Emergent Systems in Government: Let's put the horse before the cart

Yesterday Paul McDowall, Knowledge Management Advisor at the Government’s School of the Public Service and chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum, wrote the following comment in response to a blog post from several months ago entitled “How GCPEDIA will save the public service.”

I’ve posted his comment – feel free to read it or skip it and go straight to my analysis below. In summary, what makes McDowall’s comments interesting isn’t just the argument (or its reactionary nature) but the underlying perspective/assumptions that drives it. It serves as a wonderful example of the tension between how the traditional hierarchical nature of the public service and some evolving emergent models that challenging this approach.

So first, McDowall:

Will GCPEDIA save the public service, or capture all the tacit knowledge that will walk out the door? No, of course not! To suggest otherwise is, frankly, naive hyperbole.

As great and as promising as GCPEDIA and other Web 2.0 tools are, tools will never save the public service. People are the public service and only people have the capacity to save the public service, and it will take a whole lot more to improve the weak areas of the public service than a tool. Things like leadership play a pretty important role in organizational effectiveness. There are many good Organizational Excellence models (I have researched this area) and they all include people and leadership as two elements, but funny enough, tools aren’t included. Why? Because it is not so much a tool issue as it is a craftsman issue.

With respect to your comment about tacit knowledge and social capital (not the same things by the way), I think it may be helfpul to brush up on what tacit knowledge is, and what Knowledge Management is.

It is unquestionably true that the public service continues to face a potential impact from demographic changes that are both extremely significant and yet unquantified. It is also unquestionably true that most public service organizations haven’t truly understood or addressed these potential impacts, to say nothing of the potential of improving their effectiness right NOW from better Knowledge Management (productivity, innovation, etc).

These issues need to be addressed by public service leaders in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. Tools can and certainly should help but only when wielded by craftsmen and women. For too long vendors have made grandiose and unrealizable promises about their ‘solutions’. I thought we had learned our lessons from all that experience.
Let’s not get the cart before the horse, shall we?

Paul McDowall
Knowledge Management Advisor and chairperson of the Interdepartmental Knowledge Management Forum

McDowall’s main concern appears to be that GCPEDIA doesn’t have a clear purpose and, more importantly, doesn’t serve a specific leadership objective. (If you are wondering how I gleaned that from the above, well, I cheated, I called McDowall to ask him more about his comment since the nature of his concern wasn’t clear to me). For those used to an era where IT projects were planned out from the beginning, everything was figured out in advance, and the needs of the leadership were the paramount priority, GCPEDIA would be disconcerting. Indeed, the very idea of unleashing people willy-nilly on a system would be an anathema. In short, when McDowall says, don’t put the horse before the cart, what he’s saying is, “you’ve rolled out a tool, and you don’t even know what you are going to use it for!”

This would appear to be rational concern. Except, many of the rules that underlay this type of thinking are disappearing. Indeed, had this type of thinking been adhered to, the web would not have developed.

First, The economics have changed. There was a time when IT projects necessarily costed tens of millions of dollars.  But GCPEDIA was built on a (free) open source platform using a handful of internal FTEs (making McDowell’s comments about vendors even more confusing). Indeed GCPEDIA has cost the public service virtually nothing to create. One invests in planning so as to avoid expensive or ineffective deployments. But if the costs of deployment are virtually zero and failure really isn’t that traumatic then… why waste time and years planning? Release, test, and adapt (or kill the project).

Second, with projects like this become cheap to deploy another important shift takes place. Users – not their bosses or a distant IT overlord – decide a) if they want to participate and b) co-develop and decide what is useful. This has powerful implications. It means that you had better serve a real (not perceived or mandated) need, and that, if successful, you’d better be prepared to evolve quickly. This, interestingly, is how that usefully little tool called the World Wide Web evolved. Read the original proposal to create the World Wide Web. IT departments of the world didn’t all collectively and suddenly decide that people should be made to use the web. No! It grew organically responding to demand. In addition, there is very little in it that talks about how we use the web today, users of the web (us!) have helped it evolve so that it serves us more effectively.

This is probably the biggest disconnect between McDowell and myself. He believes GCPEDIA is problematic (or at least won’t do the things I think it will do) because it doesn’t serve the leadership. I think it will work because it does something much better, it serves actual users – public servants (and thus, contrary to his argument, is very much about people). This includes, critically, capturing tacit knowledge and converting it into formal – HTML encoded – knowledge that helps build social capital (I do, actually, know the difference between the two).

Indeed, the last thing we need is a more leadership oriented public service, what we need is an employee centric public service. One that enables those who are actually doing the work to communicate, collaborate and work, more effectively. In this regard, I think GCPEDIA is demonstrating that it is effective (although it is still is very early days) with logarithmic growth, 8000+ users and 200 more signing up every week (all with virtually no promotional budget). Clearly some public servants are finding it to be at worst interesting, and at best, deeply enabling.

7 thoughts on “Emergent Systems in Government: Let's put the horse before the cart

  1. Paul Ramsey

    The first rule of government IT is “you can't do that”. And once they've gone and outsourced infrastructure to achieve cost savings, it becomes “we can't afford a server from Accenture for you to do that”. I've never seen a more robust management culture than in government IT. Process over product, every time.

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  2. Jacques Drolet

    I am with you David and feel how difficult it is to show patience in front of such fears or lack of understanding. Nevertheless, baby boomers like everybody else tend to learn more when given a bit of time. Onus on the “bit” of course. I really appreciate you phoning him. You were able to go a bit further on the “implementation” path. A wee bit more patience maybe :-)

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  3. jeremyvernon

    Two remarks -The struggle you're alluding to in software design is one of the longest religious debates in software engineering (along with Vi vs. emacs, or tabs vs. spaces). Agile methods vs. Big Design Up Front (BDUF) and the struggle between them fills bookshelves and software engineering degree programs. So government isn't the only place where this expresses itself.Also, an interesting point made by Clay Shirky is poignant here – he was describing the role of the cell-phone. The most critical alteration it made was that it replaced planning with adaptability. He pointed out how nobody needs to plan social events with any specificity ahead of time, “I'll call you when I'm leaving” instead of “I'll meet you there at 6”.Leadership, in the mind of McDowall and old-school KMers is about planning. Planning is the mechanism for coordination. To get metaphysical – what's going on in management is a shift away from Newton's mechanical cause to Aristotle's formal cause. A shift from “making things happen” to “making things possible”.

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  5. Paul McDowall

    David,In the future, I would appreciate it if you convey my comments accurately. In virtually every reference in your post, you have misquoted or incorrectly made assumptions about my 'concerns' as you put it. It was clear on the phone that you did not understand my comments because, as you may remember I frequently had to correct you in what you thought I said. I am absolutely amazed when I read your post. This was NOT our conversation! I am very happy to have a full and though-provoking conversation, but not one where my every comment is misquoted or incorrect assumptions and judgments on your part slant your reporting of it. This useless and frustrating conversation is one of the down sides of collaborative tools – which I fully support, by the way. PS The correct spelling of my family is McDowall.Paul

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  6. jacksmith0141

    Nice blog, There was a time when IT projects necessarily costed tens of millions of dollars. But GCPEDIA was built on a (free) open source platform using a handful of internal FTEs (making McDowell's comments about vendors even more confusing).jacksmiththanks……………………………..<a href=” http://mls.fastrealestate.net ” rel=”mls ”

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