Walls are good

Glasswall by JanneM, on Flickr
Glasswall by JanneM, on Flickr

My life is pretty transparent – if you Google me you’ll find a pretty lengthy trail of bits and pieces strewn across the internet (although I claim no connection at all to Beat The Rator, whatever that is).

I like freedom. I like openness. I like sharing.

If you follow me on Twitter, are my friend on Facebook or read this blog then there’s very little you won’t quickly learn about me. And I’m entirely comfortable with that.

But that’s not true for everybody.

Sometimes talking about the internet can have unintended consequences. People might assume that you’re keen to ignore real-world interactions or abandon the printed word. Equally, whilst I might love things to be shared and open, someone else might only hear the words ‘security’ and ‘privacy’.

If some people find it daunting when they’re sat at home consider how they might feel if those ideas are suddenly sung about as part of the office environment? It’s not a natural extension to the workplace community they know and understand but a big, bold, scary new world.

If you’re going to share your thoughts with the world it takes confidence. Pressing ‘publish’ when you’ve put an idea out there, or formed an opinion or bared your soul makes you quite vulnerable.

And that’s assuming you’re comfortable in using the tools themselves. Too often the conversation can be about technology but there remains a need to introduce people to the spaces which make sense, aren’t complicated and won’t consume their time.

That means the first place to start is probably not in public. There is a massive wealth of knowledge and experience that would be fascinating if shared but starting from the premise that this must happen in public is probably a mistake.

I’m grateful that many discussions take place in open spaces. Those discussions on Twitter or personal blogs make the web into a melting pot of ideas and schemes.

Some of those conversations are mirrored in those spaces which are behind closed doors in Yammer communities, on the Knowledge Hub or in any other Communities of Practice.

And then some of those conversations will happen in a completely local fashion on whatever platform is used by that authority. So, for Hull, that will be on Yammer but other councils are exploring other tools.

The walls that are built around those spaces are possibly inconvenient, but sometimes they’re really important. They help build confidence. They connect people and give space for discussion without the prospect of the public seeing it. They allow real life relationships that already exist, to be brought to bear on totally different topics – so you can share ideas across silos with people you know without having to introduce new spaces or equip them with new tools.

Directorate newsletters are normally the first place this happens. They represent the first wall behind which stories are being shared within teams. Those are the places where you hope lie really strong relationships and a community that can encourage others to share their thoughts and write about their work.

There is clearly relevance in sharing that across an organisation and in so doing you climb over the first wall. The second ring is one where you’re connecting like minded individuals from across the organisation and starting to identify common traits and provide room for people to ask questions and stimulate answers. As a result people who would never have met can start to build relationships outside their offices.

When people start sharing ideas and thinking about things in a way that has relevance for a wider audience then it’s an opportunity to climb over another wall. At every juncture new things will have been introduced from somewhere else, now is the opportunity to start encouraging people to contribute back again and to bring what they have to say to bear on a wider platform.

And so as people become familiar with the idea of sharing with the others in their office, their colleagues across the organisation and then their peers across the sector it breeds a pattern of behaviour that thinks little about moving to the next level and starting to share in public and being excited about the possibilities for engagement with the public.

When they do that it should be celebrated and fed back into the beast for inspiration and encouragement but also for endorsing those people who are getting on with what they’re doing. Can those of us working in places where this isn’t a very popular or common activity start to encourage our colleagues to share ideas in closed spaces first? Can we do what we’d do with Yammer and encourage, support and contact those who we think would do well but who aren’t? If coaxed gently into doing things amongst family (locally), then doing it amongst friends (sectoral) doesn’t seem like such a leap and the possibility of opening up to strangers (the general public) doesn’t seem like quite such an alien concept.

This makes it important to focus on encouragement. Our support services need to be passionately engaged with the world outside those walls but at the same time acutely conscious of the need to help people climb over them. That’s a more nuanced role than their simply singing the praises of the internet and makes the building of relationships that facilitate and inspire crucial. Relationships that never forget walls are sometimes a very good thing.

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...