Leading through participation

In the days following Barack Obama’s election, The New York Times reported that the new president of the United States wouldn’t be allowed to use his BlackBerry smartphone once he was sworn in. The main issue was email.

Previous presidents had been advised to avoid using e-mail because of security risks and fear that messages could be intercepted. George W. Bush facing a similar predicament as he took office in 2001, chose to give up email – both professionally and privately for the duration of his stay in the White House. Three days before his first inauguration, Bush wrote a last email from his old address, G94B@aol.com, explaining the situation to 42 friends and relatives:

“Since I do not want my private conversations looked at by those out to embarrass, the only course of action is not to correspond in cyberspace. This saddens me. I have enjoyed conversing with each of you.”

But in the interceding eight years, not only email, but also smartphones like the BlackBerry and the iPhone, have become ubiquituous. During his campaign, Obama used his BlackBerry to stay in constant touch with friends from the lonely confines of the road, often sending messages like “Sox!” when the Chicago White Sox won a game. He also relied on e-mail to keep abreast of the rapid whirl of events on a given campaign day. His emails even provided a window into how much he was sleeping on a given night, with messages often being sent to staff members at 1 a.m. or as late as 3 a.m. if he was working on an important speech.

Obama with his Blackberry

For Obama to give up his BlackBerry, especially inside the protective bubble of the White House, would be to lose his central social lifeline to friends and co-workers as well as his access to unfiltered information and opinion whenever he wanted it. To give that up would be crippling.

Like Obama, most of us have grown so accustomed to using the Internet every day that we have come to take it for granted. Just consider: How many of your friends do not have an email address?

It is only when we find ourselves without Internet, that we realize how many of our social relations we maintain through it – both professionally and privately. The Internet is everywhere. Email is only the first and most obvious tool we use. But now, a wider range of participatory tools offer much more specialized ways for us to share and participate in each others’ lives.

Just take a look at the 10 most popular websites in the world: Five of them are web services that trust their users to participate by adding their own data, interacting with one another on the site, and spreading ideas and content through their networks:

5. MSN


(and by the way: is it a coincidence that a central part of the other five sites’ offerings are some of the most popular webmail services in the world?)

With web services such as these, participation is the default. And users begin to expect to be able to participate in any number of different ways – from reading a blog post or watching a video clip, commenting on it, linking to it from your website, to actually producing new content of their own.
And they expect that their participation is appreciated, to be listened to as equals, and to be spoken to – not through press releases but in real, human voices.

In short, these participatory social tools create a trust economy where users expect that the time and trust they invest in any institution, organization or company online will be paid in kind – just like their personal social relations do.

This trustful participation is part of the reason behind Obama’s successful presidential campaign: Not only did the campaign make it easy to participate, they also made easy for the volunteers share their experiences and ideas and made them feel that their feedback and work was listened to and appreciated.

Opening up for volunteer participation may seem like an obvious thing to do in a political campaign, but most organisations and companies remain wary about opening up for stakeholder participation. As Intuit co-founder Scott Cook notes in his essay on user contributions in business:

“[User participation] poses a challenge to long-unquestioned beliefs about the role of management, the value of experts, the need for control over the customer experience, and the importance of quality assurance. User contribution seems messy and scary; giving customers a public podium to comment freely about your products and company seems to violate the management canon “Don’t hold me accountable for what I don’t control.”

Opening up for participation may seem messy and scary, but avoiding any form of online stakeholder participation is a sure way to fail. As Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems and prolific blogger, put it in 2005:

“For executives, having a blog is not going to be a matter of choice, any more than using email is today. If you are not part of the conversation, others will talk on your behalf – and I’m not talking about your employees.”

The question, then, is not whether you should open up your organisation for participation or not. But rather how you can open up for participation. This is not only a matter of picking the right participatory tools, but also of ensuring that your organisation is ready – educated, prepared, and willing to engage, allowing participation to happen in a way that offers you new advantages while minimising any negative disruption on your organisation.

Here at Socialsquare, we specialise in helping organisations implement online participation in their processes. We have just concluded a strategy process helping a leading Danish pharmaceutical company to integrate participatory tools within their organisation. And we can help your organisation, too.