Wednesday, June 3, 2009

engagement: the medium is the message

I'm totally cribbing Marshall McLuhan here.

My directorate had an all-day all-staff meeting today. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the ongoing evolution of the unit in the face of the fiscal reality of reduced resources and ever-increasing demands for new and existing services. The irony of losing a full day of time to respond to those demands was not lost on me. Was I looking forward to it? I was not.

Then a funny thing happened. I went to the meeting and felt totally engaged.

It's not that I normally feel unengaged. My director general is CIO and enterprise architect in one and I'm a senior member of the development team. We see a lot of each other and we both speak our minds without hesitation. But for some unknown reason, having our management team pull together forty-odd people into one room for one day, to collaborate on where we go from here, completely energized me.

I was as surprised as anyone.

This got me thinking about different methods of engagement and the ways in which different people respond to them in different situations, particularly with respect to Public Service Renewal. I'm sure there were a few people in the room today for whom the whole affair was soul-numbing, and on some other day, in some other frame of mind, I might have been one of them. Most of the content today was already available in some form on our unit intranet, but for me, the freedom to put aside the day-to-day, to spend one day in give-and-take, to focus on the important instead of the urgent, in person, was what it took to get the message across, to really engage me, and hopefully to engage many of my colleagues as well.

I know the word "message" can connote one-way communication, and in engagement we're talking about collaborating. In an engagement context, I suppose we could think of the invitation to engage as a message that sets the tone, and the dialogue that hopefully ensues as messages in multiple directions. I think the medium transforms each of these, probably in different ways, and I'm going to keep saying "message" to keep the focus on McLuhan, which is kind of the point here. :)

I think this concept also applies to the challenge of the uptake of Web 2.0 tools. I don't think a blog, a wiki, or a discussion forum would have framed today's message nearly as well. Maybe the challenge is to avoid falling into the trap of "I've got a hammer and everything looks like a nail." To consider how the medium transforms the message. To *tailor* the medium to the message. Don't get me wrong. I firmly believe that there is immense untapped potential for Web 2.0 tools in the enterprise and in government. But as evangelists, we occasionally have difficulty recognizing that there actually *are* some things that "ain't broke" and some others where trying to force a message into a Web 2.0 medium actually diminishes the effectiveness of the communication *and* the willingness of the audience to use Web 2.0 tools in scenarios for which they *are* well-suited. While a blog wouldn't have been a good tool for communicating today's messages, it's a perfect tool for keeping the unit up-to-date on the ensuing work as it progresses. Our management team has committed to keeping one, and I think that's fantastic. But we can't always swing the hammer. We are ultimately doing our clients a disservice if they come to perceive our advice as flawed or biased. "Oh, she *always* thinks a wiki is the answer for *everything*. We just ignore her."

Getting back to Public Service Renewal, the challenge for those charged with engaging a large group of people lies in trying to come up with the best medium (or media) to communicate the message as effectively as possible to as many people as possible. That much seems obvious. But as the audience being engaged, we have a challenge of our own. To recognize how various media affect our perception of the messages being transmitted, and to try to move beyond those perceptions. To see the real message without the lens of the medium, *if* that medium is obstructing our capacity to fully engage. Talk about pushing out of your comfort zone. :)

I'm sure a lot of what I've said here will come across as self-evident to many, but my day kind of brought it home for me. I'm just making this up as I go. Then painstakingly editing it for public consumption. :)


En fait, ce n'était pas la fin. I wrote this in Notepad and as I went to review it for the last time, the thought that popped into my head was "You should review this in the Blogger preview pane, the medium is the message, remember?"

It's not always easy being me. :)