This opinion piece was written by Canadian public servant Thom Kearney. In 2009, he helped Government of Canada employees to be more open in their dealings between each other through the introduction of the GCpedia enterprise wiki and GCconnex professional networking platforms. This piece also appears on our government innovation newsfeed.
I am not a millennial, but I am a pretty hip, late-age baby boomer who has been part of the inter-web since close to the beginning. My career has been a little eclectic, and I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in a wide range of transformation activities in the technology, education and public sectors. That experience that has provided the fodder for the observations that follow.
A few years ago I was deep into an analysis of how governments could realise the potential of collaboration and social technologies. As I was mulling over how to synthesise all of the data into a sound bite that could be easily consumed by a busy executive, I was also thinking about how it connected with what I had learned from working in advertising and teaching consumer behaviour. In a rare moment of clarity while waiting for a red light, I scribbled down three truths that seem to me to be both obvious and profound.
1. Sharing is good
Sharing is the activity that fuels successful collaboration, knowledge management and communication, which in turn are fundamental to a capable and high performing organisation. By sharing, we become authentic to those around us. Sharing preserves hard-earned knowledge and makes us more productive. Telling stories makes us real, and generates the common purpose which is so important to successful change.
“Many people don’t share because they are afraid of making a Career Limiting Move”
Most of the major research firms agree that the biggest challenge organisations face in implementation of social technologies within the enterprise is creating a culture that supports information sharing. Having been involved with over a dozen enterprise collaboration efforts, I can say that my personal experience supports those findings. Culture, as the saying goes, eats strategy for breakfast. Apparently, it also eats technology, and probably has a taste for deliverology as well.
Many people don’t share because they are afraid of making a Career Limiting Move (CLM), while others, (kudos if you are one), consider sharing part of their responsibility. Unfortunately, too many seem to equate sharing with a CLM, and ultimately we need to institutionalise ways of rewarding sharing and punishing information hoarding. Maybe we can make sharing part of management accountability accords, it is pretty easy to count contributions to sharing platforms like [the Canadian government platforms] GCpedia and GCconnex.
2. Ego gets in the way
By ego, I mean an unhealthy focus on self. We have all come across individuals that try and withhold information and manipulate those around them for personal gain or promotion. When combined with a lack of emotional intelligence, I believe this is one of the most destructive forces in the public service today. We need to get our self-worth from something other than the size of our empire, we need to get emotional and career points for collaborating. We need to recognise the common purpose, (serving Canadians, anyone?) as more important than our personal gain. Not only is the, “I only do what is good for me” attitude bad for the organisation, its beginning to look like it may be bad for your career, as well.
I have worked on enough horizontal files to have come across this issue more than once. No matter how you structure a collaboration, the people involved can always sabotage it. While researching the horizontal governance issue sometime in the early 2000’s, I came across an Auditor General’s report examining the lack of progress on the climate change file.
Without much reading between the lines, it was obvious that the real problem was that the primary departments involved could not find a way to collaborate, mostly because the deputy ministers did not like each other. Now I am not pointing fingers at the senior ranks, you see this kind of behaviour at all levels. I suppose we should not be surprised, given the competitive, individualistic socialisation most of us have grown up with. But humanity’s greatest capacity is to learn, and I like to think that we can learn to work together despite personal differences — if we set aside our ego once in awhile in favour of the common goal.
3. You can’t communicate too much
“You can’t communicate too much.” I posted this comment on Twitter during a conference once and it quickly became one of the most re-tweeted updates, so it seems the sentiment hit a nerve.
Back in my advertising days, we used to spend a lot of money on media buys and printing, and one of the worst things that could happen was for a print run or advertisement to be published with a mistake. When it did happen, it was an expensive and embarrassing lesson. After the first time we began to repeat instructions, in different languages if necessary, and we would draw pictures, leave notes on the artwork, call the publisher, even attend press runs to make sure all was understood.
Later in my career I worked with a product line manager at a major telecom who told me that for an idea to get traction you had to say the same thing over and over again in as many different ways as you could think of — when you are sick of saying the same thing, it’s time to say it again — you can’t communicate too much.
“In dynamic times, perfection is the enemy of communication”
In today’s information intense and dynamic workplace, trying to get the attention of a busy executive may take more than a little repetition. Going the other way, management can’t communicate too much with staff, especially during times of change. The mushroom school of management (keep them in the dark, and feed them sh*t), simply has no place in an agile and high performing organization — you can’t communicate too much.
In dynamic times, perfection is the enemy of communication. Waiting for a complete and crafted message simply leads to speculation and fear, while communicating often and openly, even admitting you don’t know everything, leads to trust and understanding. Having a clear and common purpose is more important than knowing the details of how you are going to get there — you can’t communicate too much.
The three truths
Changing the culture of something as big as the public service is a daunting task, sometimes compared to turning a supertanker. But the public service is not a ship, it is an organisation made up of people, and it’s people who make the culture. The three truths that I have shared can and should be applied from the top down, but more importantly, they can be applied by individuals regardless of rank. When you think about that, it means you have the power to change culture.
What are you going to do with that power? — Thom Kearney
This post was originally published on Medium.
(Picture credit: Flickr/US Embassy)