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.


  1. Nick - another very thoughtful piece - thanks.
    A couple of very quick hits from a fellow PS'er trying to shift the approach and attitude toward communication with the public.

    - GCPedia: a tremendous asset. I believe, certainly from experience in my dept, hat many people simply don't understand how or why to use it. General 'lunch and learns,' while a good intro, or simply being told to create pages as part of a departmental initiative is not the approach to take.

    Evangelists are needed who can demonstrate the true utility of the tool to a group of people working on a particular issue or file. The silos are many but the desire to break through them is great. Dedicated resources are needed to guide people into and through this transition.

    - You are right to point to the 'old paradigm' facing us and the need for a steady hand to guide us. Further to the point above and my own ongoing challenges to elevate the management of our online assets, leadership should also include an (several) energetic visionaries who can inspire those below, around and above them. Innovation should be at all levels and will come in time. We have a small window in time to recognize, embrace, and prepare for an entirely new landscape for the government.

    Your posts raise excellent points for discussion and I agree, they need to start finding their ways into the inboxes and mobiles of those why may be skeptical.

    Great food for Friday thought.

    p.s. Calling any/all change management professionals!!

  2. I saw that interview a while back - assume it was the same one.

    What you say here, "if the professional class structure is being challenged, then so too must be the authority of the subject matter experts who have built their careers along the 'old paradigm' is very apt. These are the very same people who 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" is a can-of-worms -- So, to the field of journalism.

    I would like to say that journalists who write about scientists are often not scientists, and who write about politics are often not sudents of political science. They create schema through which great masses of people interpret events, but few have the critical thinking skills that you'd have as a Ph.D or the credentials of a health professional. Journalists have degrees in literature or communications, not necessarily the areas they write about. I have seen rather questionable stuff coming from journalists writing on science outside of science mags.

    Furthermore, if you look at the comments on newspaper articles or in web forums, what you'll see are ARGUMENTS and CONTRARY POVs.

    No, I don't see much against Web 2.0 -- a long needed remedy for the sort of exclusive framing of economic and social issues that don't always move anything forward in effective ways.

  3. My response:

  4. Nick - as new as I am at social networking, I find already that I enjoy reviewing the knowledge and views shared by others via various social networking media. I've not read the book of which you speak. I do have a few thoughts/bits of information to share, though, in response to your blog. I do hope this helps further the collective thinking.

    Social networking tools—useful or merely delivering superficial observations?

    I’m a neophyte, where these tools are concerned … something that needs to be acknowledged, up front. Thoughts that pop in to my head, at this snapshot in time, are as follows:

    1) They are a tool, right? They’re not “social” or “economic” policy … nor are they “law”. Quite simply, they are a means of communication in much the same way that newspapers, books television and their early cousin—email—are. Some might argue, and I would agree, that not all “news” sources are 100% factually correct; rather, in all matters, one must use one’s own judgment when absorbing information, no matter the source. Is having access to these tools any worse than, say, bestowing upon everyone who is over the age of 18 years the privilege to vote. How well informed are the voters? How do we know that everyone who does vote, is informed enough to make such an important judgment/decision? Worse, they do so in secret. By voting, they are no doubt telling “the truth” as they see it; what if they make a mistake?

    2) What is “the truth” anyways? Who’s to judge whether an idea that is shared is “the truth”. According to what standard or rule? There are so many rules in society these days … there is certainly no shortage to choose from. Are we, as a society and as individuals who make up our society, ever REALLY sure what, precisely, the truth is? Can what we know as THE TRUTH change over time as society evolves and learns new things? How many convicted criminals have been exonerated by DNA testing … not feasible when they were originally charged, tried and convicted but employed after years of incarceration to, once and for all, prove someone’s innocence. Similarly, in the early 20th century, the “truth” was that the status of women and aboriginals and minorities was a great deal less inclusive and respectful than is the case today. Believed to be “true” by society at the time … our laws encoded these “truth” in fact in to hard and fast rules. And yet, today things have changed … what we as a society VALUE has evolved, over time. (This hotlink to Harvard Magazine features a fascinating article on behavioral economics. The article speaks very eloquently to the importance of early adopters to such an evolutionary process:

    3) What role do societal and individual “values” play in this discussion? If social media technology (i.e. blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are, in fact, little more than tools to facilitate communication and exchange of ideas, how does one ensure that common sense does not get lost in all the noise? All new innovations bring with them both pluses and minuses … great to have access to so very much information … and, all at one’s finger-tips, to boot! At the same time, though, it is a little overwhelming to have access to so very much information … all at one’s finger-tips, to boot!  What role do one’s personal values play in determining what behaviors are needed to both decipher the information with a critical mind AND remain open to new ideas so that innovation might flourish? I believe you’ve already touched on a number of key behaviors in your blog, Nick:

    o Sharing information—yes, most definitely;
    o Being open to changing one’s ways, personally, as needed to learn new things—yes, critical … and, perhaps most importantly,
    o Listening to the ideas and perspectives of others.

    With respect to the last point, I am reminded of conversations we had in our family as my children were growing up (they’re now 19 and 16 years old) about what they were learning in school in successive moral education classes. Values and ethics were central to the way their schools functioned such that it was common-place for the school’s values to be reflected in their agenda books and posted throughout the premises. Always at the top of the list was “Respect” … the importance of listening to the views of others, communicating one’s point rationally and politely and a zero tolerance for bullying.

    4) In sum, in my view, “truth” is fleeting and dependant upon one’s perspective. Society’s perspective tends to change as new ideas are shared, challenged and eventually implemented, once perfected and understood/accepted by a large enough mass of individuals. What’s most important, in a democratic society, is the dialog. There is little value in arriving some place … any place … only to find when you get there that you are all alone. Social media tools provide a means of facilitating such dialog IF their power is harnessed and supported appropriately. If users of such tools remain true to their personal values, I believe we will all be guided just fine through the storm on ongoing change and swirling emotions that such dialog inevitably evokes.

    Again, hope above is helpful. Thx very much for stimulating such dialog.

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