The importance of being open…

The power (and) peril of blogging your work

Someone much smarter than me once wrote this and put it in a list that was pretty influential. Like all great lists it had ten points. The first got most of the attention but this one, number ten of ten, was the one I cared most about…

…and not just because it retroactively reassured me about my professional approach up to that point.

OK so Kevin Smith was playing a ‘hacker’ not a blogger in this horrible movie. Nonetheless this was the popular media portrayal of bloggers for many years. Middle-aged bloke, living in parents basement, swearing sweatpants, armed with opinions!

Despite this I love blogging. Of all this ‘internet enabled’ world we now inhabit blogging is my true love. Sure my head has been turned by other platforms at times and I have had a long standing affair with Twitter but my heart belongs to blogging.

In fact there is a strong case to be made that I only work so I have things to blog about 🙂

The conversation may have long moved from blog comments to other channels but the conversation starters? You find them on blogs (and not bloody Twitter threads!)

One of my biggest lessons — and your mileage may vary here — is that when I stopped worrying about my audience and who might read what I wrote I became a better writer and as such what I wrote found a wider audience (not that wide mind — I’m not getting a book deal anytime soon — can you spell niche!).

Basically as soon as I started ignoring all the user-centric rhetoric I employ everywhere else and started writing for me I found my voice and started to do my thinking in public which was a huge boon to me professionally and personally.

BERG are remembered for many thing — amazing design provocations, experiments and silly little printers that brought them down! For me though they will always be remembered for introducing me to #weeknotes. These little narrative blogposts gave me an amazing insight every week in to a world I knew I would never be a part of — they were these geek serials that acted as a jumping off point to new blogs to follow, topics to explore, books to read, events to attend as a part of the wider whole.

I became fascinated with the power of #weeknotes to get people over the fear of blogging — to provide a framework people were comfortable with — back to the journaling roots of blogging but flexible enough to be different for everyone.

I’ve done them personally on and off for years and introduced them to every team I have been a part of since one way or another. It introduces openness into organisations under the radar and inspires a new generation of bloggers each time.

Is it really a digital talk without a Steve Jobs pic? Anyway 2007 was important to me for a different debut. A decade ago this summer I (with a lot of help from a company in Bristol called Netsight) launched a blog network for my employer at the time.

It is still there.

JISC funded research projects at universities and colleges all over the country. The main output of these was a final report that was published as a PDF in the depths of the website and hardly ever read. A few projects had however started blogging about their work and it seemed to me that this was a better way of capturing the learnings from the projects. People didn’t altogether trust this though and were worried about the blogs rotting away at the end of the project so I had one of those ‘just enough knowledge to be dangerous’ ideas. I’d read about WordPress Multisite (it was like version 0.2!) and lo and behold we launched it to a few 100 people a couple of months later.

To ‘eat my own dogfood’ I launched the first blog on the network and while it has bounced around a few domains since then this was my first post and I’m still going.

This has basically been my go to move in every job since. Join a risk averse institution and then one way or another test the waters by launching a blog — with or without permission.

Why bother? Well for one thing I think many teams — especially in the public sector — just need a channel to change the way people see them. Digital/IT teams in Government have been derided for years. Christ look at the fall out from the NHS nightmares of the last few days. The thing is there have always been loads of smart, capable, resourceful people working in those roles — even before GDS. (The leadership is a different matter!) They need to be given the opportunity to show this. To talk about their work. To celebrate their successes and own their failures.

Because that saying about sunlight being the best disinfectant? It is true and people on these teams know that. They just need to be given the opportunities to move the black out curtains out of the way.

..and it really does work. The power of public blogging looping back to influence your own leadership should not be underestimated. Blogging about a culture, about approaches, about decisions — just invoking it to the wider world makes it real to some people. Sure it can (and has) backfired but in my experience it has always been worth the risk.

This was another GDS one I think. It is so important though. Removing knowledge from the inboxes of a chosen few has all sorts of positive effects. It increases internal transparency, it improves that mythical ability to transfer knowledge and it helps with recruitment as people know what they are getting in to!

It is all for nought though if you are not honest. You need to share the rough with the smooth. Authenticity is the key and people are frequently more interested in the journey than the destination as that is where the real lessons are.

These are interesting things to keep an eye out for. Organisation blogs can quickly change in tone and attitude. This is where I like to think of the blog as a ‘canary down the mind’ — it is the public window on an organisation culture and you can quickly get a feel for where it stands.

I am probably an edge case — my blogging and the potential employers has been a topic in my last three interviews.

..because you don’t want to become a ‘product propagandist’. The posts look right but they taste off. They present a perfect sanitised world of rainbows and unicorns and products born by immaculate conception. They ignore the struggles and they whitewash the interesting.

I have a lot of respect for press teams. I have worked with some amazing press officers (especially at the Medical Research Council) but blogs and press releases are not the same thing. They do not have the same goals or the same audiences. Once blogs become successful enough to catch the eye of the Press Office it is probably already too late. Especially in (and around) Government. Once people not involved in the work are checking for anything other than typos you have lost — especially if they have sign off.

A couple of years ago Giles wrote a post about the ‘human voice’ and for me this is one of those big canary moments. When posts start saying ‘we’ and not ‘I’. When they speak with the ‘corporate voice’ and not the personal. When they are devoid of opinions and take no risks. I’m not talking about making controversial statements for the sake of it but ‘strong opinions, loosely held’ is a principle to live by I think. Make a stand and then engage in the conversation.

The first rule of blogging — don’t blog about blogging.

Since I have clearly broken that rule any others should be ignored as well.

Sure there is decent advice out there, lots of good practice and plenty of amazing examples to be inspired by.

Blogs though shouldn’t be about editorial calendars, style guides, multi-person sign offs. If you manage out the spontaneity you are basically left with a staff magazine that is online. That is fine. It just isn’t, in my opinion, a blog. Even if it does use blog software.

Cannot say I am prone to using Milton Friedman quotes but this one Tony turned me on to is a beauty. This should be why we blog out in the open. Not just for crisis but just for whenever someone needs them there should be relevant ideas, answers and experiences just lying around for people to find. Even if all they achieve is making people realise they aren’t the first to struggle with that problem.

Thanks..and remember..

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