It isn't every day you open your favourite newspaper and see an article that validates absolutely everything you've been prattling on about for the last few years. But there it was, on the front page of the business section in last Sunday's New York Times: "World Bank Opens its Treasure Chest of Data", and it's the most powerful case study of using digital as a catalyst to renew a tired institution that I've come across in years.
You see it wasn't merely the story about another government group embracing open data, which, as exciting as that is, is only a policy wedge to get at the juicier stuff. This was a story of an institution in transition, being humbled by how difficult it is to make change in this complex, interconnected world, and realizing the limits of the "we're big enough to go it alone" approach it's taken for 67 years.
My friend and colleague Alex Samuel has written “the soul of the Internet can be shaped by how we individually engage with it. [We get to choose] whether the Internet alienates and isolates us; or connects and enriches us.” We are still very much shaping this emerging tool today with our behaviours, and the way we do so does not always lead to more community and connectedness.
The shameful Stanley Cup riots in my beautiful city last week show a real time example. People’s behaviours during and after the riots have both strengthened and diminished our sense of trust and community. If you're only watching mainstream media you might miss the good that happened, but each pattern of behaviour left a unique digital signature online we can study.
One of my wiser clients once told me “Culture eats strategy. Every time”. If you’ve worked in this field for a while now you see how many change projects fail to achieve their (admittedly often too high) expectations. The idea of embracing change sounds great on paper, but as any therapist will tell you, it's extremely difficult to break away from years of patterned behaviour. Add all those individual pattens into a structured system, and you've got a big barrier standing in the way of innovation.
My experience from leading digital change projects for 15 years is that if you don’t use the catalyst of a digital project to shift the culture of your institution towards a more innovative and responsive model, you’re really just building a website.
This week’s Canadian election was shaping up as a once in a generation game-changer. Some surprisingly creative social media campaigns - driven by a few smart new players – were making an impact on the nightly news and with large swaths of voters, especially youth. I decided to reach out to the leaders of these groups to see if we could find ways to increase their impact.
The pitch was to collaborate publicly and behind the scenes to show up as a united and organized movement. And to create a powerful content network through shared key messaging and activities that would drive more traffic to everyone's sites and, most importantly, the voting booth.
Earlier I wrote how many of today’s most successful digital campaigns are grown from organizations who are thinking differently, and not just with their online campaigns. These “network organizations” operate in fundamentally different ways from traditional centralized organizations, and, with relatively few resources, are growing faster and having an outsized impact on our world.
What’s a network organization? From the business world, think Facebook, Google, & Groupon. In NGO’s, think Avaaz, MoveOn, & MomsRising. And what about Wikileaks, Sarah Palin, and the Obama presidential campaign? All have attributes of organizations with network principles baked into their core.
In the last few weeks I’ve had calls from a high profile multi-city concert to grow the global women’s movement, an international network of freedom of expression activists who need to re-invent their organization, and a big international NGO that wants to “network their whole organization” so they can do more with the same number of people.
For each of these ambitious visions, digital lies at the core of their plans. It’s a way to land the conceptual changes they want in a practical way. The challenge is to design campaigns or new organizational structures that don’t just graft new tools onto old, linear models. If you want to know how that works, tell me how well your organization collaborates internally, or point to the transformative cultural changes you’ve pulled off lately. .
We've heard a lot of noise lately about blogs being a dying breed, with people's attention and effort being pulled towards smaller snippets of content in social networks. While that's certainly happening, I believe blogs are still a critical and under-utilized tool for organizations to share expertise, support cause goals, and grow their businesses. In fact, they are the backbone of a strong multi-channel engagement strategy.
A recent Pew research study shows that, far from shrinking, blog use among adults has grown by an amazing 27% in only the last 2 years.
For most of us the holidays bring much needed downtime from our busy lives, offering time for reflection, visioning, and planning for the road ahead. The big stories last year will no doubt continue in 2011: massive change and uncertainty is the norm, power continues to shift from big, old, closed institutions (even countries) to newer and more nimble ones, and collaboration, the web and networks are enabling these structural shifts like never before.
Isn't it time to take a fresh look at your organization's digital program to put you on the right side of these historic shifts?
We live in times of great systems change, and a lot of what organizations have done in the past isn’t working so well anymore. But while many are re-trenching, treading water, or tentatively trying small experiments (while keeping everything else the same), some innovators are realizing amazing results by embracing entirely new, network-centric business models.