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The Growing Importance of Online Awareness Networks

Friday, February 11, 2011
After writing from From Briefing Notes to Govblogging, I got an email from Richard Akerman that contained the following nugget (internal link, contents reproduced with permission):

"Another [worldview] is that every employee needs to construct and maintain an "awareness network" to monitor the rapidly-changing environment. Individualised, curated streams of google alerts, RSS feeds, news apps, Twitter streams, podcasts etc. are used by knowledge workers to build their own understanding of a dynamically changing environment. They themselves are responsible for bundling what they see into conceptual groups and trends."

Case Study: Canadian Radio-television Telecommunication Commission (CRTC) Ruling on Usage-Based Billing (UBB)

I wanted to pull in a real public policy example to help illustrate the importance of awareness networks. My intention is neither to weigh in on the debate, the actions of any of the players, nor misrepresent the facts. What follows are simply observations about how the issue is playing out at a very high level as I experienced them.

I was first alerted to the CRTC’s ruling on twitter when someone posted a link to a Globe and Mail article entitled A Metered Internet is a Regulatory Failure. I subsequently started to follow the issue online in order to try to understand more about how online communities shape public policy. I read the ruling from start to finish and subsequently dove into the Twitterverse looking to read people’s reaction to the ruling (and the article). I wound up on Michael Geist’s blog reading Unpacking The Policy Issues Behind Bandwidth Caps & Usage Based Billing. Since writing it, Geist continued to write about the issue (here, here, here, here, here, here and here) garnering a significant amount of attention on the web. But Geist isn’t alone, David Eaves weighed in here and here, and there are undoubtedly bloggers who did the same. There is an online petition. Mainstream media outlets have continued to cover the story. Moreover, each of the resources I’ve linked to above is replete with views, comments, trackbacks, tweets, likes, etc.

As if that wasn’t enough, while these events were unfolding The Prime Minister and Industry Minister were talking about the issue on Twitter before they spoke to the mainstream media (prompting a piece in the Globe and Mail entitled Government policy decisions, in 140 characters or less); and if you paid close attention to the Industry Minister's twitter stream you would have seen that not only was he speaking to the public writ large but also specifically got it into it with (journalist) Andrew Coyne on the issue.

Welcome to the long tail of public policy

The respective contributions by regulatory boards, academics, pundits, subject matter experts, and citizens are being strung together online by hyperlinks and social networks. This is the new face of public policy and these online contributions combine to form a narrative of the regulatory evolution of the internet in this country.


Wait, so what does this have to do with awareness networks?

Good question.

If you restrict access to the internet, you: (1) restrict access to the long tail of public policy and (2) cut your staff whose job it is to brief senior officials on the policy climate at the knees. A good awareness network connects you quickly to the heart of the debate; allows you to gauge sentiment; connect with subject matter experts; engage in a deep dive quickly; and thus provide better advice when called for. The public policy environment can be a difficult place to navigate, to my mind it looks something like this (click to enlarge):


(Note: that I am currently working on a more comprehensive model that also includes the internal portion of the network; thus the diagram above is totally beta.)



Supporting Awareness Networks Internally

I’m of the opinion that we don’t yet fully understand the value of online awareness networks in the larger organizational context. If we were, we would be encouraging more people to use the web-based tools at their disposal externally, we’d have a more expansive tool set behind the firewall, and we’d have fewer, if not zero, blockages to the internet from our workstations. Yet ironically, and this is me just guessing, the majority of documents produced behind the firewall start somewhere outside it (e.g. Google).

To wrap, I just wanted to point out that a lot of what I have written in the last few weeks lends itself to increasing the support to public servants who operate on an awareness network model:

  1. That we can learn a lot how sites like Quora piece together information in a way that is meaningful to the users and not necessarily reflective of the organizational structure;
  2. That blogs are great tools for contextualizing thought and forming a narrative. That they are searchable, hyperlink-able and make room for comments and debate; and
  3. Intranets are largely a collection of static information about the organization and not a dynamic collection of information for use by the organization.

The Challenge

Not everyone agrees with me. Many question the value of awareness networks for a more traditional model, or as Richard puts it:

If your experience is that information arrives in pre-packed bundles [e.g. briefing notes], on demand, you may assign zero value to the sort of "continuous partial attention" monitoring of the Internet that many knowledge workers find to be an invaluable part of their professional development. This may mean that there [may be] two very different mental models of how the organisation should function. In one, only people who have a specific job function should be gathering information, when it is requested. In another, everyone is expected to continuously monitor topics related to their work.

Richard concludes his posting by stating that:

[W]e need to find ways to communicate that the environment is changing rapidly and that many knowledge workers expect and need to continuously monitor changes in order to be the most productive and able to provide the best advice as part of a continuous learning, continuous service model.

Thanks for the push Richard, hopefully what I’ve laid out above helps in that regard.


This was originally published to cpsrenewal.ca by Nick Charney