There is an excellent article here… describing the use of social media tools internally.
Whilst at Lincolnshire County Council we sourced and developed an internal social media system nearly 2 years ago.
Let me tell you why it got started, how it was developed and why it was not taken up. And perhaps I can throw some light on the missed opportunities generated by not following this through.
GEORGETALK as it was called (Lincolnshire CC’s intranet is called GEORGE. The social media system was a development of that) was the result of a discussion between myself as Head of Web and Information Governance and my then boss the Assistant Director for all things web as well as Human Resources.
There was a requirement for staff to be able to talk to one another in discreet groups for a number of reasons not least of which was to help in communication and encouraging a sense of community which it was felt would be lost when the “New ways of working” (NWOW) initiative washed through the organisation.
Many people would be working remotely, broken away and isolated from the fractured teams NWOW would create. The sense of isolation of working either at home or some sort of remote ‘touch down point’ is palpable. Daily team interaction, removed by NWOW, is not easily replaced and certainly not by cold, flat e-mail.
There was a need for this outside of the NWOW project too. Ever since we created the web site, staff would be asking for discreet areas of the web where they could share specific files and ideas about what they were doing. This was rigged using areas of the live council web site with a specific URL unconnected to any navigation or search. Clumsy but it worked – sort of. This was a weekly occurrence and indicated to us there was already a need for such an interactive platform.
We also wanted to relieve the e-mail systems of the internal chatter generated by staff and reduce the amount of social media browsing being carried out by staff. At the time there had been a board level decision NOT to stop social media browsing, regarding the curbing of excess use as a management issue not an electronic one.
There was a more crying need. We noticed that most of what we were holding or doing on our Intranet (GEORGE) could be shifted to GEORGETALK and at the same time provide far more of a community feel to it including a more bottom up approach to content. We could then drop GEORGE entirely thereby reducing management and re-design cost.
So, as you can see there were a lot of drivers to producing some sort of internal form of social media. INTERNAL…is the operative and important word here.
At the time I was also responsible for Information Governance so the security of information held by the organisation was of great importance to me, especially as I was the Data Protection Officer too. I would not have been happy to open us up to a shared system where information could have gone walkabout and on GEORGETALK you could only speak to people who were registered in the Active Directory. Providing everybody knew what was on GEORGETALK stayed on GEORGETALK security would be fine. Of course the same applies to internal e-mails so the concept was not something new but it needed reinforcing.
2 years ago the market for such software suppliers was limited to a small handful mainly based in the USA. We in the web team at LCC, together with our web contractors, AbacusEmedia, took to researching the supplier base. What we found were a few people who said they could do this or that but actually were doing nothing. It was in effect ‘vapourware’. We did find one supplier, a company started by an ex Microsoft man, who were delivering the goods. That company, Telligent supplied our contractor with the software and away we went on test.
I understand more suppliers are in the market now to supply this form of software. I would counsel though to run the software on your own servers and not to share it with others as a ‘software as a service’ type of purchase. There are of course laws under the data protection act restricting where you can host servers holding personal data so care should be exercised.
What we were doing was momentous. It held the possibility to change the way we worked with each other, the way we shifted information around the organisation, the way we held central knowledge bases – each easily updatable by many – moving in a truly innovative direction, away from relying on the paper systems of the past towards collaborative, centrally held media and information, including the creation of blogs and forums. Knowledge management in it’s simplest form in fact. Something we had been trying to achieve for years.
We spoke to managers and staff alike and described what we were doing. We involved the IT portfolio holder in the members group. We pressed on, ordering the software and installing it on servers and carrying out an initial set up.
Hold on… what was this going to look like?
Working on the basis of why re-design when something exists already we adopted a style which would be easily recognisable to most Facebook users. Not necessarily in the graphics but in the function and structure of the internal site itself. After all, lots of our internal clients are fluent with Facebook, this is just an internal, restricted version of what, – looking at the browsing stats – people seemed to use every day.
The first thing we had to do was drop all of our previous experience. No navigation to speak of, small amount of restrictions to what was set up etc.
We decided to adopt the principle of “natural paths”. This is where architects designing housing estates or office block in a campus environment don’t design the routes of footpaths. They leave the site for 6 months or so and see where the natural paths develop. It’s only when the users have decided where they want to go do the paths get built.
So it was with us. We just left the structure and see what developed.
Sadly we didn’t get that far. I was describing to one member what could be achieved i.e. a group could be constructed for all members with sub groups for each political group or party, with other groups for special interest groups and committees. Truly collaborative working a little like Facebook but entirely internal.
Screech of brakes….. it seems the politicians didn’t find the possible level of interaction across the organisation as welcome a thought as I would have hoped . The scrutinising of what we were doing started from the top of the political cadre resulting in a decision being taken that despite our spend so far all further activity on GEORGETALK would cease.
It now sits there frozen in digital aspic waiting for political thinking to catch up with what is a daily reality for large amounts of the electorate.
As you start to look into internal social networking remember…
- It doesn’t matter how good this idea is, and it is.
- It doesn’t matter how many of the officers want this, and they do.
- It doesn’t matter how much it will improve the lot of the remote staff members, and it will.
- And it doesn’t matter how much cost saving can be driven out by it’s use, and it can.
- Without your politicians understanding what social media is, and ceasing to be scared to death of Facebook or Twitter.
- Without your Comms officers and teams embracing what the world is already using as opposed to smashing up the digital looms like luddites…
Unless you resolve these last 2 items their will always be resistance to the use of Internal Social Media in Local Government.
is available on peterdbarton (at)gmail (dot) com