Confessions of a Government Twit

twitterread.jpgOkay, technically in the hyper-jargon that has emerged surrounding Twitter, the alpha male of the micro-blogging world, I am considered to be a Tweeter.  But for some reason, twit just seems to work better for me.  I get a lot of ilTwitterate people asking me why I consider Twitter to be so valuable.  Granted, I don’t really care so much to hear that you are currently picking belly button lint (yours or someone else’s).  Nor do I need to read your tweet railing against the driver next to you who is texting while driving. (The nerve of some people, eh?)  I do, however, need to find an easy way to keep up with some of the news that affects my world – government, technology, Web2.0, life here in western VA, etc.  Who has the time to keep up with all that is going on in the world around us today?  How many good articles and links have you had to pass up simply because it was the only way to keep your Inbox from a massive melt down?  As much as I like to think I am not chained to my job, the truth is, I’ve got the shackles on and if the cage door was ever left open, I think I’d probably shut it myself, just to keep the other freaks out.  Bottom line, I do not have enough time in the day to keep up with all that I should or would like to.  So, I turn to the Twitosphere and rely on my Tweeters to keep me informed.

There are three crucial parts to an effective Twitter engagement:  the Followers, the Following and the Posts. 

First – the Followers: I welcome any and all followers (except for those rare yet mega-annoying Tweetspammers).  I welcome followers not because I am vain (I mean come on – look at the photo I chose for the header of this column!)  Nope, tis not vanity at all!  I welcome followers because it is an opportunity to build community, albeit a community that speaks in 140 characters or less in a sometimes cryptic language of abbreviations and tinyurls.   But, those tiny posts can often speak volumes and lead me off in new directions of information sharing and news from the world around me.  It can change my thinking and I certainly meet new and dynamic people who are in no obvious ways akin to me.  Honestly, I love it when I see that new people are following me.  I presume it means that they dug in a little bit and saw that I had something relevant to say to them.  Perhaps it was a topic I posted or a question I posed.  Perhaps it was simply that I said the right thing, at the right time, in the right way that answered a burning question they had.  Then again, perhaps they were just drunk-tweeting and clicked on me by accident.  Regardless, the point is, I see it as a sign of interest in the work I am doing and any connection is an opportunity to expand on the group symbiosis I gain from Twitter.

So that brings me to my Following list.   I’ve had to cultivate the list of people I follow.  I do not automatically add someone just because they choose to follow me.  I do not mean offense by this, but with the overwhelming amount of information out there, I have to be a little picky lest I get overwhelmed with updates that don’t do much for me personally and what I am trying to get our of Twitter.  So until I see the Binford Do-It-Yourself Cloning Kit on the shelves at the local Walmart or learn how to manipulate the time-space continuum, I have to try to line up the most applicable, prolific and accurate Tweeters I can find.   I’ll generally do a quick scan for a few key words of the updates and make sure they seem to erupt on a fairly regular basis and somehow fit into one of my loose info categories and with the click of a Follow button, a new tributary to the Greever Tweetstream is born!

Finally, in order to get some real value out of the Twitterverse, you need to be sure that there is a communal send-and-receive habit within your own personalized galaxy.  Invest some time and energy in following those links.  Answer the questions that are posed by those in your stream – if you can help out, do so and in return you can expect the same treatment next time you are stuck! Also, keep it real. Say something if you think it needs to be said, but be mindful of the context and that you are still a representative of your organization (unless of course you are doing this on your own time with no reference to your day job).  Try to be useful.  Trust me – it is much harder than it sounds when you only have 140 characters in which to hurl some useful info chunks at your Tweet tribe.  As with all 2.0 tools, there is no harm in checking this out.  I personally never have made any promise that my Tweets will be interesting, informative or even coherent.  I was a fly on the wall for a while, started making some comments and my own posts about the work I was doing in the 2.0 and slowly it became for me an invaluable tool to learn, educate, inform and communicate.  Every day new tools are emerging that make Twitter a more valuable and effective tool, but the true burden and the value of the tool relies on you and what you want to get out of it.  Like Luke Skywalker rocketing down that trench on the Death Star, you are in complete control of whether or not the tool works for you.  You don’t need the computer to do it for you.  Use the force to…okay, you get the point.

So, for those of you visual learners out there, here’s a sampler platter of the loose categories of people I choose to follow on Twitter. Given the amount of people on Twitter these days, I am confident you can find your own peeps and get your very own Tweetstream flowing in no time!

Web2.0 in Action (Shout-Outs to: pbroviak, sarahintampa, GovDelivery, govloop,)

Information Security & Technology
(Shout-Outs to:  govtechnews, Bwoolley, vcuinfosec)

Government/Education Leaders
(Shout-Outs to:  Bill Schrier, ujdmc, bashley, egvick, webgoddess)

Govts on Twitter  (Shout-Outs to: RoanokeCountyDowningStreet, LAFD, Blacksburg_Gov)

Insight & Generally Thought Provoking
(Shout-Outs to: LPT, lewisshepherd, careerdiva, queenofpith)

Star Wars Humor
(Shout-Out to: DarthVader - his twitticisms are as funny as his soul is dark)

Virtually Yours,

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I had planned this week to get back to my suggestions regarding the make-up of your internal Web2.0 group, but a few colleagues brought something to my attention that I thought might be more timely.  Most of the articles I have been following over the last few months have been on the potential value and the practice of using Web2.0 as a business tool.  Most of these articles vaguely reference the “security concerns” brought about by Web2.0 technologies, but they fail to provide guidance or cite any specific dangers.  So, the vague threat of potential malware embedded in Web2.0 apps doesn’t hold much water with me.  Everything we do in IT has this potential.  That’s exactly why you have an Information Security program. However, this week I read an article from Sarah Perez, Your Web 2.0 App is a Security Threat,  that subtly raises the other IT fear regarding Web 2.0 technologies – namely that misuse of Web2.0 technologies can endanger the confidentiality of your corporate data and information as well as pose a threat to legal compliance. The article itself is a broad review of a new product called ACE, which is designed to make it easier for IT to shut down rogue Web2.0 applications.  The point Sarah raises regarding the potential dangers of rogue web apps is dead-on in its concern.  Under-the-radar apps can pose a serious threat to your infrastructure and they must be monitored and controlled. 

mole.jpgHowever, although I appreciate the value of a tool like ACE, I think it is futile to consider such a tool to be the solution as to how we as IT managers can “control” Web2.0.  Due to its very nature, you cannot shut down Web2.0.  Trying to isolate and filter “Web 2.0 technologies” is like trying to nail Jello to a tree.  Sure, you’ll be able to pinpoint whatever the hot technologies of today are, but tomorrow three more will spring up to replace it.  As Chesterfield County CIO Barry Condrey pointed out in his feedback to the article, you will be forever chasing your tail in a futile “whack-a-mole” syndrome.  You will be much more successful in your security efforts if you engage your user population in a give-and-take dialog to help you find a middle ground that everyone can live with and then implement the technologies that support the mutually-agreeable approach.

NOTE TO THE READER: Feel free to skip the next paragraph of introspective and perhaps self-indulgent  “How I Got Here” detail.  Although germane, it isn’t required in order to get to the point of this post.

It wasn’t until I got to the executive level of technology management that I truly began to appreciate the necessity, value and process of maintaining balanced technology service delivery.  Most of us who are focused in one area of technology service get very, very good at it.  You thrive on technical challenges and you typically work in a world of black and white answers.  When I was in that stage of my career, I frequently had run-ins with customers who liked to toss their “flies” into my technology miracle cure-all ointment, or at least that’s how I saw it.  Although I was (almost) always patient and I tried to remain customer-service oriented with them, I was frequently vexed.  I felt that they were just being difficult (and wrong) because they didn’t have enough to do or because they were just uninformed.  So I got frustrated with them because I couldn’t focus on the “right” solution immediately and they got frustrated with me because I was trying to categorize or jump to conclusions about their needs. (As an aside, here’s a big “I’m Sorry” shout-out to all of you former customer co-workers who might come across this in your net travels.) Over time and with experience, and moving up through the ranks, my technology and business knowledge became much wider and more shallow.  Multiple discipline multi-tasking and business management skills became the order of the day. It became much easier for me to truly appreciate and honestly value the business user needs.  No longer was I focused on the technical solution…now it was more about focusing on just the solution.  (Is that a collective “duh” I hear from those you who have been at the exec level for a long time?)

chameleon.jpgFor those of us who are in the IT field, we must be constantly vigilant lest we fall into the rut of getting wrapped up in the technology for the sake of technology.  Advocating, marketing and even proselytizing for technology as an enabler should be a big part of our job focus.  But don’t let the tail wag the dog.  We need to be one of those funky chameleons with one eye towards our users (business needs) and one eye towards our infrastructure (technology capability and requirements).  I often think of my role as that of a sales engineer – I need to know my tech stuff, I need to know what my customers need and I need to know how to put those things together. 

As I have said in previous posts, Web2.0 at its core is not about technology.  Technology is merely the method used to redefine the way an organization communicates and collaborates with its customers.  Likewise, technologies such as ACE are also enablers in terms of focusing that Web2.0 adoption into secure and reliable channels.  But they are not the sole savior, nor should they be. The answer is to rely first on well-crafted policy that balances the need for security of information and systems with the business needs of your users.  I spoke to Sarah offline and although we may take different paths to get there, we share the goal of having an organization that runs technology in a safe and controlled manner to the benefit of all internal and external customers.  Here in Roanoke County, we use a product similar to ACE to filter web applications because I don’t want any covert apps popping up in the departments either, whether they are business legit or not.  But before we install a technology solution, we need to get a strong, flexible and reasonable policy and practice in place to govern the use of Web2.0 in the enterprise.  This policy cannot be solely a product of the IT department.  We’ve got to have the conversation with all the stakeholders at the table in order for something of this magnitude to be effective.  Everyone involved needs to approach the issue with an open mind and stay focused on the ultimate goal of improving the organization.  IT folks must be willing to refrain from assumptions and be flexible on some of the traditionally locked-down areas and practices. Business users must be willing to adhere to the tenants of the policy and abide by the security and technology that must remain intact in order to preserve the security of an organization’s resources. 

Once you have the global policy in place and the details have been communicated to the organization, then you can fire up an application like ACE, provided it can be modified and customized to meet the current and evolving needs of your organization.  By then, everyone should be on board with the technologies adopted and not finding ways around the policy.  Violators should be disciplined accordingly because of the potential danger to technology resource integrity and the privacy and security of your corporate information.  I’d also recommend periodic reviews of the policy to ensure that it remains in line with the changing needs of the organization and the new Web2.0 technologies that spring up on a regular basis.  This follow-up will provide business users with a conduit to raise issues regarding the policy and security technologies and it will hopefully curtail attempts at circumventing policy direction.

Don’t get me wrong – I know this not going to be a simple process.  You may experience wailing and a great gnashing of teeth, but the end result will pay off in dividends for all involved.  As a former boss told me early on in our working together – “the best solution is not often the easiest”.

Virtually Yours,