In the Sandbox with our internal online community

At the moment, KDOT’s most interesting social media effort is the launch of KPN-1, our internal online community. It’s a much different undertaking than the launch of K-TOC, our public-facing community.

KPN-1 is in the Leverage Sandbox, a “training-wheels” environment that looks and functions like an actual community. KPN-1 might one day be open to the entire agency, but we’re piloting with a small group selected from our Road Design department. Membership is limited to engineers who have volunteered to act as leaders in the operational community once it launches. In the Sandbox they have an opportunity to play with the platform, explore its capabilities and familiarize themselves with the interface in a no-pressure environment. Leverage recommends that new users spend four weeks in the Sandbox before opening the functional community to members; our engineers asked for an additional week.

So far, so good. The pilot group is adapting the platform to their particular requirements and deciding on their internal arrangements: Who will blog? When? About what? Which topics are useful to the whole community? Which should be featured prominently, and which can be parked on a convenient shelf somewhere? It’s absolutely fascinating to watch this develop in real time.

This launch has me thinking about the pros and cons of social media use
within a large professional agency, and one immediate conclusion is that the pros know what they want better than I know what they want. I popped up on the Sandbox once to urge everyone to take full advantage of its capabilities, but I’m trying really hard to stay out of this. The last thing these engineers need is a non-engineer preaching about the best way for engineers to communicate.

Social media is a terrific instrument for disseminating topical data, but not all audiences are the same. An external community like K-TOC, or for that matter a community established to promote a high school reunion, is an instrument that links disparate individuals around a topic of mutual interest. Professional audiences are fundamentally different; they’re already organized around a topic of mutual interest. A profession, by definition, is not a collection of wholly disparate individuals. Attorneys, bankers, engineers, doctors, accountants, all these professions–and most professional bureaucracies–spent decades building robust and effective pre-digital communications networks, and most of those networks have to some degree adapted to the Web. It can be difficult to convince such an audience that a new tool will provide them with a capability they don’t already possess.

New media will do exactly that, of course; my point is that it’s a much more difficult sell, and I think the only really useful way to do it is to let the audience sell themselves. The pilot team will structure KPN-1 in the way they find most effective. I’ve talked to them, and I have great faith in their commitment to making the project a success. We have all the necessary pieces in place: Our pilot group is composed of young, hip engineers well-familiar with social cyberspace, and they really want to make the project work. We’re operating on the same basic Leverage platform we rely on for K-TOC. We know it and we like it; my only serious input into the KPN-1 launch so far was requesting that Tom Paolucci, our Leverage rep for K-TOC from the first day, be our primary contact for KPN-1 as well.

It’s stuff like this that makes going to work every day so exciting. We have the platform, and we have the people, and we know how to make the machine go. In a couple of weeks we’ll open the doors to the first generation of community members, and the network will begin its unpredictable life. I won’t be linking to KPN-1, which is being built as a closed shop for KDOT people, but I’ll post occasional updates, as I assume there are other organizations thinking about doing the same thing.

• I reached out to couple of social media figures in the UK party establishment, but the election is too close for anyone to feel comfortable about an interview. I’ll try again once we’re past the elections.

• I’m reading Trust Agents, by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. Brogan is a featured speaker at Free State Social, which I’m attending later this week. I’m only through the first chapter of the book, which discusses the effect of the Web on the nature of public trust, and already I love it. I hope I have an opportunity to meet Brogan; I suspect his thoughts on social media and government are very interesting indeed.

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