I spent two very intense weeks in the US and Canada, meeting hundreds of clients at all government levels on the topic of social media. I started in Orlando with chatting in the backstage and then on stage with Vivek Kundra, the US CIO, then I had countless one-on-ones and round tables with clients from several government organizations. After Orlando I visited several cities in the US and in Canada, attending meetings with communication officers tasked with the development of a social media policy, interacting with technical teams that develop social media platforms, presenting to mixed audiences of business and IT folks to help them find a common ground, and so forth.
In most cases I have delivered uncomfortable, controversial messages. The blurring boundaries between internal and external collaboration, the urgency of empowering employees besides (or rather than) citizens, the need for simple and enforceable social media policy that cover employee behaviors both on corporate network and elsewhere. For many, my examples of how consumer social media are creeping into internal processes were an eye-opener, and so were the calls for a bottom-up approach, where government agencies should let go control to facilitate engagement
What I noticed in every single meeting, also when people came from a completely different perspective, has been the willingness to challenge themselves, to consider alternative viewpoints, to use some of my intentionally provocative views to reflect about where they can improve. Once again, it has been a refreshing experience, with officials at all levels debating issues, bouncing back ideas, drafting roadmaps they had not considered possible before. It has been an exciting experience where I have got from our clients at least as much as I hope I have given them, if not more.
While a typical North American celebration such as Halloween approaches, I can’t but think about how different many Europeans are when challenged on the same topics. I do distinctly remember a guy who sat in a minister cabinet explaining to me why I was totally wrong about suggesting that government agencies open social media access to their employees: his view was one where employees are not an asset but a liability, where management tools are the same as those used in the fifties, where time seems to have frozen at the gates of his agency. He is not alone though. Several officials in European countries that I have been interacting with are relatively dismissive of any advice that runs contrary to their beliefs. I never assume I am right in what I say, but I love to provide alternative viewpoints for people to challenge their own ideas and possibly improve them. While most North American clients will engage and react, most European clients won’t.
Of course there are exceptions. People in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands or Ireland show similar characteristics as North Americans when it comes to debating issues. But in most other countries I have to be careful not to piss people off or to lower my expectations about the outcome of a debate.
Maybe the world is changing and I will find multiple counterexamples to this as soon as I start my next week at Cannes Symposium. I very much hope so, as I believe that in these turbulent times only those who are bold enough to accept that they may be wrong will thrive.