Archive for March, 2010


March 11, 2010

Our Knowledge Management team just met with another Knowledge Management team. We didn’t have much of an agenda except to discuss the projects we’re working on.

The first item that came up was the problem of network access. We discovered in new employee trainings that employees that deploy overseas may be one of three different networks. Where do we tell them to collaborate? What’s the go to space?

There are lots and lots of options for answers. A given network. An interagency network. A contractor-developed web space. We try to tell them about all the options without overwhelming them.

We are in a transitional state in the USG right now. Interagency planning being done without the benefit of a reliable interagency network. Why fight it. That is the reality and we all have to navigate it together. A GSA speaker at the conference last year estimated it will take 20 years to move to the cloud, taking into account the lifecycle of existing systems. Will the cloud happen eventually? Do we really have an option? I meet the uncertainty of how to handle information sharing with the certainty that things will change. Things have changed already. Just think of how much work we do online, in email, outside of the documents we fret over managing. Until we have a dedicated USG intranet, we are going to have to learn to navigate different information spaces and have the critical thinking to know when and how one applies to us.

So, what KM advice did I share with the other team? Forget the document naming standards. We don’t need to evaluate and categorize every piece of content we have in unless we are dealing with legacy documents. Moving forward, we can work and discuss transparently online and let the search engine do the evaluation for us. Participate. Let the seeker seek through search. It is the future query we want to be able to address through the work we are doing today. Who knows what that query will be?

As for managing meta data, I think back on the days when a webpage had keyword tags that the search engines took as honest. But the search engine is smarter than we are because it had to be. We get meta data wrong (in the case of porn sites, intentionally wrong) all the time. Search engines decided it doesn’t matter what we say we are saying. It matters what we say. Web publishing tools provide basic meta data (author, date, etc) as well as more meta data than we could ever hope to dream up in our planning exercises (links, comments, responses). And search engines understand and help us navigate that information in ways we can’t predict or script. We haven’t fully realized the power of the web we have knitted yet. We only have a vague vision of the potential of a semantic web. Meanwhile, we can keep knitting.

What is my KM strategy? Work on providing training (particularly in how to conduct quality searches) and provide reassurance. Helping people feel safe and confident in navigating and using web content and publishing tools. The era of change as far as information sharing in government will be ongoing. Today, perhaps, it’s Sharepoint. Tomorrow, perhaps, a Google cloud. I know the frustration of KM practitioner who feels like they are stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. I see past that frustration. Because I know whatever the final tool or solution, participation is what really matters. Empowering and enabling consensus building will help us through this transition more than enforcing a false sense of control. Transparency. Collaboration. Participation.


John Stewart on Chatroulette

March 9, 2010
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Tech-Talch – Chatroulette
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Reform

iPhone Love

March 8, 2010

A recent Stanford University study confirms what we all know: iPhones can be addictive. What interests me is the relationship iPhone users (in the study, college students) have with their phone. They use is as an alarm clock, a watch, and external memory storage.

It was not so much with the object itself, but it had so much personal information that it became a kind of extension of the mind and a means to have a social life. It just kind of captured part of their identity.

The ways technology changes the way we think and socialize are only begining to materialize. If we can outsource our memory, increase our storage capacity, consolidate our reliance on devices, what kind of thinking do we really need?

I’ll tell you: critical thinking. How good are we at teaching that?

Future of Governance

March 8, 2010

I came across a fascinating film called Us Now that talks about changes in social behavior brought on by the growth of communications technology. Pulling a quote from the film website:

In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?

New technologies and a closely related culture of collaboration present radical new models of social organisation. This project brings together leading practitioners and thinkers in this field and asks them to determine the opportunity for government.
This website features all material being created during the making of the film.

“Making sure people can see the process, not only see it but people should be able to influence it because people don’t think they can influence the process and they need feedback. They need something which says yes, you did influence the process.”
Alan Cox

The second part of the quote makes me think of a post I recently wrote on social feedback. Making people feel seen and heard as individuals is key to making social media work.

Us Now is available in seven part video clips on Visit the file site for more information on the projects and links to video.

Presidential Appointment for Edward Tufte

March 8, 2010

The presidential appointment of Edward Tufte, statistician and leader in the field of information design, gives insight into how the Obama administration views information sharing in the government. Tufte focuses on the visual communication of information – charts, graphs, etc – and will be working on His appointment illustrates the ways the administration is taking a fresh approach to sharing government data.

I’m doing this because I like accountability and transparency, and I believe in public service.

– Edward Tufte, March 7, 2010

What does this have to do with social media? It highlights one more way we in the government are being challenged to think outside the box of traditional communication models. Investing in not only sharing information but how to express that information for rapid comprehension is the key to making social media work. We are moving away from controlling our audiences and closer to the core of what good communication plans are really about: quality content.

For more information on the appointments, you can read the March 5, 2010 Press Release “President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts.”

Does Google Make Us Stupid?

March 8, 2010

I came across an interesting report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It addressed the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The answer, according to most experts and stakeholders, is no.

A few quotes from the experts:

  •  “Google will make us more informed. The smartest person in the world could well be behind a plow in China or India. Providing universal access to information will allow such people to realize their full potential, providing benefits to the entire world.” – Hal Varian, Google, chief economist
  •  “Google allows us to be more creative in approaching problems and more integrative in our thinking. We spend less time trying to recall and more time generating solutions.” — Paul Jones, ibiblio, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
  •  “The question is flawed: Google will make intelligence different. As Carr himself suggests, Plato argued that reading and writing would make us stupid, and from the perspective of a preliterate, he was correct. Holding in your head information that is easily discoverable on Google will no longer be a mark of intelligence, but a side-show act. Being able to quickly and effectively discover information and solve problems, rather than do it “in your head,” will be the metric we use.” — Alex Halavais, vice president, Association of Internet Researchers
  •  “People are already using Google as an adjunct to their own memory. For example, I have a hunch about something, need facts to support, and Google comes through for me. Sometimes, I see I’m wrong, and I appreciate finding that out before I open my mouth.” — Craig Newmark, founder Craig’s List

The experts agree that Google changes how we use our intelligence. Searching changes and challenges us to think and communicate differently.

To quote from the report:

New literacies will be required to function in this world. In fact, the internet might change the very notion of what it means to be smart. Retrieval of good information will be prized. Maybe a race of “extreme Googlers” will come into being.

For myself, I have noticed I think in hypertext now. For anyone who wonders what this means, I suggest reading an article on the “The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink.” The ability to link information together is a powerful tool and should be considered whenever preparing content for distribution online. The ability to link together pages, media, images, and ideas adds shape, dimension, and visualization to the act of writing. Links add emphasis to words and color the “page.” I structure my writing to leave room for the links, letting my reader navigate the subject according to the depth of their interest and engagement.

I no longer spend much time navigating the space of a book or catalog. I jump in and out of information sources online, scanning to test the validity of my ideas. That’s not solid research, but it is making the most of my hunches. And it’s an amazing tool for finding like-minded contacts. Let the good ideas grow.

Institutions versus Collaboration

March 8, 2010

I watched a great TED talk on youtube by Clay Shirky called “Institutions versus Collaboration.” The link was forwarded to me by a colleague working to introduce wiki technology at his government organization and wanted to learn about my experiences doing the same. The Shirky talk is from 2005, but the issues raised are very relevant today, particularly when it comes to using social media in the government and other institutions.

I’ve summarized the main points for those who don’t have time to watch the video.

Institutions: Cost and Imperatives

First, the institution side of things. Institutions are inherently exclusionary. You can’t hire all people to participate in an institution; you have to select employees. And there are costs to running an institution. Institutions require frameworks; legal, economic, and physical. Institutions, because they are exclusive by nature, create a professional class. On the upside, institutions get to tell employees how to do their jobs. On the downside, this in turn creates a management problem.

Cooperation: Coordination > Planning

Shirky talks about cooperation as infrastructure. Which results in taking the problem to the people instead of the people to the problem. Instead of hiring everyone, you allow everyone to engage in problem solving.  Bringing the problem to the people is something we’ve seen happen in the Obama administration as evidenced by the use of social media and engagement, and the Open Government Initative. The example Shirky uses is flickr, Yahoo’s photo sharing service, where users can upload and tag files. Instead of planning how many and what type of photos flickr will store, the software allows users to coordinate content using keyword terms, or tags.

He also sites cell phones as an example where coordination has replaced planning. Instead of planning exactly when and where to meet, we now say “call you when I get there.”

80-20 Rule

He also covers what he calls the 80-20 rule and how that rule applies to a variety of circumstances, including social media engagement. He pulls up some charts to show how the bulk of the content is supplied by 20% of the participants. And he argues that institutions lose the random, one-off contributions of the 80% because they manage to the left, where the high-contributors reside. But, someone in that 80%  may throw out one great idea.  How good is that one contribution an institution misses by being exclusive? Could it be the game changing idea? What is the cost of ignoring that contribution? What is the cost of allowing it?

Institutions and Coordination

Shirky talks about the tension of planning versus coordination. Trying to make a 5-year projection of how a wiki will grow, for example, in institutional thinking. We can’t really predict the results of coordination. But we can focus on our ability to form a group and coordinate now with confidence that our ability to coordinate as a group will help us effectively address challenges later.

The Future

Shirky predicts about 50 years of chaos brought on by the communications technology changes we experiencing now, and refers to the 200 years of chaos brought on by printing press technology. Admittedly, no one can predict the future. But he does argue that institutions that hold on to information monopolies and rigid management styles will face the greatest pressure from these new forces.

Social media is a threat to institutional control And most institutions are in some sort of grief stage now when dealing with the pressure of these forces: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. He says most institutions, as of 2005, are in denial. Where at we at at USAID?

@ Work

We, in the government, have a unique opportunity as both an institution and a place of coordination. The social media tools on the intranet are available to employees. I’m optimistic because I believe social media most accurately reflects the unique and vibrant culture of the Agency I work in, which is made-up of specialized experts and informal social networks.

Sure, we will lose some of our institutional imperatives – the ability to tell people what to say, when to say it, and how – by using these tools. But we will gain by sharing our ideas, our thoughts, our contribution to a community of passionate and dedicated professionals, including the next generation of  leaders.

Participate. We’ll face the future together.


March 8, 2010

I feel the organizational power of the US government today. I’d love to believe in a conspiracy theory. But, there are no superheros or villians behind closed doors. Just bureaucrats. And us.

A bureaucrat works with budgets. Its the only tool they’re given. Nothing links together. There is no linking mechanism between their turf, their project, their desk and yours. Is there?

Enter the Internet. The one tangible, unintentional thing that does link us all together is cracking open our institutions, our laws, our systems. I understand the organizational advantage of people living in caves. They go straight to air, no marble pillars in the way.

It somehow all ties together – my personal sense of awakening and the experiences I have at work.

The internet reflects us in a powerful way. It doesn’t reflect the way we chose to see ourselves, but reflects where we place our attention, collective humanity. It is changing the way we think. And act. And interact. Our social systems can’t function in isolation any longer. The veil has been lifted.

I need to take some deep breaths. Because the chaos at work is just a symptom of collective awakening. It will get better. It has no choice. Buddha wants in.

I just wonder, in our growing power to bring anything to us (as opposed to dated visions of the future where we beam ourselves, Star Track style) if we will lose touch. Literally lose touch.

Love, Internet-style

March 8, 2010

I went to yoga this morning, had a nice breakfast at Teaism, thought about the blogging training materials I need to write, and got sidetracked by Clay Shirky as soon as I got to my desk. I opened an email that lead me to browse a site called, where I found a link to a film, The film is about the ways communications technology has empowered us to reinvent social systems, including government. Clay Shirky was in it.

If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the guy who said “the Internet runs on love.” He says this because the Internet shows us that, despite institutional and personal fears and distrust, we can work together. In the video below, he talks tech. And he says “love is a renewable building material” in reference to the way opensource programming works. See. I’m not the only one who has compressed work and spiritual worlds. We are able, now more than ever, to work with love. That is good news. So whatever darkness you may find online or in your life, remember: love works.

He advises, if you want to predict the success of something out there, programming language, but could be lifestyle or product, ask yourself if the people who like it take care of each other. And he argues, where before we needed money to do big things, now we can do big things with love.