In this post, I discuss a particular type of change that will increasingly confront information management (IM) professionals in the coming years.
My foundational argument - the headline tweet, if you will - is that we are living in a time of profound change, and we - this includes the IM community - do not have the luxury of ignoring this, nor pretending it isn’t affecting us.
The profound change affecting us can be captured under the heading of the “open governance movement” - where a broader concept of participants and stakeholders relevant to governance questions is challenging our traditional hierarchical notions of organizing, and resulting in dispersed authority.
The cause of this movement lies in three forces: technological, organizational, and cultural.
- Technological change is largely driven by Web 2.0 platforms that make information more open and easily sharable. Related to this, though distinct, is the rise of big data - another big technological change where data is generated everywhere, continually, and in such volume as to have profound implications for how we understand what’s happening, and how we might reconceptualize public policy.
- On the organizational front, we are beginning to see the impact of several very interesting experiments with nontraditional forms of collaboration and knowledge sharing that promote network forms over hierarchical authority.
- And paralleling these forces, a shift in cultural norms is underway, where participants are unwilling to accept the boundaries that constrain them from sharing and seeking knowledge.
In this dynamic environment, institutions and individuals will reflexively try to hold onto authority. However, open governance trends are already evident and will likely continue and expand. This struggle between control and openness will likely lead to challenging settings in which records and information management professionals will increasingly find themselves.
This post will scan these forces and consider ways that the quest for open governance can be accommodated within an information management regime, while preserving the objectives and benefits that open governance seeks.
And I’ll apologise from the start, that this isn’t going to be a very comforting message.
As I conceptualise the change management problem in the context of information management, I have a feeling that it’s going to require you to consider a world quite distinct from that which you are used to and (I’m assuming) prefer.
Consider how IM might be thought of in the “Known World”: nicely organized, with identifiable nodes, actors, control processes, policies and an overall architecture that really tries to make sense of the information landscape.
Unfortunately, if trends continue as I suspect, and we are successful in using open collaboration systems in which participants are able to contribute their knowledge, the risk for IM professionals is that we move from an IM architecture to what I’ll call an IC (Information Chaos) state.
And I would imagine this is possibly frightening for those who would have found the previous description reassuring.
But again, and nonetheless, I don’t think we can go back and we can’t ignore this.
And these trends I’ll describe don’t just affect information management. The three broad forces behind the open governance movement are coming together at this point in history, and are having dramatic impacts on our societies.
First example is in the democratic arena. You’re likely aware that there was an election in the United States recently, and we are now confronted with the reality of President-Elect Trump.
Now I don’t claim that a Trump presidency will be a paragon of open government. But I will say that the forces that are propelling the open governance movement - and remember, that forces such as technology are value-neutral - are the same forces that have given rise to the phrase “President-Elect Donald J. Trump” that many of us, I suspect, would have had trouble taking seriously until recently.
Trump, and the Brexit vote for that matter, are examples of the combination of technology, organizational and social change where authority is diminished, experts are not “trusted”, and people demand to be involved because the technology means they now can. I truly believe that it cannot be turned back, so we have to learn how to manage within this new reality.
Second story that I think supports my claim that open governance and big data represent profound shifts in social evolution? I’m sure you’ve heard of Uber.
Uber is the current best example we have of how open governance is replacing traditional governing authority. It has accomplished this essentially by leveraging the power of Web 2.0 technologies to lower transactions and communications costs in order to connect app users wanting to hire transportation or carriage in a local area with a roster of private providers who respond to those requests via the app.
Since launching in 2009, Uber has grown to an estimated value of between USD 28B and 66B (depending who you ask), and operates in 526 cities worldwide (including Ottawa).
While Uber's primary function is in providing transportation services, it has emerged as an example of an alternative approach to governance in the digital era, undermining the traditional governmental approach of regulating taxis and replacing it with a built-in peer-to-peer reputation system where drivers and passengers are continually evaluated by each other.
While the entire transaction is enabled by mobile technology - from calling the car to paying the fare - it is the reputation-based aspect that aims to replace traditional government with participant governance.
As governments struggle with the decision of whether to embrace Uber in their cities, Uber raises wider issues related to the disruption of traditional regulated industries, the impact of contingent employment on worker wellbeing, data-driven service delivery as an alternative to to planning and rationing, and - in the not-too-distant future - the employment and social effects of robotics and artificial intelligence (as Uber explores driverless cars and management without managers).
Governments have responded to Uber's presence or intention to operate in their jurisdiction across a spectrum of approaches, ranging from outright prohibition, through attempting to accommodate Uber within their existing regulatory regimes, to welcoming the Uber approach as a replacement for their existing taxi systems.
For our purposes here today, I’ll just ask you to ask yourselves what this new governance environment might mean for a traditional approach to IM, and how you might need to reconceptualize the future of information management.
All of these are interesting questions we’re all going to have to face in the coming years.
But for me, the interesting observation is that it has happened - and we don’t know how to deal with it. Uber has happened now because of this confluence of forces - technological, organizational, and cultural - and is part of a bigger trend towards replacing hierarchical coordination and authority with cooperation, autonomy and openness.
So the question I have for the IM community - as much as this applies to any other relevant governance system whether it’s the regulation of local taxi services, national policy debates like electoral reform, or international commons problems like climate change - the question is: what are we going to do about it, now that our traditional hierarchical control systems are being undermined?
Think simply about how we organize work. In the past, if you wanted to accomplish something, you created an organization. In the history of organizations, the challenge has always been - how do groups get collective work done? And the traditional approach has been: to direct the work of a group of people, you create an organization. And it’s no good just hiring a bunch of people, putting them in the same building and saying “get to work”. You also have to hire managers to ensure that the efforts of the group’s members are oriented in the same direction and not just chaos.
And part of that infrastructure involves information and records management professionals to organize the information that is generated. Right? OK, that’s good for us.
But with these new forces at play, we see new organizational forms emerging that don’t build a management structure on top of the work structure, but rather build a cooperative infrastructure that allows people to collaborate without imposing a formal management relationship between the organization and the contributors.
The two canonical examples of this are Wikipedia and open source software. Crowdsourcing and virtual citizen science are like this too, and I’ll talk about these later. But this movement is also happening inside of traditional organizations. What we are now witnessing is a shift in organizational design that is attempting to use the motives of employees, and advances in communication technology, to build cooperation into the fabric of organizations as a way of replacing hierarchical control.
When adopted within organizations, open knowledge sharing means anyone can contribute. The best example we have for this is the wiki. A wiki is a web repository that anyone with access to can edit. This moves us from a question of “who holds the pen?” to “everyone has a pen” - and an eraser.
You’ll be familiar with this through sites like Wikipedia. While the Wikimedia Foundation has some number of employees, what is remarkable about Wikipedia is how is was created through the volunteer efforts of thousands of editors and contributors, acting without overt coordinating management, and essentially killed the traditional encyclopedia business.
The premise of Wikipedia wasn’t to disrupt an industry (as with Uber) but to acknowledge that it was not possible for a commercial encyclopedia to have entries for every topic that readers might be interested in, and it was unlikely that the writer hired to create each entry would be able to craft an article that would capture robustly all the knowledge that could inform such an article. And easily keep it up to date.
Wikipedia is like the bumble bee: theoretically, it shouldn’t be able to fly - it’s just that no one told the bumble bee that. What is remarkable about Wikipedia is that it works.
Perhaps less remarkable, but still impressive, are the wikis that exist in corporate environments as ways of capturing the knowledge of employees. Like Wikipedia, these are essentially voluntary initiatives in which employees co-write articles of interest to them for the benefit of other employees. These originated in private sector corporate environments, but the first best example of this happening in a government environment was the creation of Intellipedia by the US State Department.
GCpedia is a Government of Canada wiki that originated in Natural Resources Canada and continues to be cited as a remarkable success.
Keep in mind, however, that these articles are not managed by information professionals, there is no central organizing structure, no one assigns them and there is no overt quality control. But again, remarkably, it works.
Despite some examples of successes, our organizational response to this new world of openness will not be seamless nor painless. And here I’m not necessarily talking about the IM challenges that you will all know better than I do. Rather, I’m talking about the broader management and social challenges of openness.
There’s an interesting story in Saskatchewan about a registered nurse who still faces charges of professional misconduct from the provincial registered nurses association for posting a comment to Facebook criticizing hospital staff in a facility where her grandfather spent the last weeks of his life.
According to the public notice of hearing, the SRNA charged Caroline Strom under the Code of Ethics for Registered Nurses with violation of confidentiality, failure to follow proper channels, impact on reputation of facility and staff, failure to first obtain all the facts, and using her status of registered nurse for personal purposes.
“Not everyone is 'up to speed' on how to approach end of life care or how to help maintain an ageing senior's dignity," wrote Strom in her post.
Despite not identifying herself in her Facebook post as an RN, she was charged for inappropriately questioning the practices of a health care facility as an RN.
In my optimistic view of open governance, I agree with her lawyer who asked: “What happens to the discussion of health care if you take the people who are experts on that subject and remove them from the discussion?”
But I’ve reviewed this case with enough people to know that there are no easy answers to the question of whether professionals should have the right to voice their opinions on social media.
I simply present this case as an example of the clash of perspectives that this new world of open governance will increasingly present us with.
Social openness challenges: It will come as a surprise to no one in this room that social media - especially platforms like Twitter and open comment spaces - can be a very unwelcoming places, and do not always promote what we might call reasoned and useful debate.
Earlier this year, the CBC shut down commenting on its website for stories related to Indigenous peoples because it was unable to moderate the volume of incivil and racist comments made there. If you are at a loss for ways to depress yourself, check out the “conversation” going on on the alt-right site 8chan about how the Trump victory should be used to entrench an old-world order that some of his followers have long longed for.
It is clear that at this early stage of experimentation with social media, we have a lot to learn about how to have reasoned discourse in public spaces.
Political openness challenges: Turning away from the dark side - if you don’t know the story of Boaty McBoatface, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to him.
Earlier this year (perhaps an early indication of how interesting 2016 would turn out to be), an open naming contest for a new polar ship was launched by the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The early leader and ultimate winner was the aptly named Boaty McBoatface. Despite the widespread popularity of this eminently suitable name for a boat, the Minister responsible for the contest and for naming the boat withdrew the competition and named the ship what was her preferred name all along: the Sir Richard Attenborough. (Apparently, one option to holding a vote in the UK that you don’t like the result for is to void the vote - but I guess only in certain circumstances.) This was clearly a case of a social media, open voting approach that was not clearly conceived. I think the Minister got this really wrong. Not in the process, however, but in the choice. "Boaty McBoatface" is an awesome name for a boat that not only responds to the ability of the Internet to occasionally come up with truly funny and charming ideas, but also provides an identity to something as obscure as a polar research vessel. I care about a boat named Boaty, and will want to bookmark his webcam and follow his tweets. But the polar research ship “the Sir Richard Attenborough”? That is a name only a polar research scientist could love.
Anyway, the name lives on in the Boaty McBoatface chrome browser extension that changes every instance of “Sir Richard Attenborough” to “Boaty McBoatface”.
As I mentioned previously, the cause of the open governance movement lies in three forces - technological, organizational and cultural - And I’d like to discuss each of these in turn.
First is Technological Change largely propelled by the evolution of what’s called Web 2.0. The simplest way I like to understand this change is the idea that we have moved from the first generation web with the ubiquitous webmasters who controlled web content, to a new setting where there are multiple pens, where every new consumer of information is now a potential producer.
This fundamental change in the publishing landscape continues to have profound impacts, from traditional media to politics, and including how information is shared in organizations.
The second technology force relates to the proliferation of Internet connected devices in society, and what we might now be able to do with all this data.
Consider how we have done policy analysis for the past 65 years, an approach that has been described in “the policy cycle”, with a sequence usually characterized as involving stages like problem definition, analysis, solution identification, decision making, implementation, and evaluation, cycling back to future analysis. When undertaken in practice, policy analysis has usually relied on data collected at discrete intervals: collect data so as to better understand the problem; collect evidence to inform the analysis and solution choice; once a policy choice was determined, data collection would follow the implementation of those policies to evaluate whether they had the desired effect.
If I’m right, openness in policy analysis promoted by profound technology change is going to produce something I’m calling policy analytics, which represents the combination of new data sources – e.g., from search and social media, to mobile smartphones, Internet of Everything (IoE) devices, Internet-connected sensors, and electronic payment and transaction cards – with new data analytics techniques for informing and directing public policy. It involves the bringing together of all the discrete stages of the policy cycle into one continuous environment of observation, intervention, and modification.
This is a big change in my field of policy analytics - but it will continue to have big changes in the work you do in information management.
Next, the other force is a willingness on the part of organizations to pursue change and transform themselves into knowledge organizations
This is an idea that has spread through private sector and public sector organizations, based on the idea that organizations that fail to take advantage of the knowledge of their employees by keeping them walled off from each other will not survive in an information economy.
This graph is from some work I did several years ago with a government organization.