I was lucky enough to see Ben Terrett, the then Head of Design at the Government Digital Service (GDS), speak at the RSA in September. His talk was entitled ‘From Persuasion to Usability – Design Meets the Internet’ about how design at it’s best. One of the great things (out of many) that Ben spoke is making things open makes them better. One of the examples of this openness at GDS is through their great use of the humble blog.
People at all levels in the organisation write posts about the work they are doing/have done, the things they have learnt, the things that are broken etc. That sounds a really simple thing to do but in my experience getting that level of commitment to publishing in this way is not an easy task. Sharing that widely inside an organisation is not the norm let alone outside.
Now GDS are spending public money so they are of public interest but I think companies that are part of the private sector in competitive industries would do well to copy the model. I asked a question to Ben during the talk about whether or not this could work in the private sector and his original answer was that he did not know as he had not tried it but that it should.
‘Gov.uk is a public project done with public money so you should publish everything have full transparency. But at the same time we believe in being open…one of the founding principles of the Internet is being open. In a private organisation it would be slightly different.
Having said that the examples that I have shown you there are font sizes and colours and I can’t see that there is any competitive advantage in keeping those secret. I think the privacy thing would be way smaller than you think it would be. Certainly you should be open by default…Openness also means just talking about what you are doing…having a culture of blogging, having visible leadership, having leaders that are on Twitter, blogging, talking about what they are doing…’
I love Ben’s answer. He makes it sound so simple yet in my limited experience it is a very hard thing to achieve unless that belief is shared at the very top. You have to have enough people in the organisation that are bought into it and that are also willing to write. When Ben or Mike Bracken or Tom Loosemore post it shows that this is something right from the top and that, I imagine, encourages others to get involved (I wonder how people are chosen to post actually?). It is not just for leaders though it is for all levels of staff through out the organisation.
The ability to write in this way is a real element of leadership. The encouragement of others to do so even greater. The written word can be easily misconstrued and is also almost irrevocable and as such maybe is seen as an act of transparency too far for some so called leaders.
There are other issues with this way of writing and publishing. The simple act of giving people a voice and a platform to speak flies in the face of the command and control structure of most large organisations. It may collide with the professional one way broadcast output from the communications department
Also for most the day to day work alone prevents this kind of sharing and writing when it is not deemed important. When all that matters is hitting deadlines then how you got there is seen as of little consequence and is not reflected in your annual objectives. Showing your working out helps join up an organisation because no doubt someone is facing similar challenges everyday.
The blog is such a simple thing on the face of it but so few companies have really used them well. In the constant strive for the almost mythical differentiation, then doing some basic things really well can make you stand out a mile. Most people get excited about the new platforms and new forms of media and reach and sharing but ultimately writing openly, honestly and interestingly is a powerful skill. The blog can amplify the impact of those words greatly and I wish we saw more good usage of blogs inside and outside of companies.
Ben is now at the Co-Operative along with other colleagues from the GDS including Mike Bracken. One of the first public things they have done is to start a blog. ‘Make things open, it makes things better’ is seemingly far from a platitude.
You can watch Ben’s brilliant talk and Q&A here. He covered a hell of a lot more than the one thing I have written about.