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3 Ways Tech Is Changing Washington (and One Way It Isn't)

For Social Media Week DC, I participated in a panel that discussed how tech is changing the culture in the nation's capital.

All of the panelists had interesting points and perspectives--espoused by Microsoft's Dr. Mark Drapeau, Carousel30's Greg Kihlstrom, and PageLever's Jesse Channon.  For my part, I talked about three ways in which tech is changing the culture, and one important way in which it isn't.  The three ways tech is changing DC is that it is breaking down silos, specifically:

  1. Operational silos: information about multiple streams of operations is now available to everyone within an organization, so everyone can participation in--and be responsible for--communications, HR, customer relations, and innovation.
  2. Time/location silos: depending on the organization, it is feasible for people to shift where and when they work.
  3. Identity silos: whether people intend it or not, private lives, personal lives, and professional lives will mingle in ways and to a degree that they never have before.

And how tech is not changing culture: even though tech is "democratizing information," making it accessible to nearly everyone, there will still be information specialists--digital researchers, journalists (and especially data journalists), and social media professionals will still be necessary in a world in which everyone has Google in their pocket, publishing platforms at their disposal, publicly-available data feeds, and how-to guides for using social media.

What I mean by "tech."

There are a lot of kinds of tech, but in this instance, what I mean is: always having access to a computer, camera, and GPS device that are connected to the internet and being surrounded by people who also have such devices. 

A majority of Americans ages 18-49 have smartphones, which means that any of them, at any time, can be contacted by their employers, our children, parents, and spouses, and any of their hundreds (if not thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands) of friends and followers.  Being surrounded by other people with always-on connected devices also means that anything we do can be recorded and shared with a global audience in real-time.  For better or worse.

Breaking Operational Silos

Even after the Web was on every computer in a workplace, say, in 2004, people still had to find and visit sites that hosted information pertaining to their work.  Many, but not all, employers had intranets, and the social Web was in its infancy.  

Today, however, many people use Twitter as a social news aggregator, while others subscribe to their employer's Facebook feed to see what is happening throughout the organization.  Intranets and extranets extend the knowledge base of organizations to every employee, and other social media tools like internal blogs and microblogs, social networks behind the firewall, and instant messaging applications are connecting employees to one another across organizational divisions.

Some benefits are obvious: employees can learn from one another, can more easily find forms and other actionable items, and have a greater sense for the organization as a whole.  But other benefits accrue as well: project teams that were separate, and may seem disparate, can still share best practices on common problems.  Also, every employee can essentially function as a communications or customer-facing operative. For better or worse.

Breaking time/location silos.

Many workplaces, mine chief among them, have a strong culture of teleworking (for more: see these two reports).  A recent article on outlines the benefits of working from home while Fast Company discusses the rise of coworking spaces.  The Slate article quotes As David Fullerton, who manages teleworking employees: “As a manager, I can’t easily know how many hours each person on my team is working. This is actually good for me because it forces me to look at what they’ve done.”

For employees themselves, teleworking means they can schedule their work around the rest of their lives, shorten their commuting time, and ultimately be more productive.  Of course, when work necessitates all hands coming to a meeting, nothing precludes that--but such meetings are infrequent at most organizations.

An important aspect of breaking this particular silo is that it enables people to remain in the workforce as other aspects of their lives demand that they be away from an office at specific times of the day.  For example, people caring for young children or aging parents might need to provide care at inflexible times in the morning or afternoon.  Though providing that care may take only an hour or half-hour, it is impossible to reconcile with working in an office.  By using technology to shift the time and place that work occurs, however, valuable employees need not drop out of the workforce when the temporary demands on their lives emerge.

Breaking Identity Silos

The first two silos that I mentioned were organizationally-constructed and their crumbling may be seen by many to be overwhelmingly positive. The dismantling of our carefully-constructed identity silos, however, can produce anxiety. Yet, when anyone can take our picture, tag us at a location, mention us on Facebook or Twitter, and collapse the distinction between who we are on the weekend and who we are at work, we realize that our multiple identities cannot be as distinct as they were even ten years ago, to say nothing of twenty or thirty.

In a city such as Washington, DC, in which public personae are closely scrutinized and meticulously constructed, the breaking down of this silo is sure to cause as much disruption as the prior two combined.  But as new workers and leaders emerge who have had to navigate the confluence of personal and professional identities, denizens of the District may find it easier to operate in this new environment.

How Culture Will Not Change: Still a Place for Digital/information Specialists

It is tempting to think that people will become as adept at using smartphones as they are at using the equally-ubiquitous land-line phones.  It is tempting, but it is also wrong.

The volume of information--including misinformation--the speed at which it is delivered, the new channels through which it will flow, and the implications that can be deduced only through constant, discerning attention will require that organizations and offices invest in people whose portfolio includes managing information and information technology.  If everyone knew what online content was real and what was fake, we wouldn't need Snopes.

Collaboration, Crowdsourcing, and Culture.

There are a lot of ways in which tech is changing culture, more ways in which it isn't, and my fellow panelists and I answered questions from a smart, engaged audience (or tried to), and you can see the whole session here.  My portion starts around 0:51:00. Let me know how you think tech is changing culture in DC.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda is the Director of Innovation and Social Media for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was a Web Strategist for the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. He has taught creative, expository, and Web writing for more than 10 years to university students, private-sector professionals, and soldiers. He has an MFA in poetry from American University, has taught writing at Howard University, and has worked in Washington, DC, for nonprofits, lobbying organizations, Fleishman-Hillard Global Communications, and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

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