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Getting Down to Business

The Social Media Conundrum

The conversation taking place today in government around social media adoption is not so much about technology as it is about change and disruption.

Bringing telephones and, later, e-mail systems into federal offices meant that people could talk directly to one another without going through an intermediary. Horrors! How would people behave? Now, we see these tools as essential to getting our work done; we can’t imagine an office environment without them.

Social media tools fall into the same category. They are scary now because they’re new and unfamiliar and because they have the potential to change the way we interact with one another and with the public. As we learn how to take advantage of the new capabilities these tools provide, conventions and rules of behavior will emerge, just as they did with e-mail (and before that, the phone).

Start with Smart Change

In government, social media has the power to transform how we work. But, just as with other business tools, we must give this new technology careful thought to ensure that we use it to our advantage.

We wouldn’t just toss a ream of paper at someone and expect them to write the next masterpiece. Yet we put up empty wikis, thinking that people will start populating them with the wisdom of the ages. We stand up community sites where people can connect with one another, and we wonder why they don’t beat a path to our door.

People gravitate toward tools and technology that save them time and make it easier to do their jobs. They also want enough of a return on the investment of their time to make it worth the effort to learn something new and change the way work gets done. Social media tools have become popular precisely because they enable us to get our work done more efficiently. But we have to target our efforts.

NASA’s Spacebook

  • Social network inside the space agency
  • Launched June 2009
  • Features connections, not “friends,” in a work-driven social network
  • Designed around user profiles, forums, groups and social tagging

Social media can benefit government workers in two ways: as tools that connect us with one another and help us maintain professional relationships; and as tools that help us author and share files across silos.

The first category, connecting and maintaining professional relationships, is something we do every day in real life. When I have a human resources question, I call my friend in HR. She might not have the answer but can give me enough information to help me figure out whom to call next.

Those employees with large networks of colleagues — the people who seem to know everyone — have an amazing ability to navigate bureaucracy and get things done. If we give new employees (or introverted ones) the capability to build their own networks online, they can show the same level of productivity. This capability becomes even more critical as employees retire and we bring on the next generation of feds.

The need for shared authoring and common files is one reason products such as SharePoint have succeeded so well in the workplace, and why tools such as Google docs have skyrocketed in popularity. With such tools, instead of e-mailing large files back and forth and worrying about version control or integrating changes from multiple files, users can all see the same thing and work in the same place. Instead of 20 different responses pointing out the same typo, the first person can catch it, and later reviewers can focus on more substantive feedback. This can significantly decrease the time needed for document review.

These basic functions are just two examples of how adoption of even simple social media tools can make a difference in our ability to deliver our mission. That’s not so scary, right?

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Jul 29 2010

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