Don’t Let Them Tell You The Web is Isolating

Carnegie UK Trust has produced a great piece of work on Digital Participation and Social Justice in Scotland, you can find it here. It a fantastic report, not least because it is short and to the point. It is focused on Scotland, but those of us who work in digital inclusion can see that it applies equally to the other countries of the UK; or anywhere else really.

It is important because it is evidence. And, for me, one of the most striking factors about it is that it demonstrates how people who use the internet are better connected, healthier and more prosperous. The “better connected” thing is worth thinking about. I am really fed up of people who keep telling me that the web and social media are isolating us, making us lose our communication skills, making us stop talking to our friends. When the reality is that its effect is the exact opposite of all those accusations. It brings people together, helps us find new friends, and helps us communicate in new ways. Here is the evidence.

So the next time someone tells you the web is isolating, and they’re the kind of person who wants to see a report before changing their opinion, show them this one.

If you block social media your PR-friendly “human resources” slogans are a lie

Trainee Social Reporters

One of the things that makes me really frustrated is when people treat social media and digital technologies as if they were separate from what they call “the real world”. It is my firm belief that what we now know as social media is a transitional set of technologies towards what will become, in time, ubiquitous, seamless, and integrated communications and sharing tools, which, eventually, will come naturally to most people as the devices become more intuitive and less intrusive.

Thus, on the issue of digital inclusion, some people think there is something special about digital technologies which excludes those who haven’t come on board yet. I argue it is about people’s attitudes rather than aptitudes. I have written before about the case of two 84 year-old men who I worked with on the same day; one who was brimming with enthusiasm about new possibilities and desperate to find out what the internet could do for him; and the other who said he was too old to learn and none of this had any relevance to him. It’s nothing to do with age; it is to do with attitude.

I am exercised about how we unlock the potential of new technologies to help people realise their own personal potential. I am thinking here about the kind of people (gross generalisations coming up), who are of the opinion that they stopped learning when they left school. They sit in an office all day doing mundane tasks, very often on a computer with no speakers or soundcard, and on which access to social media is blocked. The office may be totally quiet, or some “inoffensive” muzak is playing, or, worse still, Radio 2. They then go home, either in silence, or listening to music on their headphones, or Radio 2 (again) in their car. They get home, switch the TV on and spend the evening watching “unchallenging” programming, such as soap operas, cooking programmes, and reality game shows. Once in a while, they reluctantly go on a training course, mandated by their employer, where they sit on uncomfortable chairs, their bum going numb while they listen to someone droning on about the latest health and safety legislation, or whatever.

That may possibly be an extreme stereotype. But contrast it with the person who has access to social media during the day. They are constantly bombarded with new ideas and new angles on things. They have access to Youtube for inspiring talks and “how-to” videos”. They can connect with like-minded people on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Yammer or Google+  to test out and pursue new approaches. And, instead of Radio 2, they can get podcasts full of challenging viewpoints and interesting arguments. And, when they go home, instead of watching TV, they might just watch some TED talks, listen to another podcast, or join in with a Twitter chat.

This is what I mean about the dangers of treating social media like its a separate universe. It means that people can get away with never being challenged to step out of their comfort zone. And this is as negative for their organisations as it is for themselves. Surely an organisation full of engaged, inquisitive people is much more likely to succeed than one where the majority of the workforce are resentful and bored?

So, if you ever see an organisation which says it prides itself on developing its people, but it doesn’t give them access to social media, challenge them on that. Their PR-friendly “human resources” slogans are a lie.

And I am really keen to work out how we can chip away at people’s reluctance to learn new things and give them access to the vast potential which the internet and social media opens up for many of us. How do we get people listening to challenging podcasts in their offices instead of Radio 2? How do we persuade them to turn off the TV every now and again and do something that involves them being creative  and active rather than a passive recipient of received cultural wisdom?

The challenge is to show everyone that none of us ever stops learning. And that learning new things can be fun.

 

The cost of digital inclusion £875 million?

Some very welcome coverage of Digital Inclusion issues in the mainstream media today, including on BBC TV Breakfast programme and on BBC Radio 4’s Today. This is stimulated by the publication of a report by The Policy Exchange which estimates that it would cost £875 million to ensure everyone in the UK has the digital skills necessary to thrive online in the modern world.

Now, while I welcome this much-needed focus on a vital issue, which exercises me greatly, the way the debate is framed gives me concerns.

Firstly, there is that figure, £875m. And it is not the first time this figure has been quoted as the same sum was mentioned in a report earlier this year commissioned by the Tinder Foundation [pdf]. I don’t doubt the figure is accurate, but I still don’t think it is helpful. I think politicians, in particular, look at it and say “we can’t afford this”. I am a great believer in biting off manageable chunks of a problem, and I think presenting the issue as one big problem with an £875m price-tag presents a sizeable barrier. I wonder if not enough work is being done to learn from the many innovative local initiatives which are taking place all over the country, and working out how these can be applied elsewhere, from within existing resources. The other point is that people learn best from others like themselves. A lot of the focus needs to be on voluntary digital champions who can cascade their skills to their friends and neighbours. Taking this approach may well reduce the costs.

My second concern is about the framing of the debate around “digital skills”. It tends to set people off into thinking about training courses and teachers. In my opinion, and based on experience, this is not about training courses; it is about demonstrating to people what they are missing out on. This is best done in a fun way, in unusual settings, and with zero emphasis on “teaching” and “skills”.

Why should you live stream your event?

I firmly believe these days that the tools we have at our disposal mean there is no excuse for only talking to the people in the room when you hold an event. Conferences, seminars, workshops, are normally held to bring people together around a common agenda, to solve a problem, or to form new alliances. All these objectives can be achieved a lot more effectively if people outside the room are invited to join in.

Alternatively, you can video your event and release the coverage later. This is better than nothing, but it misses the immediacy of the discussion. Often events contain calls to action and deal with topical issues. This means they need to engage the wider world at the time. Releasing a video later will not address this need and risks the learning from your discussions falling into a vacuum. With live streaming you get the best of both worlds as the video can be archived for later viewing as well.

And, events tend to attract like-minded people to turn up and listen to speakers. This risks small cliques continually talking to each other. The problems of our time cannot be solved by the same people saying the same things to each other over and again. Live streaming opens the event up to other people with different perspectives who may have a contribution to make which you would never have thought of.

But, I hear many people say, live streaming is expensive and technically difficult. It isn’t the way I do it, and I can even train you and your staff  to do it for themselves. There’s a list of the main events I have live streamed here. Please contact me if you’d like to talk to me about doing something similar for you

Making Futurism Visible

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be live-streaming one of the Bromford Group‘s Future Fifty events in which the housing group is celebrating its fiftieth birthday by organising a series of events which look to the future. This one was a collection of “vignettes” delivered by Digital Futurist Mike Ryan on what the coming decades will mean for Digital Communites, The Digital Home, and Digital Health and Care. I recommend having a look at the talks via my archive of the live stream here, there is tons of thought-provoking stuff in there.

I was prompted to make a point in one of the Question and Answer sessions, based on my observations of the audience. During some of what I thought to be totally reasonable predictions by Mike, I noticed one or two people gasping and others giggling. This brought home to me the real divide in our society between those of us who live every day with the possibilities offered by new technologies and those to whom these things are a peripheral interest. The point I made to Mike is that the widespread ignorance of the potential offered by technological developments leads to very bad decision-making by people who have no idea about the directions new technologies are heading in. I would categorise two really major decisions in this area; UK Broadband strategy and HS2.

Thus, the Government is convinced that 24Mbps is sufficient for anyone’s needs and has based its rural broadband roll out strategy on this assumption. On the other hand, any of us who works with these things on a daily basis knows that our requirements for bandwidth is escalating all the time, and that, within only a few years, most people’s needs will greatly exceed 24Mbps. This means that the current infrastructure being installed with government subsidy will need to be replaced before too long. This is why many of us argue that we should be installing Fibre to the Home, which is capable of being upgraded to very high speeds, rather than the interim technology of Fibre to the Cabinet.

The second bad decision is HS2, with billions of tax payers money being thrown at a solution which is little moved on from how the Victorians wanted to move people around. Not only is HS2 an idea which is out-dated now, it won’t be implemented in full for getting on for 30 years by which time, such technologies as holographic video conferencing and 3D printing will be mainstream. People say that video conferencing has failed to catch on, but holographic video conferencing, in which a 3D image of the person is projected and can move around as if in the room, will create a tipping point as a much richer and more satisfying experience than seeing them on a flat screen.

And people think that 3D printing in a frivolous bit of fun. But, already furniture, buildings, and even body parts, are being produced by 3D printing processes. Once the cost of the machinery comes down to affordable levels, 3D printing will greatly reduce the needs for goods to be transported. They will be printed, or more accurately, manufactured, in the homes or the workplace.

These are just 2 technological advancements which will transform lives and, greatly reduce the need for travel, meaning that long term investments like HS2 make very little sense. But, of course, they will also require us all to have broadband speeds significantly greater than those which the government thinks we will need.

Most people think you are a fantasist if you make predictions like this about technological advancements. But this is because they don’t see the trends which lead to them. They are not public enough. What can be do to make “Futurism” more visible? I think it’s vital that we do.

Unconferences, outcomes and small steps

In the wake of Friday’s successful HyperWM event for local government in the West Midlands, I was involved in yet another exchange on Twitter about the people who are not allowed to attend such events because their managers don’t see them as legitimate. I’ve written about this before, here, because I think that free, self-organised, events must have an increasingly important role to play in staff development, as finances get ever tighter. But, as some of the stories from HyperWM 2011 show, there are still people who are prevented from attending such opportunities. Part of the discussion about this suggested that one officer had been specifically stopped from attending because he was unable to prove any “identifiable outcomes” from the event.  Leaving aside the almost impossible nature of this task, it shows what those of us who believe in such events are up against.

Personally, I think that anyone who has actually attended a localgovcamp-type event cannot fail to be persuaded of its benefits. But, the problem is, there are still many more people who have not attended one than have. So, I have an idea, which might help more people get experience of such activities and, hopefully, then become evangelists for the approach,

I’d like to find a public sector organisation, probably a local authority, prepared to organise its own internal unconference, just for its own staff. It could even be done within the one department. My idea is that the event would be open only to the staff of that organisation, and that what happens there would be shared only to others in the organisation, via Yammer and the staff intranet. Hopefully, this would provide an environment where people could safely experiment with the format, and put out ideas they might be tentative about sharing in a more widely open forum.

I have a slight twist to the format which might help in embedding the approach. If organisers are feeling brave enough, there could be a mid-afternoon session of, say, half an hour, when participants decide what elements of discussions they want to share with the wider world. There could then be a closing plenary during which views are solicited from outsiders, via twitter and other forms of social media. This could serve to build confidence in the good ideas raised, and ensure the non-valid ideas are able to “fail fast”.

Is there an organisation out there prepared to experiment with this approach? I am confident it would create a sizeable cohort of unconference evangelists within the institution, and offer a model for wider adoption.

On BBC Radio Lancashire talking about my current projects and stories in the news

I had a really good time on BBC Radio Lancashire on Sunday 4th September 2011, on Sean McGinty‘s last Sunday morning show, talking about some of my current projects, including Can’t Get Online Week, and discussing some of the items in the news.

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6442532/Radio_Lancs_Sept_11.mp3]

 

 

Affordable Training in an Era of Public Austerity

I’ll start this post by referring back to an earlier rant of mine about public sector funding cuts and staff development, in which I argued that the “unconference” format offered a way forward for public sector organisations to source cost-effective training as it becomes increasingly difficult to afford expensive courses and conferences.

Meanwhile, I’ve for some time been complaining about the number of unconferences in the public and voluntary sectors that are organised at weekends. I’ve got kids and I like to see them occasionally. The response I often get, particularly from local government people is – “we can’t do this stuff in work time”.

But, as I say, I firmly believe that these kinds of events are affordable CPD in an era of public spending cuts.

This morning I’ve been engaged in another Twitter debate, because Hyperlocal GovCamp West Midlands (#hyperwm) yesterday was organised as one of the first experiments of holding a public sector unconference on a week day, and it seemed to go well. So I suggested that this puts to rest the notion that it has to be done at weekends. I received a series of responses to this saying that not everyone can get the time off. BUT, I don’t understand why it is seen as “time off”. It is CPD, training, and it’s free apart from travel costs. Surely employers should be waking up to this as an alternative to expensive conferences and training courses.

Perhaps we need to organise an unconference for Local Government Personnel Managers to show them what they’re missing out on.

Where are the University-educated entrepreneurs?

Branson at the Time 100 Gala, May 4, 2010

Sir Richard Branson at the Time 100 Gala, May 4, 2010 http://bit.ly/9cnlbb

I heard yet another item this morning on Radio 4 about the high-profile entrepreneurs who didn’t go to university. A 17 year-old who is running his own successful business talked about his friends who would be leaving university saddled with debt, while he would be earning money all of the time. The item quoted the likes of Sir Richard Branson (above), Lord Sugar, and Sir Philip Green as successful entrepreneurs who didn’t feel the need for academic qualifications.

This is a line which the media loves to push, and it strikes a chord in the popular psyche. Which leads me to think, “who are the successful University-educated entrepreneurs? And why don’t we hear about them?” I know a number of people, including the redoubtable Kelly Smith of Huddersfield University, who are working hard to instil a spirit of enterprise in university students, but still the media obsesses about those who avoided the academic route.

It is that university suppresses the entrepreneurial spirit, OR is it that the Bransons and Sugars are actually exceptions to the rule, and that’s why they get so much attention? The reporting of their cases would suggest otherwise, have we been duped?

What do public sector cuts mean for staff development and good practice sharing?

I had a conversation this morning with someone who runs conferences and events aimed at the public sector. This person is very worried about his business because it appears likely that the spending cuts looming will have a dramatic effect on the ability of public organisations to afford to send delegates to conferences and training events.

This led me to wonder if the “unconference” will now come into its own as a mechanism for staff development and best practice sharing among public organisations.
Social Media Unconference, Sheffield 10th February 2010

During the past couple of years, I have been part of a number of really good “unconference”-type events, the most recent being the Social Media in Education Podcamp, held at Doncaster College on June 30th, Self-organised, semi-unstructured events are becoming increasingly popular as vehicles for getting people together, and, in the public sector, there is a growing movement of “GovCamps” and “localgovcamps”.

Basically, unconferences, are self-curated events at which the participants set the agenda at the beginning of the day, and people volunteer to run sessions on their specialist subjects. They might be called unconferences, but could also be called:

  • barcamps; or
  • open spaces
  • To date, they have mainly been organised by enthusiastic individuals, particularly around technology or social media-focused agendas.

    Perhaps it is time for the unconference to move out of the shadows and into the mainstream as a major force in public sector staff development and the sharing of good practice.