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Playing to Your Staff's Strengths

With Web 2.0, Are We Missing the Point?

Time_cover Lately there's been a lot of backlash against all things Web 2.0. It's as though we reached a crescendo of excitement, culminating in Time Magazine proclaiming "You" and Web 2.0 as People of the Year. Now, let the backlash begin.

But by focusing on Web 2.0 as just a bunch of different web-based tools, I wonder if we're not missing the point.

There's no doubt that Flickr, Vox, YouTube and BaseCamp have attracted followers because they're cool and easy-to-use. In the world of both businesses and nonprofits, they also invite scrutiny as we look at the ways to capitalize on what these new resources have to offer. 

But I'm beginning to think that the real revolution lies in the principles that these tools represent, not in the tools themselves.  In other words, it isn't whether or not you use YouTube. It's about whether or not your organization is embracing the values that YouTube represents, values that are having increasing importance in a networked, global economy.

In setting up our Web 2.0 wiki, I found an interesting article by Troy Angrignon that sums up the common themes of this generation of the Internet. Several of these are themes that I think apply to how nonprofits must evolve to survive and thrive in an increasingly connected world, even if they never create a podcast or blog a meeting:

  • Collaboration--Nonprofits have long been on the collaboration bandwagon. But their collaborations aren't always effective. In a global world, working with others to achieve results is not "nice"--it's a necessity.
  • Conversation--Most nonprofits have learned how to "talk" about what they do with anyone who will listen. But now we have to provide the means for people to talk back to us--and for us to do something about it. Web 2.0 multiplies the power and reach of conversations. It also provides the medium to make them more effective. 
  • Community--Online tools make it easier to create vast webs of online "tribes " of individuals who share common interests and, often, common goals. These offer opportunities for nonprofits, as well as challenges. Creating the right kinds of communities and conversations creates the foundation for better collaboration and service.   
  • Connection--People are connecting to people, but machines are also connecting to machines. Or they should be. The expectation is that we're using automation and data sharing to create deeper networks of service. And that we are collecting and using information in ways that create higher value for customers.
  • Content Creation--It turns out that when you give people the power and opportunity to create things, they often will. And in large numbers. For organizations that are often strapped for staff, time and materials, harnessing the efforts of a willing army of content volunteers may be a major recipe for success.
  • Cumulative Learning--Cumulative learning means that we build on the knowledge of others. In any organization, the ability to capture and utilize the knowledge and skills of their best staff can make a critical difference. But in nonprofits, this is even more important. Their services are often based on staff knowledge and ability. And in nonprofits with high turnover, effective managing of knowledge will ensure consistent services.
  • Core Values--Transparency, openness and a focus on the customer are key core values of Web 2.0. But these are also core values that individuals are increasingly beginning to demand of the businesses and organizations with whom they work. Nonprofits that can master these skills will be more effective than those that don't.
  • Cheap and Fast--Work is done quickly and for as little as possible. Nonprofits are generally good at doing things on the cheap (even when that's not advisable), but fast has often been a challenge.

While I believe that in many cases, the tools of Web 2.0 look promising for nonprofit use, I think that we can't lose sight of the larger issue here. Changes in technology inevitably create changes in culture, even for those who may never use the technology. Some of the lessons we need to learn are not just about what tools to use, but also about how our work practices may need to change even if we never actually use the tools.



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