Can Social Media organically transform government?

Social media is an appropriate title for much of what is generally called “new media”. Social media creates connection through information dissemination systems that facilitate and encourage dialogue, enhancing the original message to subsequent readers and repeaters.

Technologies like Twitter, Facebook, Digg, blogs and other systems are interesting in their own right, but searching for and mashing up of data is a more interesting and more valuable. The potential for mining knowledge from heaps of noise and clutter that result from dynamic networks that last for only a split-second or for years.

For many, the dynamic and interactive web facilitating instantaneous collectives regardless of “tribe” brings the power to transform the work place. Social media bypasses hierarchical structures (generally) established to manage and protect now-antiquated and quaint information flows. The hierarchy is flattened for internal communication, but more often, social media permits external access (inward or outward) of information and experts whose credibility (which may or may not relate to bono fides) is established by the social media and, perhaps more importantly, would have been an unknown without social media.

But the reality is that social media used by individuals, or ad hoc tribes of individuals, cannot magically transform an organization’s structure or processes without support from “traditional” places often viewed as barriers to progress. It can eliminate friction and speed up transactions by accessing rich and persistent institutional knowledge and tapping into the otherwise unavailable or hidden implicit knowledge of others within the organization. But adopting a freeform social media model based on entirely on grassroots populism is anarchy and anarchy is not the same as flexibility and agility.

Social media can disrupt hierarchies and very often those hierarchies that are disrupted by inputs brought in from the outside should be broken, but goals, accountability, and processes are required to maintain forward momentum in any organization.

To be successful, the effective deployment of social media within organizations, including the government, requires senior leadership have at least some vision and empower and equip those below to tinker and find the right combination of technologies and processes that both fit and push an organization’s culture to a better place. This evolution requires buy-in and the active support of IT, as well as the appropriate increase in resources to adequately support the business shift.

Senior leadership and IT tend to operate with more traditional and often longer time horizons than the grassroots movement often the impetus behind social media. The value of the connectivity and flattening properties of social media is often lost as the value of the technology is unclear. This is especially true when business cases are weak or non-existent and assume that change will come from the availability and deployment of new technology.

Grassroots movements to push change are valuable, and often necessary to mobilize staid leadership, but organizations have plenty of carrots and sticks to squash revolutionary behavior.

True change must come from an updated purpose and mission of the organization, whether it is a business unit or enterprise. Term this a call to action or a mission statement or better yet, a roadmap. This map does not need a lot of details but it must exist and cannot be blank. Organizations, from one-person shops to massive enterprises must know not only where they are but where they are going. Everybody does not need to be on the same road, but the trajectories must be at least somewhat aligned so activities do not become counterproductive, or worse. Velocity can only build up when all (or at least a critical mass) of the people see the utility of engaging the platform or platforms to improve their ability to do their job.

The requirements of the modern information environment demand greater speed and agility by everyone. From the acquisition of knowledge to creating better widgets to countering and negating accidental misinformation or intentional disinformation from competitors (economic or political or societal), we all need to understand and become better operating in the modern “now media” information environment where perceptions increasingly shape, or even trump, facts.

Grassroots mobilization is helpful to push change, and often necessary, but it must translate into pressure on the organization through demonstrations of change and business cases. Subsequently, the carrots and sticks of leadership (mostly simply but not entirely the job descriptions on which performance reviews are based) will be modified to encourage (and require) the care and feeding and growth of social media-born practices.

This means that social media deployment and adoption can be similar to the chicken and the egg conundrum. What it shows is efforts to transform must have pressures that are synchronized to some degree.

The issue that motivated this post is whether many of today’s social media evangelists understand the business cultures they are trying to break or do they ignore them? If they ignore them, they do so at their own peril and risk wasting time and energy. If they understand the culture they’ll discover the weak points – and strengths – and turn the weaknesses against the resistor while increasing reducing friction to change.

Just like any technology, social media isn’t a panacea. It is a value transformative tool but the processes it transforms must be acknowledged, explored, and exploited for greater effect.

See also: