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Using Web 2.0 to Support Collaboration

Four ways agencies and organizations can use Web 2.0 to foster collaboration.

The first generation Web was primarily a one-way conveyer of information, images and documents. But Web 2.0 is fundamentally different, characterized by interaction, participation and engagement. In fact, some sites, like YouTube and Wikipedia, are created entirely by their consumers. As noted by the authors of Wikinomics, this sea change in the Web has a generational component: "While their parents were passive consumers of media, youth today are active creators of media content and hungry for interaction."

There are many ways we can use Web 2.0 to foster collaboration. We can, for instance, use it to cross boundaries between employees, agencies, an agency or agencies and their customers/stakeholders, and among customers or stakeholders in order to form communities.

The four approaches described above are illustrated below.

Crossing Boundaries Between Employees

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) launched the IdeaFactory in April 2007. This Intranet site invites the agency's 43,000 frontline employees to exchange ideas and information on job-related issues and to offer suggestions on ways to improve operations. All employees can view colleagues' suggestions, give constructive criticism and vote on the ideas they like. A response on IdeaFactory is attributable to the employee sending it. TSA security officers vote on the ideas submitted, and then the TSA Innovation Council decides which ones to implement.

One year into site usage, TSA employees had submitted over 4,500 ideas and offered more than 39,000 comments on those ideas. Most important, approximately 20 proposals submitted to the IdeaFactory were implemented agency-wide in the first year.

Crossing Boundaries Between Agencies

Formally launched in April 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency's Intellipedia operates on a classified network and allows agency employees with appropriate clearances to post ideas and information on areas of interest, and to comment on each other's postings. Modeled after Wikipedia, its goal is to bypass the long-standing information silos in the U.S. intelligence community by making it far easier for analysts to exchange knowledge and ideas. Like the IdeaFactory, Intellipedia shows the contributors' identities, and the emphasis is on peer-to-peer interaction; nobody needs her boss's OK to post an idea or comment.

The site quickly gained analysts' attention, and is already helping to cut across stovepipes and rigid hierarchies, generating speed, flexibility and interaction. Analysts now get prompt feedback on their articles, and both analysts and managers can gain quick access to knowledge across the entire intelligence community.

Crossing Boundaries Between Agencies and Their Customers or Stakeholders

The Los Angeles Fire Department quickly saw Twitter's potential power to provide situational awareness during fires and other emergencies. The LAFD "tweets" its subscribers when it responds to a fire or spots a car accident blocking the roads. It also uses Twitter to get information and feedback from its subscribers, such as when the LAFD received tweets about an overcrowded nightclub, and quickly sent inspectors to close it down. Residents who spot fires can also tweet the fire department, giving the agency hundreds of extra eyes and ears.

Brian Humphrey, who maintains the department's Web 2.0 tools, cites two critical Twitter advantages: speed and increased two-way communication. He notes that these tools help the department get more feedback quickly and with little expense.

Crossing Boundaries Among Customers or Stakeholders to Form Communities

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, thousands of people frantically sought the whereabouts of loved ones. Government organizations were unable to respond, so a young man named David Geilhufe worked with three nonprofits to create the PeopleFinder project, providing an easy way for people to collect, enter and share information about survivors or missing persons on the Gulf Coast. Over 600,000 people used PeopleFinder in the weeks after the storm to learn the status of friends and loved ones with whom they could not otherwise connect.

Few government agencies have explored the rich potential of Web 2.0 tools to facilitate stakeholders and others forming a collaborative community outside the agency. The possibilities are intriguing. What if:

  • Parks and recreation departments invited users to chat with each other on their website about their experiences in local parks? It might spur the development of a "parks partners" group that works to maintain the parks.
  • Libraries created a blog for a virtual book club where readers could post comments on books they're currently reading? Patrons could agree to read and discuss a given book, use a voting tool to rate books (as does), and library staff could learn which books are of special interest. In fact, some libraries do this now.
  • Human service and health agencies had computer terminals in their waiting rooms and invited clients to log on, ask questions and take an online quiz that provides feedback on health factors, offers tips for living healthy lifestyles and helps the client find and join user groups that share common interests.
There are many other creative ways to use the Web to help stakeholders connect outside the confines of a formal agency. What's important is that you don't view the Web as an extension of your organization but as a multidimensional network that can help your clients and stakeholders meet their own needs. Once you make that shift in thinking, the possibilities are endless.

This column is excerpted from Russ Linden's latest book: Leading Across Boundaries: Creating Collaborative Agencies in a Networked World.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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