Bubble in the jungle

Bubble in the jungle

In the hustle and bustle of local government life, it’s easy to forget that most of the communication happening between staff and the community, or between employees themselves, is informal and invariably not about corporate goals or service delivery, except perhaps to criticise.
We spend a lot of time and energy on structured communication – daily messages on the intranet, media releases, web updates, monthly reports, newsletters, brochures – the list is long.
Oblivious to the self-centred nature of most of our corporate communications, we actually expect the recipient to gain enough knowledge, understanding or persuasion in one or two attempts, then act on or believe the message.

The bubble
Of course, we are social beings. Within our organisations all of this process and outcome-driven communication is given meat in the corridors, at desks and over the email. Out in the community, the meat is added in the streets, at home, in letters to the editor, and over email.
But the community isn’t restricted to email. They have more web-based ways to communicate and find information than we do at work. Depending on how web savvy and equipped each of our respective communities is, a popping of our corporate bubble is on its way.

Web who?
Over the past few years, internet based applications have blossomed to fill every conceivable business niche, and created a few niches along the way.
Web applications based on social interactivity, on line discussion, user created information and information sharing, are what is loosely known as web 2.0 – a hotch potch of applications and services which are like fuel injection to informal and peer-to-peer communication.
According to Wikipedia (a prime example of a web 2.0 type application itself), the term entered the vocabulary at a San Francisco conference in October 2004. How else but at a geek talk fest?
These applications include blogging, podcasting, membership of MySpace or FaceBook, telephony-based social networks like Twitter, wikis, UTube and 3D online worlds like Second Life (see table). Arguably, web 2.0 also includes technologies we are all very familiar with – text messaging, email, web feeds (RSS) and plain old interactive websites.
The idea goes a little further though. These media share the web, some are functionally linked or can be made so, and each participant uses a number of them in a day. Sounds like there are no borders, and web 2.0 promises a fudging of the boundary between council and community.
Clearly a concept, not a system, the notion’s greatest strength is possibly what corporate managers may fear – losing control of the communication. More about that in a moment.

Within the bubble
The web 2.0 way of being is potentially a monty for growing a committed, information rich and intelligently acting workforce.
For instance, you could give employees more of a role in what is being said around the place and how information is exchanged. Bring the corridor to the intranet. So, why wouldn’t you make blogging, podcasting and personal web pages available as an internal communications tool for all staff to use?
As local government workers, the need to know and understand what colleagues are doing, and how this influences your own job and accountabilities, is ever more pressing. What we have in common is building communities, and we need to be polymaths at it.
So why wouldn’t you introduce a wiki-type application via the intranet? Let the workforce build an information sharing resource which directly reflects their needs, becomes an efficient “look-up” system, and grows and changes without anyone’s managerial intervention.

Who do you trust?
For organisations, this could raise a raft of issues around risk, security, control and self-confidence. Put another way, the notion of staff being in charge of the information and the message in a free-wheeling, user driven communications environment (with grey boundaries between organisation and community) flies in the face of accountability.
If the tools and timing, and even the content of communication are out of our hands, won’t all hell break loose? A jungle indeed.
The missing link here might be just an inability to understand what to do with emerging peer-to-peer communication technologies. It may also be about trust, or lack of, and how human nature plays itself out in regulated environments, such as the organisations we work within. There is a parallel here with corporate caution around employee surveys and staff engagement initiatives as well. What to do with the outcome?
There are risks though, mostly around confidentiality. I suspect (but haven’t asked) that councils in Victoria won’t have specific paragraphs about social networking and use of web 2.0 collaborations at work. After all, like every other web invention, the product or service will become part of employees’ lives, and then part of working life, when the employer catches up.

Be brave and trusting, and take this logic a step further. With blogs, wikipedias, social internetworks and the like around us, the day may come when current notions of controlled corporate communication go out the window.
Our employee blogs will have integrated with the corporate wiki, and most employees will do some of their work using web 2.0 applications. Voters and residents will have unprecedented access to information which you needed an FOI for. Public debate about the council’s actions will go way beyond the annoyance of negative articles in the local press. Community consultation and engagement will gain new meaning. No amount of regulation or denial will stop this, so we may as well get ready.
Bring it on, I say.

Verne Krastins

Network Inform Broadcast Share
The NIBS of web citizenship

Social networking – MySpace and FaceBook come to mind. You might be surprised how many employees and colleagues have a presence on these sites. I was.
Telephony – Text messaging remains the premier peer-to-peer form of communication, though sometimes it’s used in PR campaigns. Services like Twitter, with its mobile phone based “micro-blogging” and file-sharing facility has had some take-up. Last time I looked, we still used phones to speak with each other as well.

Wikis – Derived from the name of the archetype Wikipedia, wikis are user-created encyclopaedias, albeit with volunteer editors and moderators. Research conducted a couple of years ago showed that Wikipedia was only a few percentage points down on accuracy compared to Webster’s Dictionary, but covered much more ground. Wikis are user-driven and by definition, relevant.

Blogging – Akin to an online diary, your information and opinion is available in perpetuity to anyone with an internet connection (or in the case of organisations, anyone “on the system”).
Podcasting – A bit like blogging, but in audio format for anyone with MP3 or similar capability. Video broadcasting via the web or intranet is the visual version.
MMS – Micro media messaging via mobiles, which includes images, video and audio. This will become increasingly useful as a sector-targeted communications device.

I post because I can – Sites like UTube are the video version of blogs and podcasts, where you decide what to make available to others. For certain target audiences they are better value than a TV commercial. How many of our Mayors or CEOs have taken up this challenge I wonder?
3D virtual worlds – Places like Second Life have millions of “residents” from around the world. Members form communities, live alternate lives and make money there. Is it so far-fetched to think that segments of our communities may not use services like Second Life to influence what community-based organisations, such as councils, do in their first lives?

Bubble in the jungle

Verne Ivars Krastins

Elsternwick, Australia

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Artist's Description

The boundaries between communities and their local governments become more fluid as web 2, social networking and our cyberlives know know boundaries.

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