable by their organization, and often targeted by knowledge capture efforts prior to retirement. There is an odd juxtaposition here that I can’t quite put my finger on, a juxtaposition that has me feeling a bit apprehensive.

Thinking Through the Apprehension

Is our current professional classification system analogous to Keen’s description below?

“... to maintain their value, high-end clothing and cars and electronic equipment require not only great design and great engineering, but mystery and scarcity. What [others] call 'participation in design', I argue, lessens the real value of innovation. Are great designs truly that easy to create?”

I am not entirely sure. My intuition tells me that innovation should be fostered at all levels. But, my intuition also tells me that moving from idea to implementation may require something more. It may require the steady hand of a public servant – one who has built their career slowly and determinedly by investing in their skills over time.

If Keen's book has done nothing else for me, it has helped me understand the importance of examining what happens to professional class structure (e.g. occupational groups and levels based on demonstrable competencies) when we start to break down the silos. While we all tend to recognize the need for greater collaboration, I don't think we have a handle on how, or to what degree, new collaborative approaches (e.g. GCPEDIA) will fundamentally change the nature of how we do business.

Maybe it is time we all gave that a little more thought.

Aside about Keen

While I was sitting down to write this column, I asked Keen a question via twitter:

To which he replied:

You can click here if you’re interested in watching the interview he pointed me to.

I also just wanted to say that I followed up my tweet with an email, to which Keen quickly replied. I’d asked him if he had any thoughts on what I was thinking (laid out above). Without reproducing the email exchange, he called my points “fair” and affirmed the importance of giving them more thought in his next book.

Thanks Andrew.

Note that while we work as public servants this is entirely our own initiative and what we post here does not necessarily reflect the view of the government, our offices or our positions there in.

Notez bien que nous travaillons commes functionnaires, ceci est entièrement notre propre initiative et ce que nous publions sur ce site ne reflète pas nécessairement le point de vue du gouvernement, de nos organisations ou de nos postes.