Monday, March 31, 2008

Managing the Web2.0 'crowd'

It seems that the Government are beginning to sit up and take note of the potential offered by Web2.0 – and not just from the technical perspective, but in recognition of the social, political and economic change that it promises as well. This is certainly the message which comes through from a recent speech given by Tom Watson MP, Minister for Transformational Government, on Monday 10th March 2008, where he said:

‘So let me tell you where I stand.
I believe in the power of mass collaboration.
I believe that as James Surowiecki says the many are smarter than the few.
I believe that the old hierarchies in which government policy is made and crucially for you in this room the way in which it is delivered – are going to change for ever.
People tell me that we are entering a post-bureaucratic age. I don't accept that. It's just old thinking – laissez faire ideas with a new badge.
The future of government is to provide tools for empowerment, not to sit back and hope that laissez-faire adhocracy will suffice. ‘

The April 2008 edition of Government Computing also devotes its front cover and lead story to Web2.0 and the need for government to "seize the day". In particular this piece points to the need for government to take a step back when it comes to implementing Web2.0 services and rather than going away and "spending a lot of civil service time and money trying to come up with web2.0 applications for themselves, it would be much better to allow more information to become public and allow groups like mySociety… to develop the applications". The piece also points to examples such as Patient Opinion of where sites set up independently from government have proved extremely useful in improving public services.

Interestingly, this piece does not mention any of the issues associated with the management of Web2.0 information. Of course management issues are never the most interesting and attention grabbing elements of a project and so often get consigned to the background, and this might be the case here. It may also be because the whole notion of imposing any form of management control appears out of kilter with the ethos of Web2.0 where, it is often assumed, anything goes – the equivalent of the parents spoiling the kid’s party.

But as our institutions and services increasingly begin to look towards a Web2.0-based future they are going to have to bite the bullet and tackle information management issues to ensure that such services are robust and reliable, as well as novel and democratic.

As I’ve mentioned in passing in previous posts, I have tried to develop this side of the debate by writing a book and I’m pleased (and relieved!) to say that the first draft is now with the publisher and due for release in June. The book is called 'Managing the crowd: Rethinking Records Management for the Web2.0 world' and is published by Facet Publishing. Probably the best way to provide a summary of the central argument of the book is to reproduce the content of the advertising flyer:

Imagine a records management (RM) future where the user community collectively describes the value and properties of a record using the wisdom of the crowd; where records retention, description and purpose are determined by their users, within general boundaries defined by the records manager. It may sound far-fetched, but could represent a way forward for managing records.

It has never been more apparent that RM as traditionally practised will soon no longer be fit for purpose. With the increasing plurality of information sources and systems within an organization, as the deluge of content increases, so the percentage of the organization’s holdings that can be formally classed as records declines.

In the Web 2.0 world new technology is continually changing the way users create and use information. RM must change its approach fundamentally if it is to have a role to play in this new world. This provocative new book challenges records managers to find time amidst the daily operational pressures to debate the larger issues thrown up by the new technological paradigm we are now entering, and the threat it poses to established theory and practice.

A range of stimulating ideas are put up for discussion: why not, for instance, embrace folksonomies rather than classification schemes and metadata schemas as the main means of resource discovery for unstructured data? Adopt a ranking system that encourages users to rate how useful they found content as part of the appraisal process? Let the content creator decide whether there should be any access restrictions on the content they have created?
This is a thought-provoking book which questions received wisdom and suggests radical new solutions to the very real issues RM faces. Every records manager needs to read this challenging book, and those that do may never think about their profession in quite the same way again.

I’ll post a few more details of the books central arguments over the next few weeks, but am happy to answer any specific individual questions directly.

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