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Weekly Column: Purposeful Story Telling

Friday, July 31, 2009
A couple of weeks ago I posted a link on twitter to a blog entry entitled "A Good Way to Change the Corporate Culture" written by Peter Bregman over at HarvardBusiness.org.

The essence of the article is that if you want to change the culture of an organization, you need to start changing its stories. I urge you to read it because the more I reflected on the article within the context of the public service the more I thought that its core message was bang on.


Defining Our Culture

The article linked to above reminded me of something so fundamental about the formation of culture; something I have known for a long time yet only hinted at in my previous writings (as opposed to being the explicit subject thereof).

That something is this: the culture of the public service is not defined by the rules, the hierarchy, or the paperwork but by how we have interacted, and continue to interact, with these (and other) things. More specifically, culture is defined by how we and others talk about our dealings with these things. Once we realize this we understand that we actually have a tremendous amount of power over our surroundings.


Changing the Work Culture

If you want to work in a different type of culture, then share the stories that reinforce that type of culture and refuse to repeat the ones that work against it. Be more aware of your interactions with others and their implications when taken in the aggregate.

Take this blog for example, it and everything I think it represents (grassroots participation in Canadian Public Service Renewal) has taken on a meme of its own, but how did you find out about it?

Chances are you didn't find it in a search (less than 5% of our total traffic comes from search engines). Either someone you know told you about it, or another site you read/trust referred you here. Culture, and our ability to influence it, works in much the same way.

Culture grows organically and CPSRenewal, which includes both its writer, editor, and readers, is simply another contributing factor to the growth of that culture. I need only to look back at the discussion that followed our last post for evidence that it is stimulating genuine dialogue among interested and engaged public servants.


Call to Action

I have a small favour to ask each and every one of you. In the coming week, think about a story you want to share, one that reinforces the culture you want to work in, and share it with someone else (and while you are at it, leave it as a comment on this post).

But please, if you can, share it with someone who is still on the fence, help them come down, because if we want to shape the way we work and relate to one another within the public service - if we want to shape the culture - then we must be more purposeful when we tell the stories that promote the one we want to work in.

[Aside: If you don't think you are ready to be more purposeful in your story telling, simply share the link to this site with them, maybe we can convince them.]


Weekly Column: Territory or Synergy in Government 2.0

Friday, July 24, 2009

These last couple of weeks have been interesting ones for me. I won't bore you with the more mundane details, but suffice it to say that the conversations that have been taking place have covered the full spectrum of issues around collaborative technologies, governance, and culture, and have included people from all classifications, levels, and subject areas.

The sum of these conversations has made one thing abundantly clear. It informed last week's column, and this week’s column endeavours to flesh it out in more detail. It is this:

As we embark on this journey towards Government 2.0, public servants who have built, who are building, and who will attempt to build their careers by staking out their territory and defending it vehemently (‘territorialists’) will ultimately clash with those who have built, who are building and who will build their careers by seeking out synergies and capitalizing on opportunities, irrespective of those territorial boundaries (‘synergists’).

I won’t call it a culture war. That analogy doesn't sit right with me because rarely does it add value. It is much more apt to promote division (real or otherwise) than anything else. Besides, there are way better analogies and/or pop culture references out there. We don't have a war raging, what we've got here is a failure to communicate.

Furthermore, both sides are responsible for this communication breakdown as neither side is communicating effectively with one another. Truth be told, I would actually argue that the two sides don't even speak the same language.

I myself have run into a couple of situations recently where I could do nothing else but walk out shaking my head. I am physically incapable of truly understanding why someone would defend their territory so vehemently to the point of misconstruing my offer to help as a threat to their continued relevance. Personally, I have so much on my plate on a daily basis that I welcome whatever help I can get.

From where I sit (admittedly, firmly in the synergist camp) I think that, ultimately, those who orient themselves and their careers towards opportunities irrespective of territory will eventually "win out" over those who focus on territory irrespective of opportunity. What started as a slow shift in the underlying public service culture is now being sped up exponentially by the powerful accelerant we call web 2.0 (social media and collaborative technologies). In this kind of environment, it is incredibly difficult to build a fence around something.

The logical conclusion for me is that, as this evolution continues, the ground will continue to shift in new and unexpected ways. Those who are going to be successful in this world will be those with the broadest base of transferable skills, those willing to move around and try new things, those who are connected to the larger issues that transcend functional or jurisdictional areas. In short, the rules of the game are changing and synergy is the new territory; and most importantly it is a territory that no one can build a fence around.


Column: Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Friday, July 17, 2009
Stop saying you want to be more open, and then find reasons not to be.

Collaborate at the enterprise level. Look beyond your department, push it government-wide.

Listen, this isn't about you, so put that ruler away. We aren't measuring anything here today.

PointBlank: Featuring Nick Charney (oh wait that's me!)

Monday, July 13, 2009
Hi All,

I just wanted to let you know that I was humbled last week to be named one of the 25 must-follow #gov20 (government 2.0) heroes on Twitter by GovFresh.

I was subsequently featured in GovFresh (or if you prefer, the interview is also available at Govloop). In the interview I answer four questions:

  1. What was your path to Gov 2.0?
  2. What area of government offers the biggest opportunity for improvement via Web 2.0 tools?
  3. What's the killer app that will make Gov 2.0 the norm instead of the exception?
  4. What part of Gov 2.0 most excites you?

Please go and have a read, and leave a comment (here or there) or fire me off an email/tweet with your reactions.

Cheers, and as usual, thanks so much for taking the time to stop by this space.

Signal-to-Noise: How I do Research on Government 2.0 Using Social Media

Friday, July 10, 2009
Just to be clear, this is not an abstract example. While I employ this methodology for a number of communities and topics, the one I will use as an illustration here is what is generally referred to as "Government 2.0". Also, you may notice that this is in some respects similar to the popular post I penned earlier: How I use Twitter to be a Better Public Servant. This post focuses more closely on my methodology, which I have since refined.


Problem: Signal-to-Noise

For the uninitiated, signal–to-noise ratio is essentially the level of a desired signal (in this case valuable information) to the level of background noise (valueless or value-neutral information).

When discussing social media, I often run into people who look at it and see a whole lot of content varying in usability and wonder how in the hell they are going to manage it without getting overwhelmed. In short, their question is: how do you get to what you want and filter out what you don't?


Solution: What You'll Need

My methodology for filtering out the noise relies on two things:

  1. An active community creating, linking, rating, responding, sharing and tagging content; and
  2. Knowing what tag(s) is/are being used by that community.

It also requires 5 tools, all of which allow me to manipulate and/or read RSS feeds. They are:

  1. Search Twitter
  2. Yahoo Pipes
  3. Firefox
  4. Post Rank (an extension for Firefox)
  5. Google Reader


I will try to keep this explanation as clear possible and supplement it with supporting graphics whenever possible. But before I get into the technical explanation, I want to share this little hand drawn process map that will hopefully pique your interest, simplify the model, and illustrate how I start with approximately 250 items of unknown importance (re: Government 2.0) and whittle them down to 3 items over a single day.





Step 1 (Install Firefox, PostRank extension and set up a Google Reader Account)

If you don't already use Firefox, then you will need to install it for this to work. [Hint: here is a valid reason to get it installed at work.] You will also need to install the PostRank add-on for Google Reader. Then either sign in to your existing Google account or create one.


Step 2 (Search Twitter)

Now you will need to use search.twitter.com to create your initial RSS feeds.

Benefits of searching Twitter:

  1. Results are real time (i.e. what people are talking about right now);
  2. You don’t need a twitter account to do it; and
  3. You only need to set up your search once and then grab the RSS feed from it.

In order to set up your searches, click the advanced search option on the main page, and configure your search as follows:

  1. Must contain "#gov20" (no quotes) [Hashtag denotes that content is relevant to Government 2.0];
  2. Must contain a link [I want the full article, not a 140 character tweet about the article]; and
  3. Must contain either "RT" or "via" (no quotes) [Syntax for retweeting, a social measure of value which indicates that someone has decided to re-disseminate that link within their own network].

This search is configured to capture only links being retweeted (RT or via) on twitter about Government 2.0 (#gov20). Therefore, this first step removes any of the chatter that doesn't contain links and any content that hasn’t been deemed worthy of re-disseminating by people on Twitter.

However, within the wider Government 2.0 community, there are multiple hashtags being used, including :

  1. #opengov
  2. #opendata
  3. #govloop
  4. #gov20

So if you want to capture everything within that community, then you are forced to repeat the process, substituting the hashtag [Note: it is possible to set this up as a single feed, but separate feeds are more manageable.].


Step 3 (Yahoo Pipes)

Yahoo Pipes is a free web-based program that allows users to manipulate RSS feeds and re-syndicate them afterwards. It can be overwhelming at first, and I am still by no means an expert, but I am achieving my desired results using it.

I start by importing the four RSS feeds from the searches we ran in Step 1. Yahoo Pipes combines all four feeds into a single feed. If you look at that feed closely you will see that there is some duplication. This duplication occurs when people tag content with two (or more) of the hashtags I searched for and when a tweet is retweeted multiple times by different users. In order to deal with the duplication I have configured Yahoo Pipes to analyze the content of each feed item. I then apply a filter that removes any non-unique item from the feed based on the results of that analysis.

An important caveat is that Yahoo Pipes removes the duplicates in order of occurrence, which means that if the content analysis module determines that something has been retweeted 5 times, it keeps the original retweet while removing the others. The importance of this will become apparent later when we discuss the application of PostRank filters.

Here are a couple of screenshots of the Government 2.0 pipe I am running. The first shows the starting point of the pipe prior to applying the filter. As you can see it indicates 60 items in the feed (look bottom right).



Here is the second screenshot which indicates that after we apply the filter. The pipe is down to 33 items (again, bottom right).


Step 4 (Google Reader and PostRank)

Now that you are rolling with Firefox, login to Google Reader and add the feed you created in Yahoo Pipes.

Now if you look near the top of the page you will see a drop down filter option that allows you to filter the content within your reader using Post Rank (the add-on you installed earlier).

PostRank allows you to filter items by the community's level of engagement with the content: it measures other content being created as a response to this content (e.g. blog posts, comments, retweets, clicks, etc). In short, it gives you a social measure of the popularity of each item in the feed based solely on how and how often people are interacting with the content itself. This is why the Yahoo Pipes filtering process is important, keeping the first retweets (chronologically) allows PostRank to give an accurate measure of the susequent retweets, click throughs, etc.

[Note: This is an awesome extension that can do a lot more for you then just this. I use PostRank daily to determine which posts I should read and which I can probably skip. (More details can be found here).]

Finally here is a screenshot showing the application of the "Best" setting to my original feed in Google Reader.





Notice anything interesting? There are only 3 items there. This process started out with approximately 250 items of unknown importance ended with 3 items of high importance, which is clearly much more manageable than 250, especially when we remember that we are talking per day here.


Three Usual Objections

Despite showing how effective the filter is in terms of whittling down the number of items I have to decide to read or not (because yes, even with all this I still decide whether or not to read them), people remain skeptical.

Three questions frequently come up whenever I explain it:

Q1: What if you miss something?

A1: Fair question, but no one is catching everything no matter what their methodology. Besides, where am I more likely to miss something? At the beginning when I am dealing with approximately 250 items, or at the end when I am dealing with 3?

Q2: How can you be sure what you are reading is important?

A2: Because the methodology is designed to deliver what people in the community are reading and reacting to; the fact that they are reading and reacting to it is what makes it significant. In other words, if it isn’t being read already, then I would argue that it probably isn't required reading.

Q3: Can you give a concrete example of something you found that was of value that you might not have found otherwise?

A3: This example is from the field of knowledge management where I employ the same methodology, but I cite it because it was the best find to date. I came across a knowledge management conference in Copenhagen, which I would otherwise have never known to look for. The best part about that conference was that they made all 250 of the discussion papers presented at the conference available on their website. I skimmed the abstracts and downloaded all of the papers that discussed the confluence of information communications technologies, knowledge management, and communities of practice. I walked away with over 25 papers that were either already peer reviewed, or in the process of. You want to talk about a learning opportunity?


Conclusion

I apologize if this was a little too technical. I tried my best to keep it simple and in plain language. Like I said, a lot of people have been asking me details about this so I figured this was the best venue to share it. I think it does a good job articulating how you can use social media to do research, which is not often the focus of social media discussions within government.

If you have any questions about or suggestions on how to improve, my methodology please let me know: I’d be happy to elaborate if required, and am always looking for better ways to improve my signal to noise ratio.

Cheers,


Back to Basics: Scheming Virtuously

Friday, July 3, 2009
When I was in Edmonton last week I had the opportunity to present Scheming Virtuously (SV) twice. To be honest, at first I was a little apprehensive because the venue was a little different than I am used to: a small group (15-20 participants), no standing, no mic, and no podium. In short there was neither pomp nor circumstance.

Yet, in retrospect (and I could sense this at the time) this was probably the most genuine delivery of SV to date. I hit that flow early, I barely glanced at my notes, and most of all I really enjoyed delivering it.

Those who know me well will probably attribute my enjoyment to what they might call my innate desire to be in the spotlight. While that may be partially true, I think the real reason I enjoyed it was because of the proximity to the audience and their level of involvement.

The smaller group meant more eye contact; it meant we could more easily work through ideas and problems while generating new insights. This last point, about generating new insights is one of the first things I say during my presentation. More specifically: the real value of the session comes not from having me come to speak but in looking across the table at your peers, see them nodding in quiet agreement (or maybe not?) and then coalescing around the issues after the session. SV is as much about building community as it is about empowering people.


Generating New Insights: Example From Edmonton

I think the most interesting thing that came out of the sessions was a discussion I led around critical mass and performance learning agreements. During my presentation, I made the point that teams or communities should work on their Performance and Learning Agreement (PLA) together. While there could be any number of reasons why this could be important, I want to focus on two interrelated problems: the “outlier” problem and the “we don't have any money to train you” problem.


Outlier Problem

First, you don't want to be the outlier. By this I mean that if you are the only one in your group that has a PLA with some teeth then you are likely to appear needy or demanding (or worse). I am not trying to begrudge managers here at all, but when demand is low, managers do not necessarily feel they need to deliver, especially if the standard is employees who ask for very little training or rarely hold their managers to account.

However, I really do think that this is understandable, and in most cases inadvertent. That being said, if you step back for a moment and think strategically, you will notice an opportunity to take advantage of that inadvertent behaviour because it cuts both ways.

For example, if everyone in a team or functional community has carefully crafted compelling PLAs, then there is significantly more pressure on managers to deliver because the demand is high. The interesting thing is that they may not even see it as pressure, because that higher standard quickly becomes the norm. Yes, managers naturally have expectations of employees, but we often forget that most managers react to the expectations of their employees; and low expectations tend to yield poor results.


We Don't Have Any Money to Train You Problem

When I introduced these problems I said they were interrelated, here is why. That critical mass of expectation (upwards, sideways, downwards, what have you) can create real pressures and real results.

One of the self-identified problems facing the functional community involved in the presentation was that there was never any money for training, or at least that was the excuse being cited. I suggested that perhaps the community should work together (in a space like GCPEDIA) and start to have a conversation around common training or learning opportunities that the entire community could benefit from. Hash it out in conversation, then agree to two or three points to include on everyone's PLA.

I went on to caution them that simply including it in everyone's agreements was probably insufficient in that they should not rely on others (e.g. their managers) to identify the commonalities on their own, nor should they expect to ask others in their cadre if they were dealing with similar circumstances in their own teams.

I advised them to craft a simple note they could pass on to all their managers and further up the chain. The note should simply state:

  • The number of people in the community who identified the same learning needs;
  • The cost of sending everyone to attend individually;
  • The cost of bringing in a group to deliver the training to everyone at once;
  • Three to four people who have been selected by the community to complete the train-the-trainer equivalent to move the community to greater self-sufficiency;
  • a list of people the note went to; and
  • a key contact in the community who has volunteered to respond to management's inquiries.

Could you imagine if a functional community of 100 people or more self-organized, identified common learning needs, conducted a cost-benefit analysis, and presented a singular training plan to management that would allow them to reach 100% completion (and compliance!) of PLAs within that functional group? That would be an opportunity no senior manager could say no to.


Do You Want to Scheme Virtuously?

You may have noticed that we are working on an update to Scheming Virtuously; but we need your help. We want to know what we missed. So please leave us a comment, fire us an email, or drop content or a comment into the GCPEDIA page.

That being said, if you are more of a visual person, I would like to do a live presentation of Scheming Virtuously sometime in the near future. Please let me know if you would be interested in attending so I can make the necessary arrangements. The presentation would help me get more feedback, generate some new ideas, and allow me to streamline my presentation.

We are looking forward to hearing from you.