Working and living out loud
“If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, I will answer you: “I am here to live out loud”
– Emile Zola
I’m generally a big advocate of greater transparency and openness both in general and specifically in the aid world, and am a big fan of initiatives such as Publish what you Fund and the International Aid Transparency Initiative.
At the same time, despite my morbid curiosity, I’m concerned about what the current furore about the Wikileaks cablegate revelations does for the cause of transparency. I’m worried that this will lead to a clamping down on information sharing and on use of social media for fear of embarassing revelations.
I also do think that there are some limits to what can and should be shared publicly. In particular I’m concerned about violating people’s privacy, and in particular the privacy of children and others who are not able to give informed consent for their private information to be shared, or to defend themselves when someone else violates their rights. There are also circumstances when sharing of information can jeopardize livelihoods and lives, such as information about those who disagree with the government, who are homosexual, are HIV positive, are secretly sending their girls to school etc. etc. So there is a responsibility of those who disclose information about others to take responsibility for the consequences of doing this.
At the same time we shouldn’t use security and privacy as a smokescreen to cover up illegal and unethical behaviour. And also as communication technology improves and becomes more sophisticated, it just becomes harder to keep things out of the public eye – or if you work at the UN, Uncle Sam’s eyes.
So from an organizational and individual point of view, what is to be done? Perhaps one answer is just to work and live out loud, and to embrace it. Assume that anything you write or say might be shared publicly or at least with other colleagues, with partners and even with opponents. If we write everything in such a way that it might be disclosed later, then we might need to be a little more careful about what we say, but in most cases it doesn’t mean we need to shy away from speaking the truth, just that we need to be more diplomatic, and more sure of our facts – and also be prepared to stand by our remarks and our decisions.
In fact social media is a great way to start to working this way, using twitter or blogging is a great way to start “working out loud” to openly share our thinking and document what we do for a wider audience that to those who we normally address memos, remarks or “cables” (incidentally who uses cables for communication anymore). This can make us more honest, including being more honest with ourselves as we open ourselves and ideas to potential scrutiny. It also opens the possibility for us to narrate our work as we are doing it, and get immediate feedback rather than waiting until we have a finalized sanitized report or official document. For aidworkers it also gives us the possibility to really explain and educate people about the work we do in a real or authentic way – not as marketing or fundraising spin (and who knows, we might even get more support and more funds this way).
As part of my work of knowledge management I’m trying to encourage people to share more and sooner within the our organization through social media tools, so that they can get feedback from colleagues, and also share what they know more quickly with other colleagues (and perhaps in a more directly relevant and personal way) rather waiting until they have chance to produce a finalized polished paper that may never get completed. Of course it is challenging enough getting people to do this “inside the firewall”, let alone in public, but as Wikileaks shows we can’t assume that whatever is shared, whether by social media or more traditional means will stay private. So we better start working as if whatever we do will be shared and potentially scrutinized, and start developing the skills not only to cope with this, but take full advantage of it to keep us honest, andto speed up knowledge sharing and learning.
(The expression “Working out loud” was coined by Bryce Willams in reference to use of social collaboration and reporting within the enterprise – see this great blog which outlines some of the main ideas)
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