Tuesday, 26 May 2009

I got the, don’t take the Web 2.0 out of Web 2.0 blues

To me, discussing Web 2.0 in an abstract way without reference to technology is an odd thing to do.

I should premise this statement that in IMHO, no technology exists in a vacuum. However, my viewpoint has been influenced by systems thinking and socio-technical systems theory. In this complex view of the world, technology is as much related to its environment as what we might traditionally think of as the separate social or organisational parts.

So for me, Web 2.0 has never just been about the technology. And its why I get little confused when I hear people talking about Web 2.0 and related themes, like Government 2.0, in an abstract way that attempts to push the technology into the background. Neither the social or technical parts of the system take priority, because they are related.

However, on one level this desire to push the technology of Web 2.0 into the background can be understood by observing how the meaning of ‘2.0’ has changed over time. While Tim O’Reilly might have assigned quite a specific meaning to Web 2.0, the only commonality left in how we all use it now is that “two do oh” might be best described as short hand for ‘paradigm shift’ (and yeah, its quickly become past its marketing sell by date).

Listening to people to discuss the meaning of Government 2.0 for example, I can see how it can be either read as Web 2.0 in Government or as a broader paradigm shift in our approach to Government (or perhaps somewhere in between). There is no right or wrong answer here of course... its always about how people use it and interpret meaning.

But even if we stick with a meaning that is closer to the original, I can also see that there are a number of good reasons why people want to down play the technology - for example:

  • As part of the change process for adopting Web 2.0, its better to talk about the organisational benefits and social outcomes first, and introduce the technology later;
  • So that Web 2.0 can be conceptualised and discussed in a broader organisational or social context, e.g. Human Resource Management or Open Government.

However, I sense there are others that simply believe ‘people’ are a more important factor than ‘technology’ (the get the people right and the technology will follow theory - as bad as the other side of the coin, build it and they will come theory) or that it is easier to work at an abstracted level that is focused on manifest behaviours and outcomes (the Web as a black box theory of social media).

The trouble with abstracting the technology out of Web 2.0 for those reasons only becomes a problem when you try to take action on strategies or plans based on those assumptions. Unfortunately if this wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see failed examples of social media and social computing out there (and I suspect its one reason why there is storm brewing for reductionist social media consultants).

So, what can we do to bridge this gap between not getting technical but appreciating the relationship with the technology? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Talk in patterns, not specific tools or platforms;
  2. Use real life examples and stories to demonstrate the technology, but explain the outcomes and benefits of that particular technology (but be careful never to pitch them as ‘solutions’); and
  3. Let people learn by doing - let them use social software to solve a real problem.

Don't hide Web 2.0 away like some embarrassment. Eventually, that skeleton in the closet will get out, and its not going to be pretty (I’m talking about, selling the idea of ‘participation’ but then simply pointing them at Wikipedia and telling them to just go do it).

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